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Ask Dr. Debra  [click here for archived articles]


Dear Dr. Debra,

I live in London in the UK and I’ve struggled with sensitivity issues my whole life. I found an article you wrote for a woman so helpful because I am cursed with an over-reactive personality. I am in regular therapy because my reactions are so explosive. I find it so hard to stop taking things personally. Can you please recommend any literature that may help with this? I’m sensitive but very genuine. You’ve helped me believe in myself again.


Dear Rob,

First of all, I’m glad you found my article helpful. (See the archives section.) As I said in my prior column, I think sensitive people, whom I call sensitive souls (SS), are special, imaginative people who have a spiritual purpose to make the world a better place through using their intuitions and emotions. Yet if an SS child grows up in an abusive or neglectful home, or has suffered the loss (through death or other reasons) of an important person to them, that beautiful gift of sensitivity can become a problem and can lead to what professionals term Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

I’m relieved to see you’re in therapy. I’m going to suggest you discuss with your therapist the possibility that you might have BPD or some traits of the disorder.

Many “old-school” therapists, including some of my own professors, believed that not much could be done for a BPD, but I disagree. Thinking of my client as a sensitive soul with a sad past has made all the difference.

I changed how I work with BPDs when I discovered the book, I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me by Jerold Kreisman, M.D., and Hal Straus. You might find it helpful. Ignore Kreisman’s emphasis on BPD as a mental illness, and focus on the abundant helpful information in the book.

Often the first book I suggest to clients is The Angry Heart by Joseph Santoro and Ronald Jay Cohen. It contains a lot of writing exercises that are very helpful for processing your feelings and history. Through your writing, you can come to understand yourself better.

In therapy, I start identifying to the BPD client what I call “borderline thinking” and “borderline behaviors” so they can become aware of how these interfere in their functioning. Some of these come from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), and others are from my own observations.


* Chronic feelings of emptiness and the need to use others to try (usually unsuccessfully) to fill yourself up

* Abandonment issue

* Unstable relationships

* Inappropriate intense anger (and acting out of the anger) often stemming from the fear of abandonment

* Extreme sensitivity

* Inability to see your own part in a situation, much less take (much) responsibility for it

* Holding grudges (often for years) due to the intense memories of being hurt by others

* Inability to recognize the emotional or personal boundaries of others

* Unstable or poor self-image

* A vivid imagination that creates fear fantasies, thus causing strong emotional responses, which are in turn acted out (often dramatically)

* Inability to see your own part in drama, much less take responsibility for it

By learning to be aware of these thoughts, feelings, and impulses, the client gradually learns to control them. It’s a long process. I have clients who have so effectively conquered these symptoms that they no longer meet the criteria for BPD.

I don’t know of any book on the topic of sensitivity. In my (as yet unpublished) book about setting boundaries with difficult people, I have a chapter about sensitive souls. Go to my Web site to make sure you’re on my mailing list. When the book is published, I’ll make sure you know about it.

So there is hope. Don’t give up on yourself.

Dr. Debra


Feel free to write me with your questions

Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

To read previous 'Ask Dr. Debra' articles, please visit www.wetnoodleposse.com, where Dr. Debra is a regular contributor, or click here to view the archives.





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