Coaching session 1: “I cry at the drop of a hat and am responsive to an ‘atmosphere’”
I could see Sylvia* was tearful when she arrived for her coaching session, so I invited her to take her time in telling me what had brought her to coaching. She said she was feeling hurt and misunderstood by her boss and peers. She considered herself to be a particularly sensitive person. ‘I feel things deeply and if something bad happens, I worry about it for ages. I cry at the drop of a hat and am responsive to an “atmosphere”. There is a lot of banter among my colleagues, but I don’t find it funny. I get distressed easily and worry about other people’s feelings, too,’ she said. I asked what had triggered her booking our consultation. ‘I had an appraisal and my boss said I needed to be more resilient as my sensitivity is holding me back,’ she said.
I asked Sylvia if she wanted to be more resilient, or whether she felt that she should. It is easier to make a change that we desire than one that has been imposed upon us. Sylvia thought for a while, then said: ‘I wouldn’t mind toughening up. Now that I’ve calmed down, I think my boss has done me a favour with this feedback. Life can be difficult for sensitive souls. I envy the way others bounce back. I want to be a bit more like that.’
For the rest of the session, we spoke about Sylvia’s life. She had a prolonged illness as a child and, consequently, her parents had overprotected her and shielded her from nasty things. She understood why, but knew it was time to grow. She looked me in the eye and said: ‘I’m ready for the challenge!’ For homework, I told her to imagine a sliding scale of sensitivity, with ‘overdone’ at one end and ‘underdone’ at the other. I asked her to mark where she was on the scale, and where she’d like to be; that sweet spot between the extremes of excess and deficiency.
Coaching session 2: Taking the bull by the horns
Sylvia had completed her homework diligently. She realised that making a few small changes would make a big difference to her life. She wanted to keep her empathy, kindness and awareness of other people’s feelings, and she was proud of her intuition and compassion. She informed me that she wanted to channel these qualities and use them as strengths.
She had also decided that she wanted to reduce her oversensitivity to events and comments by other people. Sylvia was determined to take more risks and learn to embrace failure as an inevitable part of life. She said that she wanted to be comfortable about being teased or even making a fool of herself.
‘How can you learn to do that? What options do you have?’ I asked. Sylvia replied, ‘I am going to sign up for a course in stand-up comedy. I need to make a drastic change, so no point pussyfooting around.’
I was flabbergasted. I had expected Sylvia to want to approach change gradually, but I have learned that people are endlessly surprising and come up with solutions to their problematic situations that I would never have dreamed up. Sylvia had made up her mind to do the scariest thing she could think of – and I was going to support her in achieving it.
Coaching session 3: The last laugh: perspective
I continued to coach Sylvia and she updated me on her progress. She discovered she wasn’t a natural comedian, but that wasn’t the point. She made new friends on the course, who supported and admired her. She was not the only shy, sensitive person there, which made her realise that she was not alone. Facing her biggest fear and surviving it increased her confidence. She gained a new perspective about herself and what matters in life. In a supportive environment, she even coped with being booed off stage. ‘I finally learned to “get over myself” and stop taking everything to heart.’ Sylvia’s colleagues were astonished to learn about her hobby and had a newfound respect for her.
I think about Sylvia’s courage when I feel oversensitive, which inspires me to be more resilient and take more risks.
Illustration: Andrea De Santis