A Sensitive Striver is a high achiever who is also more sensitive to their emotions, the world, and the behavior of those around them than most people. Sensitive Strivers are innately predisposed to process information more deeply than their less-sensitive peers. Because of this, they have a heightened stress response. They are highly attuned to their own emotions and the emotions of others. They can pick up on subtle changes in their environment and those around them.
At the same time, Sensitive Strivers are driven to succeed, and when their sensitivity and ambition come together, it can be a tricky combination. Because they are easily overwhelmed, they often succumb to the stress that is a natural byproduct of their ambition. Common workplace situations like getting feedback, giving a presentation, or even deciding what to eat for lunch are more challenging than they are for people who are less sensitive.
One Example of Sensitive Striving
Kelly’s job was killing her spirit.
When she originally started as social services director at a large county agency, she’d been excited to lead a team and take her career to the next level. The agency’s mission of serving underprivileged children fueled her. All her mentors said that with her drive and ambition, she was perfectly positioned to quickly step into a VP role.
But, due to budget shortfalls and changes in management, Kelly’s team had been short-staffed for the past three years, which left Kelly to pick up the slack. In addition to her official job responsibilities, she was assigned to lead a major project. She filled in at board meetings and made decisions on behalf of her boss, who was an absentee manager.
At first, she didn’t mind. She loved her job and took pride in being the go-to person at the agency. Besides, good employees go above and beyond. Or at least that’s what she was taught and assumed she needed to do to be successful.
The Effect of Stress on a Sensitive Striver
Over time, the demands on Kelly’s energy and mind became too much. Kelly was logging 60+ hour weeks. Her hair began to fall out. She battled migraines daily.
Work also affected her home life. Kelly was always glued to her phone and answering emails, including during family dinners. She felt distracted and worried about issues at the office even while playing with her young daughter. Her husband remarked that she had turned into a zombie. Her daughter complained that she missed “the old mommy.”
Kelly knew she needed to say “no,” delegate, and stop taking so much on, but the thought of having that difficult conversation with her boss made her impossibly anxious. She worried about being perceived as whiny, incapable, and weak.
Kelly’s mind rushed to worst-case scenarios: What if her boss questioned her commitment? What if he fired her? She constantly chastised herself to “stop being so sensitive” in response to feedback from her supervisor. She told herself to “work harder — you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
She rationalized that her feelings of anxiety would get better once she was promoted. But the promotion never came, and the stress continued. At the same time, she saw the stress interfering with her work, as she started to miss deadlines and mess up basic tasks. This only fueled her belief that speaking up would jeopardize her image and opportunities to advance.
The Secret To Being Helpful While Not Sacrificing All Your Time
Say No To ‘Pick Your Brain’ Requests Without Being A Jerk
Before long, Kelly’s exhaustion caught up with her to the point that she had to take a medical leave from her job. She had relentlessly pushed herself, despite her body signaling its need for rest and her intuition signaling she was deeply unhappy in her role of 5+ years. Although extreme and highly unpleasant, this experience was a profound wakeup call for Kelly, and she finally decided to seek help.
Kelly and I started working together as she returned to work after her medical leave. She told me she felt like she wasn’t in control of her own life anymore. She desperately wanted to rediscover a feeling of fulfillment and to seem more like herself again. At the same time, feelings of self-doubt, worry about the future, and the messages society kept sending her about what “success” should look like made her feel she needed to keep sacrificing herself in order to measure up.
Kelly is what I call a “Sensitive Striver.”
Her burnout is common among Sensitive Strivers; they are so loyal to other people and the path to success society has laid out that they blindly pursue more achievement without ever stopping to define what makes them happy. Many people in Kelly’s shoes have never been taught to recognize how their sensitivity shapes their lives, and they lack a game plan to channel their sensitivity in a way that emboldens, rather than drains them.
What Being a Sensitive Striver Is — and Isn’t
Sensitive Striver might sound like just another way to describe a perfectionist, overachiever, or introvert. But those terms do not adequately describe the unique struggles Sensitive Strivers (particularly women) face.
