Sensitive Strivers in the Workplace with Melody Wilding
Ep. 273
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Melody Wilding
Sensitive Strivers in the Workplace with Melody Wilding

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Welcome to another exciting episode of Lessons from a Quitter. I’m thrilled to have you tuning in today because we’ve got a special guest, Melody Wilding, joining us. Melody, a licensed social worker and professor at Hunter College, dives deep into the world of Sensitive Strivers–individuals who feel things intensely, often grappling with criticism, the need for validation, and more. Melody shows us how these qualities can be superpowers, not weaknesses. Listen for her insights on leveraging our sensitivity and overachieving nature to thrive in the corporate world and banish imposter syndrome along the way. 

To learn more about Melody’s work and read her book, you can visit:

Show Transcript
Hey, welcome to Lessons from a Quitter, where we believe that it is never too late to start over. No matter how much time or energy you've spent getting to where you are, if ultimately you are unfulfilled, then it is time to get out. Join me each week for both inspiration and actionable tips so that we can get you on the road to your dreams.
Hello my friends and welcome to another episode of Lessons from a Quitter. I'm so excited you are here. You're in for a treat because we have the wonderful Melody Wilding on the podcast. Melody is a licensed social worker with a master's from Columbia University and a professor of human behavior at Hunter College in New York City. She's also the bestselling author of “Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work”. The reason I had asked Melody to be on this podcast is because she focuses on a group that she has termed Sensitive Strivers. And what that means is that there are a group of us who tend to feel things more than other people who tend to be more sensitive to criticism, feedback, what other people think, the need for validation, all of these things that are kind of outside of us. And we also tend to be strivers. We tend to be overachievers, and that has tended to maybe lead to a lot of inner criticism, a lot of burnout. And what Melody does is help people figure out how they can use these gifts. And I say gifts because I think oftentimes we don't realize that they are gifts. I think a lot of us wish that we could just change and grow a thicker skin and not care as much, but she helps show people that it can be a huge strength. You just have to learn how to wield it in your benefit and how to not allow the imposter syndrome to get in your way, but how to find the confidence in having these tendencies in order to navigate corporate America. And so she's here to teach us all about that. And so without further ado, let's jump in and chat with Melody.
Hi Melody. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
I'm so excited to have you and I know that you are gonna help so many people 'cause so many of the people that I work with struggle with what you talk about. So I wanna jump in, but typically before I jump in, we'd just love to get kind of a back story of how you got into the work that you're doing now. So can you let us know what led you to get to this place where you are helping so many sensitive strivers?
Yeah, I think like most people, my journey has been zigs and zags and and ups and downs for sure. And I always say we teach what we most need to learn. So, so many of the things that I work with people on now are exactly what I faced in my career so close to 15 years now. , if I could bring you back to that time, I was in a career that I felt I should be in. So all of my life I've been a straight A student, gold plus, gold star chaser and that followed me into my academic career, college, grad school. And when I was graduating from graduate school, I had a lot of well-meaning advisors and mentors who told me that I should go into something that was going to be more lucrative and stable than social work is or was considering it's historically the lowest paid profession in the world.
So I listened to them instead of following what I really wanted to do, which was to be in private practice working with people one-on-one. And I found myself about two to three years later, extremely burned out, felt like a shell of who I was. I was having heart palpitations, my hair was falling out and part of it was because I had followed what I should do and was felt I was supposed to do in quotes. But another part of it was that I had let bad habits get the better of me. My own perfectionism, imposter syndrome, lack of being able to set boundaries, overachieving to the point of nearly killing myself. All of that really caught up with me; that my sensitivity and we'll talk more about that, but my sensitivity to what other people thought and their emotions and their needs was crippling. And that was really a turning point for me to say, something has to change. I physically and literally cannot go on like this. And from there I started doing coaching on the side and that has gradually built up to where we are today.
