by Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
This year, my New Year’s Resolution was to stop being emotionally fragile. I was determined to be the kind of person who did not allow little things to bother me, to assert myself without losing my cool, and to not rely on others’ approval to think well of myself. I wanted to finally become the resilient kind of person that our society sees as the pinnacle of emotional wellness.
In case you are thinking, “Shouldn’t a mental health professional already be resilient?” the reality is that, in my personal life, I have vulnerabilities like everyone else. While emotional fragility is something everyone experiences at least sometimes, one of my psychological stumbling blocks is that I fall higher than most on the emotional sensitivity spectrum.
My New Year’s Resolution lasted as long as most. Within weeks, I found myself excessively asking for reassurance, and writing emails that I immediately wished I could unsend. Falling short of my goal made me feel even more fragile. I found myself complaining in conversations with friends and family, and thinking, “Great, now they must think I’m even more fragile than I was before. ” The thought crossed my mind that I might as well get “Handle with Care” tattooed on my forehead.
Instead, I reminded myself that being emotionally fragile is not a switch you can turn off. In fact, in my professional practice, I have learned that emotional fragility need not represent an insurmountable obstacle to resilience.
The Good News: I’m Not Asking You to Get Rid of Emotional Fragility
An important aspect of emotional fragility is that it is not all a bad thing. Sometimes it’s prosocial, because it helps with being more empathic, humble, and compassionate, all of which are positively reinforced by society.
American culture is filled with contradicting messages about emotional fragility, however. For example, younger generations (i.e. Millennials and Generation Z’s) tend to be more aware of social justice issues, such as systematic discrimination. While they are praised for this awareness, they are also occasionally shunned as being too sensitive, such as when they call for trigger warnings in lectures or safe spaces on campus or in the workplace.
In a similar vein, one could argue that the political divisiveness plaguing America today is fueled by each side’s view of the other as weak, such as the alt right’s perception of the left’s social justice agenda as something that will lessen America’s greatness, while some liberals see the right’s resistance to equal rights as evidence of conservative fragility about the loss of privilege. Neither side sees themselves as fragile, however, and one could argue that there is a level of emotional insensitivity towards each other that is contributing to the tension on both sides.
While these are broader, societal issues, culture contributes to individual perceptions. In this case, it sends the message that being seen as emotionally fragile is something that one wants to avoid, but at the same time seems unavoidable if you want to adhere to your values.
Given how easy it seems for people to see others as fragile, I recognize that many are in the position of wanting to know how to deal with others’ emotional fragility. However, this post is written for those who recognize their own emotional fragility and find it distressing. It is meant to provide skills on how to reshape it in a way that helps you feel more in control of your emotions.
The Downside of Seeing Yourself as Fragile: It Fuels a Victim Mentality
There are reverberating effects of seeing yourself as fragile. When you frequently place yourself in a handle with care box, you risk adopting a victim mentality. People then approach you cautiously or avoid you all together, such as leaving you out of conversations or activities that they believe will be upsetting or too difficult for you to handle. This could happen, for instance, if you sulk without telling people what is upsetting you, or if you become defensive in response to critical feedback. You become the delicate vase that others stand a few feet away from at cocktail parties and that children are shooed away from lest their play become too rough and tumble. You may even become a target for social exclusion.
Within families, the opposite trend is sometimes seen where relatives become over-involved in response to you seeking reassurance excessively. They might start making decisions for you, perceiving this as helping when in fact they are overstepping boundaries.
Being seen as fragile by others can in turn lead you to believe you are different from others, even your own family. Returning to the workplace example, if you believe that you got passed up for a promotion because your boss did not see you as part of the team, you might respond by working even harder to prove yourself. However, this might lead to getting exasperated by extra pressures. Alternatively, you might respond to getting passed up by acting mopey and less engaged. Ironically, both kinds of reactions send an “I can’t handle this” message to your colleagues, leading them to treat you like you are fragile, in this case by being more likely to disregard you when a new project with extra responsibilities comes up.
It is possible to retain the beneficial side of emotional sensitivity and at the same time let go of the unpleasant consequences of fragility. You can do this by practicing specific skills by changing social behavior and reframing thoughts. Below, I review both concepts and then describe some specific skills to get you started.
Reshaping Emotional Fragility by Changing Social Behavior
In therapy, we sometimes help clients live alongside emotional fragility by helping them interact with others in a way that increases intimacy and feelings of belonging. For example, we might teach them to communicate emotions effectively as opposed to avoiding uncomfortable subjects. In this way, we can help emotionally sensitive people feel more accepted and empowered.
To return to our workplace example above about getting passed up for a promotion, a client might learn how to be more assertive, perhaps by discussing their possibilities for career advancement rather than relentlessly striving to prove themselves and burning out, or seething in silent resentment. In the example about family relationships, the person might be guided in setting boundaries and being more independent.
We also help clients reshape self-defeating thoughts, such as helping them consider alternate interpretations of a situation and reminding them that the thoughts they have about themselves and others do not represent absolute truths.
In the workplace example, a client might be encouraged to consider alternate explanations for their boss’s behavior. In the example of family relationships, the client might consider that a family member’s over-involvement is a manifestation of that relative’s own anxiety. They might be guided in reminding themselves that if they make a decision on their own, a catastrophic consequence is not as likely as they might imagine it to be.
Through practice, you can make gains by practicing skills that incorporate both changing social behavior and reframing thoughts. Below are some examples of such skills.
1. Embrace your emotional sensitivity Feeling fragile does not mean you are broken. Therefore, you do not have to jump to fixing things when you feel bad. At the same time, own your emotions, and allow others to own theirs. This means it is not others’ responsibility to fix your emotional turbulence, and it is not your responsibility to fix other people. For example, you can feel hesitant about staying out late with friends without expecting them to change their plans. You can also do things you enjoy without everyone always having to agree to join in.
2. Separate your moods from behaviors. Recognize that you can choose to see your emotions as separate from your behaviors. Then, consider how you want to act and be seen by others, or in other words, what kind of behaviors you will look back on and feel proud of. For example, you can feel angry with your partner for asking you to take the dog out when it’s their turn, and you’re busier than they are at the moment. At the same time, you can choose to respectfully verbalize your needs to your partner (i.e. for them to help out more) because you want to be seen as assertive and fair as opposed to helpless.
3. Keep moving, but slow down. Do not allow emotionally vulnerable periods to detract you from your daily routines or making small steps towards goals. At the same time, recognize that resilient, and oftentimes successful people have times when they scale back on striving for the sake of self-preservation. You can start by doing the things you typically do but doing them more slowly, purposefully and thoughtfully, which might mean being OK with making 2 of the 10 calls you had intended on making and accepting that tomorrow is another day.
4. Take time to both celebrate and mourn – Take small steps to re-shape negative thought patterns by balancing acknowledging what you mourn with also thinking of something you can celebrate. For instance, allow yourself to grieve being passed up for a promotion, but also think of an aspect of your work you find internally rewarding. The Ongo Book: Everyday Nonviolence has a helpful “Celebration and Mourning Cards” activity you can complete individually or with others.
5. Work out at the self-improvement gym of life -- While changing your perceptions and behaviors might seem daunting, approach the task like you would if you wanted to build physical strength, though small steps and consistent practice.
Emotional fragility is not so much the problem as is the impact your perception of yourself has on your behavior. Appreciate gradual gains, keeping in mind that all people carry at least some degree of emotional fragility. Remember that your goal is to buffer the impact of emotions, not to avoid experiencing them. Indeed, being open to what and how you feel is the entrance ticket for inclusion with humanity.
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