Author Talks: Melody Wilding on turning sensitivity into a superpower

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Justine Jablonska chats with Melody Wilding about her book, Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work (Chronicle Prism, May 2021). Based on Wilding’s research and work as an executive coach, licensed social worker, and professor of human behavior, the book is both an empathetic exploration of the power of sensitivity, specifically in high achievers, and an actionable guide to mastering it. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What problem were you trying to solve with this book?

This book was meant to solve the challenges that come with being both highly sensitive and high achieving. As an executive coach, human-behavior professor, and licensed social worker for ten years, I kept seeing repeating challenges among my clients: impostor syndrome, self-doubt, perfectionism, people pleasing.

It became very clear that these challenges were coming from the intersection of being highly sensitive, meaning that you think and feel everything more deeply, and being high achieving.

Trust Yourself is a concrete, actionable road map to help you break free from stress, perfectionism, and self-doubt so you can turn your sensitivity into a superpower, regain your confidence, and lead effectively.

Why do you consider sensitivity a superpower and not a weakness?

Sensitivity can be an amazing advantage in your career and in business overall. Managers consistently rate people who are more sensitive as their top contributors. But only about 15 to 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive—about one in five people.

Sensitivity can be an amazing advantage in your career and in business overall. Managers consistently rate people who are more sensitive as their top contributors.

It’s certainly not the majority. The work world is really crafted for the 80 percent. We have the mentality that the work world is businesslike, it’s harsh, it’s aggressive, it’s fast moving. We don’t traditionally equate sensitivity with success.

You call this small but powerful population ‘sensitive strivers.’ What does that mean?

Sensitive strivers are deep, critical thinkers. They are people who spot opportunities and see nuances that other people miss—which means that they are the first to come up with an innovative idea or an original solution because they’re taking in more information and putting those pieces together more deeply.

They anticipate eventualities, so they also mitigate situations before they become a problem, which saves valuable time and money. They are highly empathetic and emotionally intelligent. They are amazing at influencing, persuading people in an authentic way; motivating people; boosting morale on a team. These qualities are all a tremendous asset.

What surprised you most during your research?

The top thing that surprised me is that there isn’t a difference in levels of sensitivity between men and women. We tend to think of women as the more emotional, sensitive gender. But a lot of that comes from conditioning—conditioning from our childhood and teen years that girls are meant to be care­takers, to be more accommodating. And certainly that continues once we get into the workplace.

The research shows no difference in levels of sensitivity between men and women. And at birth, infant boys are more sensitive, with more highly attuned nervous systems—which is measured in how much more infant boys startle than girls. I found that very fascinating because we tend to think it’s the opposite.

What implications does your research have for more inclusivity and diversity in workplaces?

What I think is really valuable here for workplaces is a conversation around neurodiversity. Very thankfully, we are having more and more conversa­tions about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we have tended to explore areas like gender and race. We haven’t explored neurodiversity, which refers to natural, neurologic brain differences that certain people have, like sensitivity. It’s very important, really a call to action, to look beyond the surface to invisible parts of diversity that we can’t see.

As sensitive people, we are much more attuned to our surroundings and aware of what’s happening. Neurologically speaking, we have deeper processing. Our brains light up more in areas related to social interactions, empathy, awareness of other people’s emotions. And it’s important to realize that that comes along with a tremendous amount of strengths but challenges as well.

How can sensitive strivers manage their challenges?

Sensitive strivers have a lot of challenges when it comes to self-doubt, impostor syndrome, self-criticism, feelings of emotional overwhelm or emotional reactivity. People pleasing and perfectionism tends to be very common.

In the book, I conceptualize sensitivity as something to be balanced: when it is balanced and managed correctly and you have the right tools to do that, you get the benefit of all the upside of sensitivity.

But if you don’t understand your sensitivity or you don’t have the right tools to manage and leverage it, you can face some of the downsides. In the book I go through what I call the strive qualities, six key qualities that define what it means to be a sensitive striver, and areas where you can be balanced or unbalanced.

One is thoughtfulness. When your thoughtfulness is well-balanced, you are reflective, you are a deep thinker, you contemplate, you’re intuitive. When thoughtfulness is unbalanced, you can worry, be indecisive, ruminate.

Why is trust so important for sensitive strivers?

So much of what sensitive strivers struggle with is a lack of confidence, in part because they have received messages their entire lives to stop being so sensitive: “You take everything so personally.” You come to create this war within yourself that you shouldn’t be this way, and something is wrong and broken in you.

And so we are hypervigilant many times of what other people are thinking. So many sensitive strivers, when they are unbalanced, can get into this cycle of really trying to live up to other people’s expectations, and people pleasing, being overly accommodating, not wanting to upset other people. And we don’t learn to trust ourselves because we are not confident that we are someone who is worthy of being trusted.

Can you share some tips for sensitive strivers?

Number one would be to name your inner critic. It sounds very simple, but it’s an incredibly powerful hack to give that voice of impostor syndrome a name, an identity that is separate from you—and make it something that is lighthearted and even silly. I have one client who calls his Darth Vader. Anytime he faces a leadership challenge where his inner critic comes up, he looks at it and says, “Not today, Darth.” That’s a quick little tool to give you enough psychological distance to gain perspective.

Another way to gain perspective, especially when you are ruminating or really worrying about a problem, is the 10/10/10 test: will this matter, will this have an impact on me, or will I be thinking about this ten weeks, ten months, or ten years from now? And that can almost immediately put things in perspective and allow you to move on.

Last would be what I call sensitive strivers law, which is that overthinking expands to the time that we allow it. So create creative constraints around how much you allow yourself to think about something, or how long you research a topic or it takes you to make a decision.

Why will soft skills—or as you call them, human skills—be increasingly important at work?

If you look at any sort of future of work, future of jobs report, you will see that the top-rated skills—critical thinking, problem solving, people management, communication, self-management—are all things that sensitive strivers are high in. So in an age where we have more digitalization and automation, these two traits together, sensitivity and ambition, are going to be an amazing competitive advantage.

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