That's amazing. And I think like you have just spoken to everybody in the audience because your story sounds so similar, pretty much exact to mine, same like type A, straight A student, I became a public defender. So kind of the same type of, you know, wanting to give back and really burning ourselves out. And a lot of the work we do here is helping people realize that it's not enough to just change your job. It's not enough to just stop being a social worker, which there's definitely systemic issues and that the underpaid ness, all of that adds to burnout. But for so many of us that find ourselves in those levels of burnout, in feeling like that it's because of, not in a way of blaming, but the, what we've been programmed and socialized to be is perfectionists and people pleasers and you know, putting everyone else's needs before ourselves and we run ourselves into the ground.
And for so many people that just try to maybe, you know, switch up the job and think that's gonna help, it's like you're bringing that same brain, you're bringing those same habits, you're bringing that same tendency where you're gonna put everyone else before you and you're gonna create that same result there. And so really slowing down to figure out like how do we stop this? Like how do we, you know, stop putting our needs last and so we're so grateful that you do that so that you can now teach us. Well you talked about how your sensitivity is, what you realized later was the cause of a lot of this burnout or a lot of these habits. And I know that you work a lot with what you call sensitive strivers. So can you tell us a little bit about what that means and how people would know if they are a sensitive striver?
Yeah, A sensitive striver very simply put, is someone who is highly sensitive. They think and feel everything more deeply. They're more deeply affected by everything that happens both within and around them. And someone who is a high achiever, not necessarily driven to climb the ladder in a traditional sense, although that's totally fine. But what I find more often is that these are people who really crave meaning growth, learning and that combination of qualities. It can be a tremendous superpower. And for me, you know, I credit that with so much of my success being empathetic and conscientious and attuned to what's going on around me. But at the same time, if we're not aware of these qualities or we don't know how to channel or leverage them effectively, they can get in our way.
Yeah, absolutely. And I love what you did though, mention that there are the, whether we call it a superpower or whatever the strength that it is, because I think like so many of us, when we have some part of us that maybe is unchecked that we haven't regulated, that tends to take over and it tends to be seen as maybe a weakness. You know, we tend to view it as a weakness. We fail to see how much of it has helped us get to where we are and how much it has helped us in ways that maybe some other people don't have because we're so focused on like, I wish I could just say no more. I wish I could, you know, not care so much what other people think. And it's like there's a beauty in a lot of that if you know how to regulate it, if you know how to not let it maybe take over and ruin your life. .
That's so true. And especially true for sensitive people because you put your finger on it that this is a trait, this is not a character flaw in you that you just need to toughen up and grow with thicker skin, although we hear that all the time. Yeah. This is a biological trait that about 20 to 30% of the population has, they just have a more active nervous system. And back in prehistoric days, that was very helpful to have someone in the group who was more vigilant, who was scanning the environment for threats. But now as you were saying, we don't have saber-tooth tigers running around that we need to look out for, but we still have that wiring that we're always on the lookout for danger, how we're failing possible rejection. Everyone, every human has a negativity bias, but insensitive people, it tends to be even more amplified because of our evolutionary wiring.
So how would you know what if you fall into the category of being a sensitive striver?
So much of this is self-awareness and self-assessment. So if you are someone who feels like you experience everything in emotional technicolor, , like everything hits you at a very deep level. You have complex nuanced emotions. One major sign of sensitivity is that you think and pause before you take action. So if you are someone who needs a lot of time to deliberate about a decision, or another telltale sign is you don't like to be caught off guard, uh, if you feel put on the spot in meetings and you get very flustered and your mind goes blank, that can be a strong sign of sensitivity. Sensitive strivers in particular have that desire to exceed expectations and everything they do, whether it's, yeah, at work it's being apparent that inner drive is very strong. And there's a few other things we sort of touched on already, that idea of having trouble setting boundaries, saying yes too much because you put other people's needs ahead of your own struggling with burnout because you may be becoming overstimulated because you're more easily impacted by stress and you haven't known how to manage that in the past.
