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Caring for Other People’s Feelings Takes Its Toll

Highly sensitive people take on others’ feelings, but there’s a price to pay.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re around someone who is upset, you feel upset too? Or when someone is angry, you begin to shake and your cheeks grow hot as you try to control your own anger? One of the gifts of high sensitivity is our ability to be acutely aware of other people’s feelings and to respond to those feelings with empathy and compassion. But it can be a challenge too, as we not only notice others’ feelings, but take them on as our own.

Most of what we take on emotionally from other people is subconscious and involuntary. While we can, and often do, choose to be sympathetic listeners and loyal allies, our sensitive nervous systems are built for absorbing much more sensory and emotional information than the average person. What this means is that when another person, or people, are expressing their emotions, whether verbally or through nonverbal communication, we absorb those feelings like a sponge dropped into an overflowing bathtub.

Although we are often aware that we are feeling something such as anger, sadness or stress, we are not always aware of where those feelings are coming from. Even if someone is denying that they are feeling hurt, we can feel it. The difficulty comes when it’s unclear who those feelings belong to. We may be sensitive, but we are not psychic. We are aware of feelings, but we can’t read minds. So if we are feeling something, we assume it must be ours. Since HSPs tend to wear their heart on their sleeve, we appear to be the most anxious, angry or distraught person in the room. Other people may ask why we are so upset and tend to view us as overly emotional, irrational or unstable because this emotional display seemed to have come out of nowhere. And then we feel bad about ourselves because we are feeling bad.

Consequently, we react in one of two ways: Some people let the feelings and the accompanying guilt wear away at their self-esteem like waves crashing on a rock as they succumb to the weight of such strong emotions, feeling increasingly like a helpless victim. Others go on a mission to fix themselves, believing that they must be flawed to be feeling so badly.

This is what you need to remember – there is nothing wrong with you. You are a sensitive person and your ability to absorb others’ feelings is a gift. Your needs are just as important as everyone else’s. If you feel overwhelmed by these emotions, take care of yourself first. Here’s how:

• Take a break. Remove yourself from the scene or the person when you are overwhelmed with feelings and find a space to be alone.

• Protect yourself. If you feel better when you are away from certain people, recognise that you are absorbing that person’s stuff and keep your distance.

• Honour your needs. If there are situations or people you can’t avoid, be sure to give yourself time and space to recover emotionally. Take a short walk, spend time with animals or nature, or just sit by yourself and breathe deeply. You’ll feel more calm.

• Become aware of your feelings. Burying your feelings will only make them grow stronger. Recognise the signs of fear, anger, anxiety, sadness for you, whether it’s sweaty palms or lots of tears. If they are your feelings, learn from them. They are trying to tell you what you need to learn. If they are someone else’s, imagine they are clouds and watch them drift away.

• Take care of your feelings. It’s okay to show your feelings. Find ways to express them that work for you, such as venting anger through exercise, expressing sadness in a journal or releasing anxiety through creativity or volunteer work.

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