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Relationships, Life Changes, Therapy, and Personality: Sensitive Style

A man relaxing in a space that keeps his sensitive style calm and stable

Who has a streak or main aspect of Sensitive?

That friend, coworker, or relation of yours who loves doing familiar things, is mortified when they make a minor faux pas, is cautious and thoughtful, usually controlled-seeming? The one who performs admirably when prepared and briefed, worries quite a bit, took a few months to share private thoughts? Later you discover they are mentally adventurous and deep. They are predominantly Sensitive.

This is the first post in a series on ‘personality styles’ described in The New Personality Self-Portrait by Oldham & Morris. For more detail about the source, please see my credits and comments at the end. Also, note: people can have a mixture of more than one major style, which I think is realistic and useful.

Stressors for Sensitive style…

People with a sensitive personality streak fear embarrassment and shame due to not knowing things or what to do ahead of time

Oh, I’ll never lunch in this town again…

You may have heard rigid and extreme versions of the Sensitive style described as ‘Avoidant’, a personality structure that resembles social anxiety in many ways. Oldham & Morris describe several sources of (quiet) emotional reactivity for Sensitives. Those include, in my summary:

  • Being anything less than greatly prepared or not¬†knowing exactly what will be expected
  • Trying to maintain wide acceptance in a complex, large group
  • Disruption of their accustomed, small circle
  • Forced to confront the unknown–a big one
  • Getting more than slightly criticized–the other big one

Relationships and Work:

When unduly criticized (especially in front of others), Sensitives are likely to eventually leave or check out emotionally / mentally. At that point, they’re nearly done with you–but won’t make a fuss. If you value the health and presence of your ‘thoughtful expert’ or ‘quiet visionary’ at work, in friendship, or at home, explain your concern well. Be gentle, and address the worst parts in private. Try not to embarrass them. Appreciate how much they prepare and want to do well.

Good matches for Sensitives, per Oldham & Morris, include rule-followers (Conscientious) with a streak of a more social style, people who protect their personal freedom but still want attachment (Leisurely), and highly watchful, assertive types (Vigilant). A bad match? Adventurous types (too much stimulus, not enough softness) or the ‘out there’ Idiosyncratic style (potentially embarrassing in public for Sensitive). I would guess that strongly Aggressive (dominating, competitive) people would be iffy, too.

People in big or unfamiliar social situations, take note:

If presented to a large gathering with no formal agenda, Sensitives will just watch, be cool-but-partially-involved, or (with some fear) jump in (“counter-phobic” response). Whatever they do, they are almost always anxious in such situations. If you put them on the spot with no prep, they may wither. Whichever response choice they make, see if you can subtly encourage their involvement. Let them privately sense your support. That said, they may be embarrassed and resentful if you openly make light of it or critique them about it.

Predominantly Sensitive people in therapy (therapists, read in ‘reverse’…):

Even though you crave it, you have anxieties about ‘being seen’. You may be uncomfortable for a while about analyzing your live, in-session behavior with a therapist. If you feel pushed for ever-increasing openness, it is OK to tell the therapist to give some warm-up time. A good therapist will take your concerns as a positive–you are sharing more and taking risks. If a piece of homework seems too daunting, try allowing some subtle misgivings to show instead of having unsuccessful homework or feeling forced. That’s your ‘new’ homework.

Good counselors, once they know you, will realize you fear shame the most–even though, logically, you know most therapists are safe. If you were upset by something, but said nothing, resist the temptation to ‘ghost’ the therapist or coolly bear it all. Instead, see if you can muster a quick, or even vague, misgiving. Any practitioner with a good ear, guts, and compassion will pick up on it and ask to hear more.

Sensitive self-help (and for therapy):

You have strengths to build on: social conscience based upon seeking reliable, familiar, deep connections, regularity, prudence, willingness to wait for data and ideas, excellent manners, and excellent preparation.¬†Your tightly held internal emotional reactions to criticism? Your usually minor social goofs? Those won’t actually destroy you, but you will have to confront the feelings involved to realize it. Also, your concern about having some awful emotional blowout if you let anything slip at all? The concern itself suggests that it will almost never happen.

With support from others (including counseling if needed), if you endure enough rounds of upping the social ante, your capacity to cope with anxiety about situations increases. Eventually, you can use that freed emotional fuel to be more open and expressive–even when you are not fully at home.


*I give full credit for the content to Oldham & Morris (1995). Any elaboration and exploration is my doing. If you want significantly more detail on each personality style, please go get the book. Also, take the test: it is here. I have no business relationship with the authors or the test-makers. Please see the intro post on this topic for other info.

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