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How to Cope With Emotional Fragility

It’s not a switch you can turn off, but you can dial it down.

Key points

  • Everyone is emotionally fragile sometimes, with some people tending to be more sensitive than others.
  • Emotional fragility is not always a bad thing. People who are emotionally sensitive can also be empathic and compassionate.
  • Emotional fragility is not so much the problem as is the impact your perceptions have on your behavior.
  • The goal is not to get rid of emotional fragility, but to reshape thoughts and behaviors so you can feel more empowered.

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.

In case you are thinking, “Shouldn’t a mental health professional already be resilient?” in my personal life, I have vulnerabilities like everyone else. While emotional fragility is something everyone experiences at least sometimes, one of my 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. The thought crossed my mind that I might as well get “Handle with Care” tattooed on my forehead.

The Consequences of Seeing Yourself as Fragile

The good news is that emotional fragility can be prosocial, because it helps with being more empathic and compassionate, which are positively reinforced by society. However, there are also problematic 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 too difficult for you to handle. You may even become a target for social exclusion.

Being seen as fragile by others can go hand in hand with believing yourself to be an outsider. 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 might send an “I can’t handle this” message to your colleagues.

Within families, the opposite trend is sometimes seen where relatives become over-involved when you seek reassurance excessively. They might start making decisions for you, perceiving this as helping when in fact they are overstepping boundaries.

Reshaping Emotional Fragility by Changing 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.

Reframing Thoughts

We also help clients reshape self-defeating thoughts, reminding them that their thoughts 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. Here are some examples:

  1. Embrace emotional sensitivity Feeling fragile does not mean you are broken. You do not have to jump to fixing things when you feel bad. 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 joining in.
  2. Separate 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Emotional fragility is not so much the problem as is the impact this perception 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.


Dweck, C. S. (2017). From needs to goals and representations: Foundations for a unified theory of motivation, personality, and development. Psychological Review, 124(6), 689–719. Doi:

Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. New Harbinger Publications.

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