Well, I wonder what your take is on this because I coach a lot on this as well, but I, and I know you were saying like there's like this character trait, which I'm sure you know, it goes back to this whole thing of like nature versus nurture. But I wonder how much you see where it's like what percentage of this is mostly women because of kind of the patriarchal standards and how we all, I guess we might biologically, some people have more sensitivity and more trait, but I can't help but think that it's also this pressure on women to always be perfect in every role, right? The impossible standards as mothers than possible standards of like climbing the corporate ladder and breaking glass ceilings. And also the impossible standards of always being a nurture of people. Like we're socialized to be people appraisers because women are told from a very young age that everybody else's happiness is your responsibility and you have to be the one that makes sure everybody likes you. And so what I tend to see a lot is not that of course there are men as well that have the same imposter syndrome or the same doubts, but I know in my own practice it's overwhelmingly women that have these beliefs that if they are not perfect, they don't do everything perfect, they're failing at life and they'll never be good enough and all of these things. So I don't know, I wonder what your take is on that.
Yeah, it's interesting and it's a really nuanced and complicated topic, but I, I completely agree with you that it's highly nature and nurture. So sensitivity as a trait has been researched for 30, going on 40 years. And in the research they've done, the trait is pretty equally represented between women and men. And that points to the fact that it's part of biological wiring. At the same time, as you said, socialization comes into play. So from a very young age, from the time that we're young girls or teenagers, girls are told not to take risks that we need to be likable in order to make other people happy and to succeed. And then when you get into the workplace, it's, there's this double bind of being emotional where you're expected to be warm, but don't be too warm because then you're a pushover, but don't be too cold because then you're the B word, right?
So there's this tension for women and as you said, perfectionism, the insanely high expectations around everything. At the same time for men there's also a double bind as well. Totally, yeah. That men who are as young boys are taught don't cry, right? Be a man, buck up. And so sensitive men tend to stuff down that part of themselves. They put on a hard exterior and they don't feel like they can show their sensitivity. And what's really interesting is the more I've talked about sensitivity, the more and more men come into my world because this isn't talked about ever before, that sort of softer or gentle, gentler side is not really something that until more recently has entered the conversation for a lot of men.
Yeah, that's so fascinating and I can totally see that. Of course I think like under patriarchy we all suffer. And for sure I think if you are a more of a sensitive man then you know, society's basically told you that's not allowed. Your only emotion you're allowed is anger and that's it. And so they very much suffer just like women. And so it could be nature, it could be nurture, it's probably a mix of both and it's like, I'm assuming it's more of a spectrum, right?
Absolutely. 100%. It's like any other personality trait, introversion, extroversion. Some people are more introverted or less introverted. Yeah. And it's the same with high sensitivity. Yes, everyone has some level of sensitivity and I don't like when people say that is a binary, that someone is not sensitive. That's not fair. It's really about what's your level of responsiveness to the environment. And also some people may be more sensitive to rejection for whatever reason. Some people are more physically sensitive to lights, smells, textures, there's all different domains to it as well.
I geek out on this stuff all the time and I really just love the awareness that it brings. I did an episode a a little while back on really getting awareness from now. There's so much, you know, literature out there on let's say having ADHD and there's so many women now that are finding that they have a ADHD. And even if you don't have ADHD, it's provided so much validation I think for people that are like, oh, maybe my brain just in this way doesn't function like other people's and that's okay. Maybe there's nothing wrong with me that I can't focus for more than this much. Or I can't drown out maybe auditory stimuli or whatever it might be for you. And I love this again as well, you know, even before we, we get to what can we do with it is just simply the awareness that there's nothing quote unquote wrong with me.
Like maybe I handle criticism and rejection way harsher than somebody else. And that's okay when I know that, then I can stop kind of the shame and blame of like, why can't I just grow with thicker skin and what is wrong with me? And it's really like, okay, this is where I'm super sensitive and I can know that about myself. Or maybe like you said, like to the physical touch to physical or to noise or something. I'm much more sensitive. Simply knowing that I think is provides so much freedom in like that guilt and shame of like, I'm just broken.
