Holly White on how to navigate being highly sensitive, and how absorbing the issues of others can interrupt you from living your own life
As Aristotle put it, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
It’s strange to experience such anticipation for an event, the longing, planning, and eagerly looking forward to it, only upon arrival to feel totally overwhelmed. For a long time this was a regular occurrence for me. Exams, events, gatherings, parties; navigating life proved challenging.
I honestly didn’t understand why I’d experience emotional dis-regulation regularly. What I now know is that it’s a by-product of being empathetic, but not yet knowing how to work with it. I used alcohol and sugar to numb myself out to the sensations, sometimes with great success and sugar high fuelled ‘fun’ nights out. Other times not so much.
Empaths are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empath to describe a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense. We can be like sponges.
In its most simple terms, emotional flooding is the experience of being overwhelmed when strong emotions take over, producing an influx of physiological sensations, an increase of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, often resulting in difficulty accessing our resources for calming down. The problem is when you are both empathic and highly sensitive it can be difficult to ascertain whose emotions you are even processing, and why.
Empaths have the unique ability to sense and absorb others’ emotions, which typically makes them extremely caring, compassionate, and understanding people. They can also have a deeply rich inner world. They gravitate towards caring and creative careers, but if you’re an empath you might find yourself absorbing the emotions of those around you. When they experience joy, you get caught up in their happiness. When they experience sadness you carry that emotional burden, too.
This can become toxic if you don’t understand how to navigate this energy and detach knowing where you end and someone else begins. Consuming someone else’s problems gets in the way of your own life being lived.
I’ve always been passionate about wellness and a voracious reader, but one book in particular stuck out and quite honestly changed my life, albeit slowly, as old habits die hard.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron is the bestselling work of the psychologist who, along with her husband, pioneered understanding of high sensitivity, and helped it gain recognition as a valid, normal, healthy trait. ‘How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You’ the tag line read.
Are you an HSP? Are you easily overwhelmed by stimuli? Affected by other people’s moods? Easily startled? Do you need to withdraw during busy times to a private, quiet place? Do you get nervous or shaky if someone is observing you or competing with you?
I cautiously eyed the book queries not wanting to acknowledge that indeed these were facts I had dealt with for a long time. I had masked them under a pretty tough Cancerian Crab shell-like exterior. I presented as someone confident, ambitious, determined and punchy when in all honesty inside the shell I was extremely sensitive and not quite sure I was able to cope with it.
HSP, shorthand for “highly sensitive person,” describes 15 to 20 percent of the population. HSPs are skilled, but unfortunately, when being watched, timed, or evaluated, we often cannot display our competence. Parallel parking with people in the car could almost end up like an episode of Candid Camera. I’d try to make light of it, pretending I was in on the joke, but it’s very frustrating. Exam stress, competitive sports and procrastination would have punctuated my formative years, but now I understand why.
Being sensitive is a normal trait-nothing defective about it – however you have to welcome it into your life. The reality is to date we have lived in a world where extroversion thrives and the introverted world has been perceived as lacking in confidence and drive.
A beautiful example of this quality thriving comes from an endorsement from Alanis Morissette. Speaking of Elaine Aron’s work she says ‘To say this book changed my life would be an understatement’ and this video shows how she now embraces the quality.
Susan Cain is the author of the groundbreaking book ‘Quiet’ and a phenomenal Ted Talk. She is quick to point out that there’s no best type; an introvert is not better than an extrovert or vice versa. ”People have actually looked at this,” she explained. “There’s no intelligence difference between introverts and extroverts as a group.” They just have different ways of doing their best work.
Cain highlighted how introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, and should be encouraged and celebrated. In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert. I now accept this trait and know certain things aren’t for me and I’ve developed a few life skills in my toolbox I thought I would share here:
Honour your boundaries
Strong personal boundaries are key for empaths. Feeling overwhelmed by emotions can lead you to avoid situations that put pressure on your empathetic resources. You might struggle to manage difficult feelings and withdraw from loved ones to better protect yourself, but don’t cut yourself off.
Setting limits around situations that tax you emotionally can lower your risk of reaching a breaking point but don’t isolate. Going to a gathering for an hour is far better than not going at all. Learn how to honour your need to leave, and go home when you have to.
Writing, dealing with something stressful in work, learning a new skill, building a relationship or navigating a tricky conversation might seem straightforward to some but it can take you a little longer. You’ll get there with practice. Allow more time than you think you might need for change and growth.
