How to Turn Sensitivity Into a Superpower, According to a Human Behavior Professor

Melody Wilding '11SW
May 24, 2021

Melody Wilding '11SW's new book, Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work (Chronicle Prism, May 4) offers advice for building confidence, trusting your intuition, and banishing burnout. Here are some of its best parts.

As an executive coach and human-behavior professor, I've had an inside view into the struggles and successes of leaders at the world's top companies. In my work, I've researched and studied one group of unsung heroes in today's workplaces: those I call Sensitive Strivers.

A Sensitive Striver is a high achiever who is also highly sensitive. Sensitive Strivers--who make up 15 to 20 percent of professionals--are deeply compassionate, conscientious, hardworking individuals who operate with an inner world on overdrive. They think and feel more deeply. And while their critical thinking, empathy, and ability to spot new opportunities are tremendous assets in business, they often face a daily battle with stress, self-doubt, and feeling overwhelmed. 

I know this because I am a Sensitive Striver and an entrepreneur myself. For years, my sensitivity went unmanaged and unleveraged, which eventually led me to a severe burnout. My new book, Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work (Chronicle Prism, May 4), chronicles this journey--but more important, it provides a road map to help other Sensitive Strivers get out of their own way and regain their confidence to lead effectively. Here are my favorite insights from the book. 

Confidence is not a prerequisite for success; it's a byproduct of taking risks. 

None of my coaching clients has ever thought their way out of a business challenge. Progress comes through action, after all. That's why in the book I advocate for starting before you feel ready. For example, instead of stalling for weeks or months trying to create the perfect product strategy, launch the product with a handful of beta clients. Take a coding course to build your website after you've validated the product, not before. Taking imperfect action helps you avoid overthinking and build trust in your own resourcefulness and your abilities as a leader. 

Going with your gut yields the best results. 

Sensitive Strivers pick up on more information within and around them, and process that information more deeply, which means their intuition is highly developed. That perceptiveness is powerful in business. Studies show that pairing intuition with analytical thinking helps you make better, faster decisions and gives you more confidence in your choices than relying on intellect alone. In the book, I share the story of one client, an owner of a family business, who undertook a "Day of Disinhibition" experiment, during which he followed his own intuition about everything he said and did for 24 hours. Going with his gut gave him the courage to stop censoring himself and instead start addressing employee conflicts that were contributing to longstanding production issues.

You can teach people to treat you with respect. 

Sensitive Strivers are empathetic and responsible to a fault. They can be counted on to follow through for the team, even if it means sacrificing their own well-being. If that's the case for you, you can take back control by setting stronger boundaries around your availability, working style, and professional preferences. Assertive communication is essential. Whether you're advocating for your ideas, negotiating a contract, or managing a client relationship, stand your ground with tact and professionalism. You can't expect anyone to respect or value you if you do not respect and value yourself first. 


The business challenges ahead are enormous, and Sensitive Strivers will be a crucial part of leading us through these difficult times. More than ever before, the world needs leaders with innate ingenuity, emotional intelligence, and drive to make a positive impact. To ensure we can rise to the challenge, we Sensitive Strivers have a responsibility to learn how to get out of our own way and manage our qualities so we can bring our best to our teams, clients, and customers.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Melody Wilding '11SW teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally-recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. A licensed social worker trained at Columbia, she’s helped thousands of professional women and female entrepreneurs master their mindset and emotions for greater success.

Learn more about Wilding and view the full Columbia Career Coaches Network