Posted Nov 20, 2011
Earlier this week I saw a colleague walking very quickly into the ladies room with her hand over her mouth. I don't think anyone else noticed, but I could clearly see that she was upset. I followed her into the washroom and heard her sobbing in a stall. When I asked her if she was okay, she came out and, tears running down her face, told me what had happened.
Whether it's work stress, personal problems or the daily commute, it's easy to become overwhelmed these days, even for the not so sensitive. Many people feel there's too much to do and not enough time to do it. Whatever the issues are, I find it nearly impossible to stand back and watch it happen without doing something. This is a common HSP trait. We feel other people's feelings so easily, so intensely, that it is as if we are experiencing it ourselves. Empathy seems to be built in to our highly sensitive systems and so too, consequently, is compassion. I cannot feel the hurt, anger, sadness, frustration or pain that someone else is experiencing without feeling enormous compassion for them and a drive to want to do something to help.
This is all very nice and part of me is admittedly tempted to run around promoting myself as Do-Gooder of the Year or perhaps Miss Highly Sensitive Congeniality. Try fitting that on a satin banner. But there is also a definite downside to understanding.
I gave my colleague the opportunity to express her frustration and vent her anger and I was happy to do so. I could understand why she was upset and the more she told me, the more frustrated and angry I became with the people who had upset her. After she had dried her tears, I offered to speak to the offending party for her, because she seemed too frazzled to do so herself but also because by that time I was so filled with outrage that I wanted to give this person a piece of my mind. I not only understood how she was feeling, but I had taken on her feelings as well. Anyone watching would've seen the frustration, hurt and feelings of being overwhelmed draining out of her and rising up in me, like sand from one end of an hourglass to the other.
Back at our desks, she was soon composed and laughing with colleagues, cleansed and purged of her negative feelings. I was so full of emotion I was shaking. My hands were sweating. My heart was pounding. I was on the verge of tears. For the rest of the day I felt exhausted and needed to be alone. This wasn't her fault. After all, I had followed her into the ladies room and cajoled her into coming out of her stall to weep on my shoulder. But I had once again underestimated the power that feelings have over me, and that as a highly sensitive person, my outer shell is as porous as a sponge.
I don't believe the answer for me is to stop being nice to people or to try to manufacture a thick, reptilian skin. Empathy is one of the great things about being highly sensitive. It gives me a wonderful and effortless sense of connection with other people. But you can have too much of a good thing. And so I will try to remember that when it comes to compassion, like all things, balance is the key. Perhaps next time I will at least wait until she has come out of the ladies room.