Practice Safe Sharing

Protecting and nurturing our emotional sensitivity

Posted Dec 24, 2011

 "[P]rotect your sensitivity. Refrain from confiding your deepest feelings to someone who won't cherish them." ~ Judith Orloff, Emotional Freedom

Man with hands over mouth
Being more open and honest about our thoughts and feelings is always the best course. Or is it?

Have you ever shared an idea or plan or dream or something you are excited about, only to come away from the conversation kicking yourself for doing so? The person may not have said much at all—giving you a blank stare or perfunctory "Oh" without any subsequent questions that imply interest—or may have subtly (or not so subtly) questioned the worth or validity of what you said, or even immediately turned the topic back to himself or herself.

If you cannot walk away from such conversations without absorbing the negative moods and messages (whether real or imagined) of the other person, you might want to practice protecting your sensitivity.

Dr. Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom, explains that some people are "so sensitive we become energy sponges and absorb the negative energy from other people in our own bodies so that we become exhausted from it." In her article "Is Empathy Helping or Hurting Your Career?," Orloff discusses some of the benefits and drawbacks of being highly sensitive and empathic:

Advantage: "You are passionate, and passionate people put their all into projects. Empathetic people are passionate about their beliefs and ideas. In creative roles, or as sales or marketing people, passion is a plus."

Disadvantage: "You may be a victim of emotional vampires. Emotional vampires are people who suck the energy right out of you and leave you feeling drained and depleted. They may do this by being needy, talkative, cruel, or by running right over you. There are lots of different types of emotional vampires-and they're naturally drawn to empaths like you."

The temptation for the highly sensitive is to choose between two extremes:

  1. Continue to share our inner life with people who have a track record of not cherishing it, only to beat ourselves up later for being "so stupid," or
  2. Stop sharing much with anyone at all as a way to protect our emotions, cutting ourselves off from valuable human connection.

A better way is to be selective about what and in whom we confide, reminding ourselves that such selectivity is healthy and not selfish, and to use visualization to guide our decisions. We can think of our deepest emotions and most cherished plans and hopes as treasures that we keep in a secure box. We alone have the key, and we don't have to open that box for just anyone. When someone asks us about an area of our life that we need to protect, we can give a brief answer and change the topic, or we can open the treasure box and share some of what is inside. The choice is ours alone.

We can also seek out other emotionally sensitive people who are confident enough about their own life and growth to listen and to share, and with whom we can have real conversations about what is important.

Parenting Emotionally Sensitive Children

Such kindred spirits are invaluable, but they can be hard to find, and emotionally sensitive children may wonder if there is anyone out there who will ever understand them. Parents can help their children to know they are worthy of finding people who cherish their feelings by giving the gift of careful listening, as Susan Daniels and Elizabeth Meckstroth explain in Living with Intensity:

"Adults who care about these children must be the safe haven where young ones can express their deep feelings. Listen to them with your entire body, mind, and spirit as if nothing else at that moment matters as much as this child's thoughts and feelings....Careful listening can be a lifeline in a world where others do not understand or take them seriously, which can lead them to mistrust themselves....Careful listening can convince children that there is someone who feels they are valuable and worth understanding. It helps build courage, understanding, and trust such that these children can come to eventually be their own source of power, possibility, and safety."

Leslie Sword, in her article "Emotional Intensity in Gifted Children," agrees:

"The most important thing we can do to nurture emotionally intense gifted children is to accept their emotions: they need to feel understood and supported. Explain that intense feelings are normal for gifted children. Help them to use their intellect to develop self-awareness and self-acceptance."

Finding the time for careful listening is a challenge in today's busy families. Fran Walfish, in The Self-Aware Parent, describes the modern phenomenon of "cell phone parents" who are "so distracted with their cell phones, computers, PDAs, email, and the like that their children are pushed to the back of the line." The resulting emotional detachment can occur without the parents' even being consciously aware of what is happening.

To create the necessary space and time necessary for careful listening, parents can consciously plan "unplugged" times or activities with their children and teenagers, even something as simple as a walk around the neighborhood, when technology takes its turn at the back of the line behind safe sharing and listening.

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