Do you find yourself really sensitive to the feelings of others? Inclined to come away from an encounter with strong emotions you can’t account for? Wondering if others can “sense” the unspoken feelings floating around a room?
If so, you might be what various personality typing systems call “highly intuitive”, an “empath”, or “highly sensitive.” These labels can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but gaining a deeper understanding of the common experience of others like you can help you to understand yourself better. It can help you to deal with your own experiences better, too.
UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF FEELINGS IN GENERAL
Feelings are complicated things, and we often want to assign a kind of moral value to them: I feel like I’m in the right, and so I am. I feel sad, and so you’re a terrible person for hurting me. I feel good, and so what I’m doing must be good.
The fact is, emotions are not moral. Our thoughts and actions are. Feelings come and go: sometimes they act as neon signs, indicating that we should pay attention to something that’s happening. Sometimes they merely indicate that we need to eat or sleep. It’s what we do with our emotions that becomes moral. If I’m angry because someone cut me off while driving, I can simply acknowledge the feeling. But then I face a choice: do I allow this feeling of anger to fester and make me edgy the rest of the day? Do I decide to chase the idiot driver and run him off the road? Or do I just feel it and allow it to pass?
Our emotions and feelings, however, often feel like they have a mind of their own. We can feel overwhelmed by them, and they can cause us to question many of our choices. Despite not being moral in themselves, they play a big part in our normal human experience.
For some people, they play a bigger part than for others.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF EMOTIONAL RESPONSES & ABILITIES
Some of us have an uncanny ability to tune into the emotions of others. Being highly sensitive/ intuitive/ empathetic is not the same thing as being highly emotional. Highly emotional people tend to have a swift and large emotional response to most things, big or small. Highly intuitive people tend to have a natural ability to feel what others feel, without trying. It’s almost like they have a subconscious, finely-tuned emotional antenna as part of their natural makeup.
If you are the type of person who, without much conscious thought or effort, begins to feel what others feel, chances are that you struggle with the boundaries between the emotions of other people and your own. It can also cause you to question the validity of your own emotions.
Let’s say you’re talking with a friend about a similar experience you both encountered: having to confront a store employee who was really unhelpful. You did not enjoy the experience and came away feeling flustered and frustrated. Your friend, on the other hand, didn’t mind the confrontation. She made her point and walked away feeling confident and energetic. (Probably because she’s a rhino.)
As she relates this to you, you begin to doubt yourself. Are you too weak? Why are you still mulling over what happened? Is there something wrong with you because you’re still physically tired from the experience?
What is happening is that the boundary between her feelings and yours is not clear, and as a result, her (very different, even opposite) feelings about the same situation begin to bump up against your own. If we visualize it, we might say that her feelings are big and positive, and begin to shove your feelings aside, bruising them in the process. Your feelings might be strong, but they are gentle – delicate, and finely tuned to the atmosphere around them. They’re also vulnerable after a negative encounter. Her feelings are like boulders, impervious to the air around them and rolling over others in their way. Yours are more like icicles, carefully crafted, sensitive to the environment, and much more easily interfered with.
This isn’t because your friend is better than you for having impervious feelings, or because you’re better for having sensitive ones. It’s just yet another difference in the way people experience the world. It’s probably easier for her to get over a fight and easier for you to be empathetic, but the variety of human experience is crucial for us to learn from one another.
What those who are highly sensitive can learn from those who are not, is that they are not required to feel how other people feel.
You might have an encounter with a different friend who had a shared experience with you, but comes away with negative emotions. Maybe you both had a near- miss car accident. Once the fear and shock has passed, you are so relieved and grateful to be alive that you’re extra happy and joyful. She, on the other hand, begins to worry all the time. Fear of another accident of any kind dominates her thoughts and her anxiety is palpable. When you talk about your different experiences, you suddenly begin to feel sad, worried, and fearful. You could have died – you still could die – in fact, you will die, someday – your chest begins to tighten and you wonder how it was that just a few minutes ago you felt so grateful to be alive.
It doesn’t make sense to you in the moment: why are you suddenly feeling bad? You were just fine a few minutes ago. Instead of repressing, you had worked hard to process the fear and shock of your initial experience and not allow those feelings to govern you forever. Now they’re back, undermining your confidence and joy.
What has happened? The strong winds of her fear and anxiety have whipped up a storm in your own emotional landscape, threatening to knock you down from the heights of happiness where you sat. Someone who is as deeply empathetic, intuitive, and sensitive as you are just naturally and subconsciously begins to absorb the emotions of others.
THE BLESSINGS AND CHALLENGES OF BEING HIGHLY INTUITIVE / EMOTIONAL / EMPATHETIC
This is both a gift and a curse. Being highly attuned to others is a gift. You may grasp their feelings before they do; you may be able to help them process those same emotions. When they share their feelings with you, they may experience a lightening sense of burden: because you have absorbed their feelings, they are free of them. Your deep sensitivity to others also allows you to “read a room” and be aware of what is unspoken much of the time. You might find yourself able to connect with people in ways others can’t.
