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Introducing the Core Sensitivities

An Introduction To Core Sensitivities

We all have strategies and motivations that guide our behavior within relationships. Some of us might notice that while the thought of being close to someone is very comforting in theory, a partner's actual needs feel demanding in reality. Others may find that any kind of emotional distance from a partner feels quite threatening. And some people keep focus not as much on their relationship or partner, but on themselves being perceived as special or faultless within the relationship.

Developed from object relations theory (and the work of James Masterson and Ralph Klein) as well as attachment theory, the Circle of Security paradigm identifies three core sensitivities. Many of us may recognize ourselves in one of the three sensitivities, which can inform the way we interact with or guard ourselves from others. These are the nonconscious protective strategies that help us avoid emotional pain when we perceive a person threatens intrusion, abandonment, or criticism in a relationship.

We all have relationship vulnerabilities that we may or may not perceive, and we have all developed patterns of behavior that protect us from negatively experiencing that sensitivity - welcome to the club! We all attempt to defend ourselves from emotions that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes these motivations can become pathological: an intense need for affirmation of self-worth might turn into narcissism, for example.

But by and large, the vast majority of us rely on gentler forms of navigating our sensitivities as we build friendships, create relationships and seek solace. Unfortunately, we might also find that as we attempt to create stability in our lives and associations, our sensitivities lead us to construct unspoken rules for how to behave in relationships or interact with others. We set up expectations for partners to follow these unspoken rules and, in the process, may unwittingly violate their own unexpressed sensitivities.

The core sensitivities aren't describing actions we take or even necessarily the behavior we manifest; instead, they categorize the motivation for our actions. Understanding our motivations and sensitivities as well as those of our relationship partner  can help us step out of the constricting roles we set for ourselves and others. We can foster the meaningful interactions that were difficult within our former relationship strategy.

Circle of Security identifies the core sensitivities as:

  • Separation Sensitive: People who identify as separation-sensitive are focused on keeping relationships very close, and often feel threatened at the suggestion of distance or an important person's lack of focus on a relationship. Fear of abandonment is strong, and might result in a willingness for people who are separation-sensitive to sacrifice their own individuality or wellbeing to make the relationship "work."
  • Esteem Sensitive: Esteem-sensitive folks feel compelled to be distinguished positively, with an emphasis on their own accomplishments and perceived perfection. Perceived criticism is difficult to accept, and might threaten a relationship. People who are esteem-sensitive might focus on how they're positively perceived in a relationship, at the cost of giving attention to the relationship itself.
  • Safety Sensitive: Another way to think about safety sensitivity is to consider it "intrusion" sensitive. People who are safety-sensitive are very uncomfortable with others intruding into their sense of self. They may notice it's equally discomforting, however, to keep others too distant; they might feel a desire for a close, intimate relationship but find themselves uneasy when having to interact within an actual relationship. It could feel like relationships require giving in to someone else or that connectivity brings up feelings of being "too close."

When we educate ourselves about core sensitivities, we aim to identify, define and address obstacles and limitations that these strategies unnecessarily impose. By understanding how others react to their sensitivities and identifying our own, we can become more compassionate and effective in helping people both develop more intimate and satisfying relationships with those around them.


To find out more about the trainings that are being offered in the core sensitivities, please visit this page.


What really hooked me . . . is the COS emphasis on core sensitivities. What these add to the equation is twofold: first, a deeper understanding of the intergenerational transmission of attachment . . . and, second, a far more sophisticated approach to psychotherapy than we have yet seen from an attachment perspective, including tailoring strategic approaches based on our understanding of core sensitivities.?

Charles H. Zeanah, Jr., MD

Tulane University School of Medicine

New Orleans, Louisiana

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