Do not let wanting things to be perfect, and then being disappointed when they are not, get in the way of you living your life or taking up something new. I took up tennis during Covid for exactly this reason and had battles with my perfectionist mind for months on end. I was excruciatingly self conscious but now I barely even know myself as I catch up with new (!) friends at the tennis club and occasionally hit pretty well. Sometimes the slower you do things, the quicker you get there.
Develop a connection and channel with your inner world
This greater awareness of the subtle tends to make you more intuitive, which simply means picking up and working through information in a semiconscious or unconscious way. The result is that you often “just know” without realising how. However there is a time and a place and I’ve felt intense emotions that I knew weren’t socially acceptable to express and have found great release through journaling every single day as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I start each day, if I can, with releasing rambling thoughts. I burn or compost the diaries when I’m finished with them and detach.
I never offer unsolicited advice and open any called upon suggestions with:
‘If it were me this is what I would do..’ which leads to a softer landing and more open, less confrontational conversation. If I can’t sleep I get up and write for a few minutes. Intuition can bang on the door at inconvenient times but once the message, frustration or anxiety is released, or maybe it’s something that needs to be scheduled, it can calm down.
Watch for looping thoughts and be careful about over consumption of news
Whilst it’s so important to be aware of world and current affairs, you are of no use to anyone if you are drained to the point of exhaustion, ruminating, or cycling through the same distressing thoughts again and again.
Ruminating on negative experiences and emotions can actually make it harder to find solutions. In the end, you’re more likely to feel trapped by the cycle of distress, which becomes a problem in itself. Unsubscribe or unfollow from distressing content and set boundaries on news consumption if you find it more draining than you can tolerate.
Cultivate a daily mindfulness practice and know your triggers
Internet technology has brought both a myriad of stress and also wonder into our hands. I choose to work with technology as it’s given me a platform for a voice that might have gotten lost otherwise in a busy newsroom or magazine. It’s also enabled me to be able to meditate as if I were in the presence of gurus anywhere I want.
I highly recommend the free breathing function on the Calm app. Meditation is my lifeblood. There have been countless moments where I’ve been triggered, and through as little as 6 – 8 minutes of breathing, have been able to calm myself down and stop the spiral or irrational action.
I also learnt Reiki as I got such a benefit from it when I went to practitioners. I also, and sorry to be boring, now typically avoid stimulants in the form of too much alcohol, sugar or caffeine. Sadly, being highly sensitive, my too much is pretty paltry, but I’ve given up lying to myself a long time ago.
Cultivate meaningful deep friendships and conversation
Introverts and empaths aren’t necessarily great at small talk. It can be taxing, but deep conversation lights us up. Conversationally, introverts prefer to dive deep. We want to know what’s really going on in your head, or other meaningful topics.
We’re the ones who have the deep dive chats with the taxi drivers or intense chats in the loo with strangers.
At times when I’m emotionally flooded my mind can be irrational but over the years I have realised the value of a friend or family member who knows me so well, with whom I can be honest, and whose opinion I respect and value. Choose your tribe and choose it well and invest time into keeping the connections strong. I enjoy my own company but actively schedule in times to catch up and engage with friends and to nourish the friendships that truly matter.
Accept life on life’s terms
I joined a twelve-step program a long time ago and whilst navigating the steps this one in particular proved challenging. My fantasy world was so rich and full of dreams and blissful experiences that when the reality of bringing those dreams to life brought with it accepting deadlines, stress, disappointments, and working collaboratively with other people in both working and personal relationships it was all overwhelming. I found it hard not to retreat to the inner softer world. But fantasy is lonely.
Life on life’s terms means that when life shows up, we take it as it comes and don’t run from our problems by using a substance whether that be physical or fantasy. Dare to bring your dreams to reality. It might not be easy, but it’s so satisfying and builds both confidence and emotional resilience along the way.
Stay on top of your emails, messages, bank statements and tax also. Small problems have a way of becoming very big if ignored. I never put on an out-of-office as chipping away for an hour a day suits me better than coming back to an overwhelming amount to get through.
Lastly one area I have no experience in but might be useful is:
Parenting the highly sensitive and further resources
As well as the work of Elaine Aron and Susan Cain for parents who might identify these traits in their children Parenting the Highly Sensitive Child by Elena Jinkins comes highly recommended and on Instagram highly sensitive psychologist Aoife Ducan shares so many tips on how to navigate that, as well as sensitivethemovie.com.