Being so connected to others can also feel like a curse. It’s exhausting to be so keenly aware of other people’s feelings, especially when those feelings are strong. You may find yourself crying alongside your sad friend, feeling just as sorrowful as she does. You may experience the anger of another who has been unjustly treated. You may go out feeling fine and come home feeling exhausted; or you may find yourself completely washed out in your own home because the emotions of others rage so strongly there.
TIPS FOR USING YOUR GIFTS OF SENSITIVITY / INTUITION/ EMPATHY WELL
It’s important to know that this ability isn’t something you can just decide to switch off completely, no matter how much someone tells you that you’re “too sensitive” or you should “just get over it.” It’s part of who you are. But it doesn’t have to rule or ruin your life.
What’s a highly intuitive, sensitive, empath, to do?
||ONE|| Be aware. You can’t understand, process, or change something you don’t know about. Ask yourself honestly if any of the above scenarios have happened to you and how you responded. Try to think of a few situations where you had unexplainable feelings: is there anyone or anything you might be able to link it to? Now, begin to pay attention to your encounters – try to be aware of when you might begin to absorb the feelings of others.
||TWO|| Practice dialysis. For people who are highly sensitive, it’s not a matter of just “turning off” the intuition. Most of what happens is subconscious anyway. But once you notice it, you can consciously decide to think of your response as dialysis rather than absorption. Someone gives you their feelings, but you don’t hold on to them. You simply allow them to pass through you. Release them into God’s hands and be free of that weight. With practice, you may find that you can turn the dial up or down on how much you allow in for dialysis.
||THREE|| Repeat this mantra: “other people’s feelings are not my feelings.” The minute you become aware of the pressure of someone else’s emotions pushing your own aside, consciously remind yourself that these are not your feelings. They exist, but they do not have to become yours. Think of it as wrapping yourself in a warm coat when you enter a cold room. The room is cold; you are not.
||FOUR|| Learn to set boundaries with others. This enormous gift of empathy, if not directed carefully, can leave you an emotional doormat. Often without knowing it, people will pour out their hearts to you and you will find yourself holding weights that are too heavy for you to bear. This is where you need to discern how to set good boundaries. You cannot be everyone’s dialysis machine. Not only is it not appropriate to certain relationships, but many times other people will not even see or understand it happening if you try to explain it. You may need to spend less time with certain people, or spend time doing activities in groups, or learn to avoid the kind of situation which makes someone feel like they can just dump everything out on you, like a one-to-one conversation over drinks. (Of course, you may find yourself naturally preferring meaningful conversations rather than group events, so it’s important to be aware of whom you choose to do what with.)
||FIVE|| Learn to set boundaries with yourself. If you have a natural gift for something, it’s very likely that not only will others ask it of you often, but you will probably enjoy it – right up until you don’t. Just like the naturally gifted artist who’s always getting asked to do portraits for free until she finds herself too busy for paid work to cover the rent, you may enjoy helping others with your empathy until you crash out of emotional exhaustion. How much youallow yourself to offer emotional support to others is your choice, not theirs. It’s also your decision how much time you give over to dwelling on their situation.
||SIX|| Make sure you have someone to share your feelings with. You can’t always be the listener: you have your own emotions that need processing and a good friend or wise guide should be able to help with that. Make sure you choose someone who is sensitive to your sensitivities and won’t ride roughshod over your heart. It doesn’t mean they need to affirm everything you say, only that they understand the need to be gentle with how delicately-attuned you are. They should be the kind of person who understands that you can’t fix a watch with a sledgehammer.
||SEVEN|| Practice rooting yourself in the peace of God. Allow that to be your emotional environment. Try to remain in it, wherever you go and whomever you encounter. Only God is boundless enough to bear the weight of everyone’s emotion. Sometimes when we fail to remain rooted in Him, our own troubles get in the way.
“We have a way of implicating ourselves in the suffering of others that is not always correct, that sometimes proceeds more from a love of self than from a true love of others. And we believe that to preoccupy ourselves excessively with another in difficulty is justified, that it is a sign of the love that we feel for the other person. But this is false. There is often in this attitude a great, hidden love of ourselves. We cannot bear the suffering of others because we are afraid of suffering ourselves. The reason is that we, too, lack confidence in God….
One thing is certain: God loves our dear ones infinitely more than we do, and infinitely better. He wants us to believe in this love, and also to know how to entrust those who are dear to us into His hands. And this will often be a much more efficacious way of helping them.
Our brothers and sisters who suffer need peaceful, confident, and joyful people around them and will be helped much more effectively by them than by those who are preoccupied and anxious. Our false compassion often only adds to their sadness and distress. It is not a source of peace and hope for those who suffer.” — Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace
It’s not easy to be highly sensitive. Many of us who are born with this gift wish we could just turn it off sometimes, if we even understand it in the first place. It can be a frustrating experience to be constantly soaked in emotions that are not our own. With time, practice, and God’s grace, however, we can learn to appreciate how we are made, and learn to use our gifts of sensitivity, intuition, and empathy well in the service of others.