It does. It's acceptance, not resignation, it's acceptance of okay, this is something I have and I can now deal with 'cause I have this information, not resignation of oh well guess there's nothing I can do about that . Yeah. Yeah. To really drive this home with an example, you know, early on in my career before I really put the pieces together, I was really in that space of self-blame. You know, how come everybody seems to have it so easy? I'm so easily affected by everything that happens around me. And one of those particular examples is that I used to work in a lab environment that was a very, very tight space. This is New York City, so there's not a lot of space to go around at all. But it was one of those offices where you would back up your chair into somebody else and it always felt like someone was looking at your computer and I physically could not take it.
Like my body physically rejected it and it, it just seemed like everybody else. That was no big thing. And I was like, why am I the only one who seems to think this is horrible and weird? And that's an aspect of high sensitivity. We hate being watched and observed because that puts self monitoring on really, uh, high level. That for me felt into intolerable and I ended up quitting that job because it was just, it was not the right environment for many reasons, but that was a big one that I could not do my best work and thinking in that environment. And that's now that's something I know about myself so I can engineer around that.
Totally. So fascinating and so important, especially when you were trying to make decisions for your career or for anything else. It was like if we get outta that, you know, self-loathing and that self-blame and it's truly like, well how do I operate? Where do I operate? Where's my strengths? Right? What do I like being around? It can help navigate so much in future decisions of like maybe this type of a job and this type of an environment isn't gonna be good for me. Maybe sitting at home working remote is not the way I operate. Maybe not, you know, being around a lot of people is not the way I operate. So that is really fascinating and that, that leads me to the next question where it's like, okay, now if we know, let's say we figure out that we're a sensitive striver and this all sounds very true to us, what do we do with that?
Yeah, yeah. I mean there's so many different directions to go with this. And I think a big one that I see sensitive drivers struggle with a lot is imposter syndrome. Hmm. Because we never feel like we're good enough because most of us, we've been told our entire lives that you need to change who you are. And so we don't feel like we fit in. And that is by far the biggest challenge people come to me with is imposter syndrome, feeling like a fake or a fraud despite the fact that they are capable and have achievements. And what's important about imposter syndrome, it's a very particular form of self-doubt. It's not just having trouble with confidence or not believing in yourself. What it's really about is being unable to take in and internalize your accomplishments and your skills. So it's almost like all of the good stuff you are like Teflon, you just, it bounces off of you and back out, but all of the bad stuff is a magnet and you attune to every failure, setback, misstep you make because that fits into how you see yourself. Whereas the achievements, the praise, the recognition you get does not fit into how you see yourself. So you reject that. So I'll, I'll pause there because I'm sure you have some
Thought, thought about that. No, I that that's, yeah, I do. I mean I think that that definitely resonates and I do think that that is a lot of what the people that I've worked with too suffer from. Like one of the biggest things is that imposter syndrome where it's like they, no matter the accomplishments, no matter, you know, positive yearly reviews and the promotions and the raises, they can't see any of it. It's constantly like, I have no idea what I'm doing and I'm a fraud and people are gonna figure it out. So I mean if that is the biggest thing then how do you help people sort of navigate that when they know that, you know, you sort of may have the awareness but it feels so real.
. Yeah, and you know, I wanna be clear that being in a new environment and adjusting to that is different than having imposter syndrome. Yeah. And I think a lot of people conflate those two things that if you are in a job where you've made a bit of a pivot, you've changed industries, you have different responsibilities, you've only been there for three or six months, , you're most likely not an imposter, you're just having a normal normative response to a change in a transition. So the first thing is to not immediately label yourself because the quicker you are to label yourself as, oh I have imposter syndrome, it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways. Now, if you have been at a role for many years and you're still feeling this way, that's a different thing. And if the issue of why imposter syndrome exists is that you have trouble internalizing your accomplishments, that's the very thing you need to work on.
And a lot of that comes down to training your attention to take in the good and sit with it, notice it. And for my clients, I will have them do things like create a brag file where they are at the end of every day or at the end of every week, they are writing down and documenting what went well. And that can be accomplishments, praise they received, milestones they hit. But what's even more important is to look at moments of strength. Because nine times out of 10 things don't go the way we hope and we can put in our best effort and not get the outcome that we hope. But you still deserve to give yourself credit and there are still things there that you can be proud of. So is there a tough conversation? You needed to have a boundary, you had to set resistance, you overcame all of those demonstrate your capability and your strength, but you may not be giving yourself credit for them because you see success in a very binary fashion. I either did well or I failed. And there's a lot of gray area in between that that we need to learn to find value in.
Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. And it's fascinating, the way I talked about it sometimes is when you think about, and you talked about how we have this negativity bias and that kind of attention spotlight is typically on things that go wrong and evolutionarily like that kept you alive, right? You need to know which berry is the one that's gonna kill you, not the one that tastes the most delicious, right? Like you need to sort of focus on that. But one of the exercises that I like to give and I, I think is really like illuminating is, you know, if you go through your whole day and let's say on your way home, somebody cuts you off or you know, something happens where like you get pulled over, let's say, I mean, then it becomes a really bad day and you think about like, oh my God, this is the worst.
Or I'm, you know, I should have been speeding or whatnot. And you beat yourself up and you think about how terrible the day is. But if you go back and you really look at everything that had to go right that day for you to even make it to work and back in one piece, right? Like if you think about like literally every decision you made that was right and every single thing that you did that what turned out well because we don't notice it, right? Same thing with like your body. Like you never notice how well your body's working until it's like something, you injure something and then you realize like, I didn't even know that muscle existed. You know? 'cause it's working well. And I think what you were just saying too is like it's a conscious effort to turn your attention to like what is going well every single day? What are all of the decisions I'm making that are fabulous and that probably go unnoticed because it doesn't cause a problem, right? Like nobody's coming to pat me on the head for every single decision I make at work. But like I have to be able to see that because otherwise I then see the one time where I, maybe I misspelled something in an email or the one time where I forgot the attachment or whatever the, you know, silly mistake is that we then decide like this means that I'm incapable and I'm a terrible human.
That ability to take perspective. Mm-hmm. is everything, is everything because like you were saying, we can magnify one bad thing and then generalize it to a pattern. And we do that with our jobs too, where I will have people come to me and say, I hate my job. I'm so bored here, I feel so stuck. But then I'm sure you find this too, that once you drill down into it, sometimes there's a few tweaks that need to be made, you know, around a person's responsibilities or who exactly they're working with or what environment they're doing their work in. And then all of a sudden that unlocks and changes everything. So yeah, being mindful not to get into this overly pessimistic, here's why everything is wrong, here's why everything is against me thinking instead, how is the situation for me? How can I choose to grow from it? What is going right here instead of always focusing on what is going wrong.
Yeah, I love that. So I wanna turn to your book because the, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on is like just the title of the book. I was like, oh, this is so much of what the people I coach you struggle with. And your book is called Trust Yourself, stop overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. And one of the biggest things that I find people struggle with is trusting themselves is this idea of like the constant back and forth because like what, what if this is not the right thing? Maybe I shouldn't be doing this, and what if I'm gonna regret it? And how do I know if I should be, you know, and the spinning and the indecision and like you just said, which leads to a lot of stuckness, like feeling like you're stuck even though you're not. And really I think winding yourself up so much. And I know that a lot of the people I work with tend to say like, I don't feel like I can trust myself. I don't feel like I know what I'm doing. And so can you give us a little bit, I mean everyone should come and we'll tell them where to get the book and they should read the book for the answers, but just how do you start this practice of learning how to trust yourself?
Yeah. And the reason I called the book Trust Yourself is because as I was mentioning earlier, this is the biggest thing I see sensitive Strivers struggle with because they've spent their whole lives being so externally oriented, even their internal world is oriented towards what are other people going to think about me? How do I make other people happy? To the point where I'll have people come to me and say, I don't even know what I enjoy or what I wanna do for work. I've never asked myself those questions. And it just goes to show how out of touch so many of us are with ourselves and with our own intuition in particular. And that's a large part of what I talk about in the book is that deeper sense of connection to yourself, that sort of gut feeling that as sensitive people we have more strongly than others because we're taking in more information about the environment.