For instance, you can be a perfectionist who has a low degree of self-awareness and not be highly accomplished in your career. You can also be an “overachiever” (defined as someone who performs better or achieves more success than expected) without feeling paralyzed by mistakes (perfectionism) or facing the higher-than-normal emotional reactivity that comes with being sensitive.
Not all high performers experience these challenges when facing criticism, setting boundaries, or quieting negative thoughts as Sensitive Strivers do. Which is why a new term is necessary.
Who Are the Sensitive Strivers?
About 30 percent of sensitive people are extroverted, meaning they gain energy by being around people. Research from psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron finds that up to 20 percent of the world’s population is “highly sensitive;” that is, they have unique nervous systems that make them more attuned to the world around them than the average person.
People who are highly sensitive think and feel everything around them more deeply, both positive and negative. They absorb other people’s emotions and can read a room in a heartbeat.
Many of my clients confess to being more perceptive and feeling more deeply than other people, but they don’t fully identify with Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) label, especially parts that have to do with getting overwhelmed by bright lights, sounds, and crowds or having experienced childhood trauma. While HSPs have high emotional intelligence, not all have the same intellectual and professional aptitude as Sensitive Strivers.
The women I work with also value drive and a strong work ethic as core parts of their identities. Many are former valedictorians, A+ students, and “good girls” who bring that same ambition into the workplace. But when these two qualities (sensitivity and achievement) meet, most find themselves stressed to the max, buckling under the weight of the pressures they face.
Most of all, they feel demoralized by the high expectations they place on themselves and crave a sense of control and calm.
Are You A Sensitive Striver?
If you relate to most of the statements below, then you may be a Sensitive Striver:
- You experience emotions to an unusual level of depth and complexity. You may cry easily from both sadness and happiness.
- You’ve been called “intense” or “too much” because of your relentless pursuit of achievement and desire to get better or do more.
- You’ve always had a keen ability to sense others’ feelings, needs, or insecurities, including those of parents and teachers, which may have resulted in people-pleasing versus considering your own needs.
- You struggle to “turn off” from work mode and it can feel like there are 100 tabs open in your brain at all times.
- You’re a stickler for details and organized to the nines, but can get too caught up in being meticulous. You may drive yourself (and those around you) crazy because you never feel like work is complete.
- You know intellectually that most feedback is no big deal, but one negative comment can leave you feeling terrible for days as you analyze and try to interpret the information.
- You’re deliberate and need time to think before you act. This means you excel at strategy and planning — that is, if you can move past second-guessing yourself and overthinking everything.
- You are conscientious and try to prepare for every eventuality (see above). But if you’re caught off-guard in a meeting or conversation, you may get easily overstimulated and question how to respond.
- You’re able to sense conflict often before others are even aware of it, which makes you a master at empathetic communication. However, your constant vigilance can be emotionally and mentally draining.
Sensitive Strivers are deeply caring and give 100 percent to their work — all with an inner world on overdrive. While many Sensitive Strivers rise quickly in their careers, they often face a daily battle with stress and self-doubt, like my client Kelly.
Luckily, your sensitive qualities can help you get on track.
How Being a Sensitive Striver Can Work for You
During her time off, Kelly reflected on the patterns she needed to change. She realized her actions — from people-pleasing to negative self-talk — were preventing her from pursuing opportunities that better fit her true nature and financial goals.
Through our work together she came to understand (and protect) her sensitivity, leverage it as a strength, and channel her ambition in healthier ways. She put into practice the same tools you will discover in my book, Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking, Master Your Emotions, and Channel Your Ambition for Success (slated to be published in Spring 2021). These tools include quieting her inner dialogue, regulating her emotions, and learning how to speak up and push back against her challenging colleagues. Within a few months of returning to work, Kelly received a promotion, was honored as a top manager at the company, and is now entertaining several new job offers from recruiters.
Once you better understand how your built-in sensitivities shape the way you see yourself and approach your career, you can channel your qualities as strengths and not self-sabotage. Instead of feeling ordered around by your insecurities, worries, or your own unrealistically high expectations of yourself, you can feel in control of your own life and reclaim what success means to you.
Melody Wilding is a performance coach for sensitive high achievers and professor of human behavior. She helps leaders at companies like Google, Facebook, HP, Salesforce and HBO stop doubting themselves so they can strive for a successful career and a balanced life.