Sense and Sensitivity

The ups and downs of daily life as a Highly Sensitive Person

When Empathy Hurts - How to Love While Looking After Yourself

Just because I feel someone’s feelings, doesn’t mean I'm responsible for them.

When someone you love is feeling bad, you want to do something about it, partly because as a highly sensitive person, you can feel what they’re feeling so intensely. I have found that the closer I am to someone emotionally, the more I absorb their feelings. In the past, this has left me crushed under the weight of emotions I had no control over, as well as exhausted and often somewhat helpless. But I have discovered ways to manage all these feelings in a way that lets me feel in charge of my emotions, rather than at the mercy of them.

I have spent years absorbing other people’s emotions, and not even realising it was happening for the most part. I would simply start feeling anxious or sad or tense and then begin a long introspective study of my life at that moment to try to come up with some kind of understanding of why I was feeling that way. What I didn’t realise, until fairly recently, is that sometimes those feelings are not mine. They belong to someone else, but I can still feel them. And consequently, I have always wanted to do something about it.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Once I’m aware that I’m feeling something, sitting around wallowing in unhappiness or being stressed out just isn’t my style. I don’t like to bury my head in the sand or even drown my sorrows in chocolate ice cream, tempting though it may be. I like to deal with things head on. So I have offered my help to whoever was feeling upset, distraught, angry, or even irked. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone suffering, especially when I was experiencing their feelings so intrinsically.

The trouble with that, of course, was that I was trying to confront someone else’s feelings and issues and not my own. And while nearly everyone I talked to, listened to, comforted and advised was incredibly appreciative and grateful for my help, I inevitably became drained from the experience. What’s more, I was doing their work for them. What I eventually realised was that people need to learn how to deal with their own feelings and to learn from their own mistakes.

Once I was able to identify which feelings were mine and which were someone else’s, I could stop questioning my own motives, as well as my own sanity, and focus on helping myself. To learn some of the best ways to identify whose feelings are whose, I recommend the book Empowered by Empathy. It offers some great suggestions for getting grounded when you feel overwhelmed with emotions.

I read an article recently that offered some profound advice. It’s so simple and yet it can make such a difference to highly sensitive types: I am not responsible for other people. That’s all there is to it. Just because I feel someone’s feelings, doesn’t mean I have to do anything about it. I can just let it go. And I respect my friends and loved ones enough to know that they are capable of learning what they need to learn on their own.

If someone is trapped at the bottom of a well, you can give them a ladder, but don’t climb down there with them. When I feel other people’s feelings, I seems like I am already at the bottom of that well with them. I know what they’re going through. What I’ve realised, however, it’s that I’m not down there. If it’s their feelings, it’s their well. And all I have to do is offer patience, encouragement and understanding while they figure out how, and if, they want to climb out.

Deborah Ward's new book, Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness, is available now.

more...

Subscribe to Sense and Sensitivity

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?