And that means we have a deeper pool of knowledge to pull from, but we don't always make space or we don't have the right muscles to listen to it. And whenever I'm working with people, I'm a big believer in start small, build your skillset over time and learning to trust yourself, learning to listen to your intuition is a skill just like anything else. And you have to start small, whether that's an or especially making small decisions by trusting your gut, whether that's what you eat for today, what you bring up in conversation with someone, how you choose to confront a situation, asking yourself, what would I do if there were no consequences here? Or what would I regret not doing? And those questions can be very clarifying because it removes the assumptions and the expectations of other people.
Yeah, I love that so much. And I wonder like, going back to what we were just talking about, I think some of it is just simply bringing awareness to the fact that you have made so many decisions every day that you can trust, but you just tend to overlook them, right? We make a million decisions that go right, and it's like we get hung up on the thing that maybe didn't turn out the way that we wanted.
That's right. Yeah, exactly. We overly index on on the moments where we got into overthinking or self-doubt, and then we forget all the minor things. So even looking at at your past and thinking about what were three or five times in my career in my life that I did trust my gut and how did I navigate that? What worked about it? How did that gut sense, how did that sense of trusting myself show up? And for many people it's a feeling in your body, it's a feeling of calmness, of reassured-ness. It tends to be a more grounded voice in your head, rather, rather than an overly critical one. And it, it's really important to learn how to discern for yourself between when you're being driven by fear, which may be when you're being driven by, you don't wanna be rejected or disappoint other people. It can feel like everything's closing in around you. Everything just feels tight and uncomfortable. Whereas intuition, yes, things may still feel scary or anxiety provoking, but there's the sense of, I know I can handle it. I know this is the right next step.
Yeah, I love that. Well, before we wrap up, Melody, is there anything that you wish like people would know or that I would've asked you that you want to kind of impart before we tell people where to find your book?
Just quick note on people pleasing . Yeah. Because this is a, yeah, this is another big area where we're guided to make career and life decisions around what's going to make other people happy. And one of the most important things that I tell clients when it comes to people pleasing is to look for areas where you have a outsized sense of resentment, where you feel you may have been taken advantage of, you are not recognized, you've let a situation go on for too long without addressing it. Because many of us as sensitive strivers, we've acclimated to a level of tolerating something much longer than we should. So even conducting that audit and figuring out for yourself, where do I feel an outsized sense of resentment and where does that mean, or what does that mean about where I need to set a boundary, a limit, have a conversation, or make a bigger change?
I love that. I love that as like a, a signal, like kind of as a, you know, little arrow of like, if you wanna know where you're people pleasing, like follow the resentment and that will clearly show you where you're saying yes to things you don't want to, and then later you feel resentful. 'cause a lot of what I teach people is like when we're doing boundary work and it's really difficult to have those hard conversations or to say no or to whatever, it's like, yeah, it feels difficult and it's gonna feel bad and it's gonna feel terrible in the beginning. It also feels terrible to feel resentful all the time. , it also feels terrible to be bitter towards everybody, you know? So it's like you sort of have to pick your hard and it's like, what do you wanna feel? But I'd never thought of it in this way as what kind of this little, the breadcrumbs of like when you don't even notice your people pleasing, like when you don't even know that's what you're doing. Just following that resentment could be really enlightening.
Yes. And I love what you said about the cost of inaction because that's another thing. Just like we don't think about what could go right, we focus on what could go wrong. We always think about what's the, oh, what if I take this action, I have this conversation, I tell someone I'm leaving, they're going to hate me, but we don't think about the cost of inaction. What if I stay in this job for 1, 3, 5 more years? What is that long-term cost to me? And, and am I willing to deal with that? And I love what you said about pick your hard. Absolutely.
Yeah. Yeah. Oh my God. So I could geek on this all day. This was so good. Melody, where can people go to get the book, trust yourself, or to find more about all the work that you do?
You can find it wherever books are sold. You can also grab a free chapter and find links for the book on my website,, and lots more goodies articles, courses there as well.
Wonderful. Well, we will definitely link that in the show notes. So if you can't find it or write it down right now, you can go to the show notes of this episode and get it. Thank you so much for joining me today, melody, this was super helpful.
My pleasure. Thank you.
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