Sense and Sensitivity

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

Are You a Friend or a Therapist?

How highly sensitive people can become drained by helping too much.

Has anyone ever told you that you’re a good listener? Or a good friend? The kind of person that other people can really count on? No matter what’s going on, you’re always there for them. That’s just the kind of friend we all wished we had, but highly sensitive people can easily fall into the trap of giving more to others than they do to themselves. Being highly aware of other people’s emotions and feeling what they’re going through can make it very difficult for HSPs to say no. A deep-rooted sense of empathy also means that HSPs can find themselves acting more therapist than friend.

In his book, Schema Therapy, Jeffrey E. Young suggests that highly sensitive people have an empathic temperament, linking it with the Self-Sacrifice Schema, which in turn is almost always related to the Emotional Deprivation Schema. What this means for HSPs is that they tend to put others’ needs before their own and make sacrifices for others to their own detriment. HSPs feel other people’s feelings and needs intensely. When a friend is hurt or upset, it can feel like those feelings belong to you. And you want to do something about it. According to Young, HSPs can feel that if they don’t meet the other person’s needs, that person will suffer. It can feel like watching someone trying to walk with a broken leg and not offering them a hand. For most highly sensitive people, this is unbearable. And so you reach out, and try to help them along the way, even when it becomes a strain for you to hold them up.

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The trouble comes when others begin to take advantage of this kind of empathy. Highly sensitive people are a minority and it can be quite a revelation for most people to meet someone who is so warm and caring and sensitive, so willing to listen, so clearly able to care. It’s almost too good to be true for some people, and for those who have been suffering or who have spent a long time around people who don’t care, it can be like finding an oasis in the dessert. They want to drink deeply. And they can be so thirsty for empathy that they will drain you completely.

Everyone has their own path and we must let others follow it so that they will learn and grow on their own. It’s important not to take that away from someone, however good our intentions are. Helping someone so much that they don’t have to do the work themselves is a form of control and it also shows a lack of respect. It’s saying to the other person that you don’t believe they can manage by themselves, that they are too weak, too scared or too incompetent to learn from their own mistakes and find their own way in the world. And that’s no way to treat a friend. So step back, let them learn the hard way. And tell them that you’ll be there to listen and to offer support and encouragement when the road gets rocky.

While it can be difficult to watch others struggle, it is important to let them. It’s the only way that people learn what they need to learn. It’s how we build strength. We struggle, we fall, and left to fend for ourselves, we pick ourselves up and keep going. Wanting to help someone because you feel compassion is a beautiful quality to possess. But sometimes the best way to help someone is to let them help themselves.

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

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