HSP, Empathy and Empaths: What does it all mean?

pexels-photo-146003.jpegProtecting your emotional energy as an HSP

I have recently been pondering the difference between what we mean when we talk about ‘empathy’ someone who is ‘empathetic’ and the term ‘empath’.  All these terms are often used when the subject of the High Sensitivity trait comes up, and I think it is helpful to understand the concepts as a means of being able to unpick a main contributory source of our overflowing buckets, what it means for us and how to deal with them.

Empathy is a tool that we humans deploy when we are connecting with someone on an emotional level.  We usually think of it in response to someone sharing a difficult situation they have faced or are facing, and it is how we show that we truly understand what they are going through, as a means of providing them with emotional support. It is different from Sympathy, which is ‘feeling sorry’ for someone, but without the understanding ‘in their shoes’ and compassion that comes from empathy.  (if you want to see a great explanation of the difference check out the  RSA Short of the Brené Brown talk on the subject).

Empathy serves an evolutionary function, it is one of the primary means by which we are able to connect with and relate to others in our social group, and as such it also works for positive feelings too, when we experience the joy or excitement that someone is feeling.

Scientifically we are now able to show what happens in our brain when we are displaying and experiencing empathy, and it is to do with things called ‘mirror-neurons’.  What neuroscience has discovered is that these particular neurons activate in the same way when we undertake an action, or experience a feeling, as when we see someone else doing that same action or experiencing that feeling.   It is therefore thought to be the process behind empathy.  It’s also seen as an explanation for one of the key features of autism, i.e. insufficient mirror-neurons causing less empathy.

Someone who is empathetic, or empathic, is simply someone who is showing empathy in a situation.  HSPs are naturally rich in empathy, and there is some evidence to show that their brains may have more mirror neurons than the average person, and also that they are more responsive.

Being an ‘empath’, though, seems to be something a little more than this and although I’m not sure I can buy the ‘paranormal’ or ‘spiritual, intuitive super-power’ definition of empaths – I do believe that some people experience empathy at a much deeper level.

People who are empaths identify with feelings of overwhelm in response to other people’s emotions, especially negative ones, which are extremely energy depleting for them, in way that doesn’t seem to be the case for the vast majority of people.  It is also likely that if you are an introvert ‘empath’ that this overload will happen more quickly, especially in a room full of people, because your introversion also causes overwhelm in that situation.

For me, then, being an Empath it is perhaps best described as a more ‘intense’ experience of empathy such that the emotional connection dial is turned on full, meaning that we are much more receptive to the emotional cues than others.

This is wholly consistent with the general knowledge we have of the HSP brain, and it makes absolute sense to me that if your nervous system is more highly attuned to environmental cues, we are as likely to more readily pick up on emotional cues, as we are to notice other subtleties.   Because only a minority of people are wired this way, and even fewer, perhaps, are consciously aware, this ability to ‘intuit’ and to empathise so deeply, is often seen by others as a bit of a mystical superpower – a sixth sense.

I believe, though, that many HSPs are natural ‘empaths’ and I also believe that it is a significant cause of overwhelm and energy drain for many HSPs, particularly if they are unaware that they are acting as an emotional sponge, and/or if they have not developed the skills to be able to discern what is ‘theirs’ from what they are absorbing from others.  We are more prone than others, I believe, to be deeply affected by emotional contagion.

People commonly catch other people’s feelings when in groups, and it is believed that this ability to synchronize moods with others is crucial for good relationships. HSPs experience this, like so many other things, so much more intensely, and whilst it therefore makes them natural listeners and counsellors for others, it also means that they are more likely to experience emotional overwhelm, and even burn-out.  It’s therefore a key skill for HSPs to be able to out in place measures to help prevent and manage this so  that they can empty their bucket and look after their own needs, and those of others.

These are my Top Tips:

Boundaries

Set yourself boundaries so you know what level of ‘negativity’ you are able to and want to cope with, and there are two distinct scenarios for me.

Firstly, there are times when people who you care about, who are important to you,  go through a difficult time, and this inevitably will be charged with negative emotions.  If we want to be there for them we have to sometimes accept that we may experience deep drain from our contact with them, but for the greater good we have to ‘live’ with that.  But in this case, we need to give ourselves permission to actively seek more opportunity to unload our bucket so that we can continue to be there for that person.   This could be by ensuing that we have more nourishing time, whatever that looks like to us, to compensate.  It may mean withdrawing from others whose needs are not so great at this time.    Whatever it takes you need to do it, to help ensure that that the relationship is maintained.

Secondly, there are other times when you are faced with people who just seem to be constantly exuding negativity: there is no particular issue they are struggling with, they just seem to want or need to snipe and gripe and to be unkind, uncharitable and snide, they also tend to be self-absorbed and manipulative, trying to manoeuvre others to get their own way, using emotional blackmail to try to get what they want.  In other words, they are ‘toxic’.  Empaths/HSPs are natural deposits for such people, because of our natural empathy and listening skills, and because we dislike being unkind and rejecting others.  However, what I have learned is that the only result of allowing such people to connect with your deep empathy is that your reserves get thoroughly drained, and you come away from every interaction with that person feeling so full of negativity, that your needs have been completely stamped all over, and that there is no reciprocity in the relationship.  In this case the only real option is to distance yourself.  This may be possible by reducing the amount of contact you have with the person or changing the nature of the contact, alongside actively seeking to find counterbalancing nourishing activities to allow you to empty your bucket and to offset the negativity.

Sometimes, though, that is not enough, and there can come a time when you feel that the only option is to cut all contact with that person.  That is not always easy, especially if the person is someone who has close proximity to you because of family, friend or work connections.  If all else has failed, and being mindful of the ramifications, you may need to just give yourself permission to cut contact, perhaps for a period of time, despite the difficulties you know it will cause.  Making the break may be the lesser of two ‘evils’.

Down Time

Make sure you create protected down-time to enable you to empty your bucket.  Find the things that work for you and work hard to incorporate that into your day and your week, and when you have been depleted more than normal, try even harder! Cancel things if you need to, lock yourself in the bathroom, put headphones on!

Practice deploying your emotion shield

When you have been interacting with someone and you are feeling drained, or low, or whether your mood has changed for seemingly no identifiable reason: take the time to reflect on whether what you are feeling is ‘yours’ or whether you have soaked it up from the other person.  Sometimes it can be a case of leaving the room temporarily to take-stock.  The more you can do this, the more aware you become of the process happening, and the more able you will become to put up your protective shield to prevent your emotions becoming saturated by someone else’s.  Also, when the interaction has finished, try to consciously think about letting go of all of the emotions that are not yours – give yourself permission to stop feeling for someone else, you are not responsible for their emotions!

Do you have any tips?  I’d love to hear from you!

Feelings, Feelings and more Feelings: Three top-tips for HSPs!

pexels-photo-207983One of the most tangible things about being Highly Sensitive, and that is the most visible to others,  is the extent to which you FEEL everything.  Whether that be the prickly seat or the sumptuous velvet cushion you are sitting on; the throbbing in your ears from the whining siren in the distance or the glorious surround-sound of the dawn chorus mixed with the trickle of the stream; the discomfort from that label in the back of your t-shirt or the fabulous feeling of the soft-down duvet you are snuggled into; the glare from the array of lights on the hight street at night or the spectacular sunset on the horizon; or the tears – of overwhelm, or of joy.

On the plus side it is what makes HSPs able to see the world in true dolby surround sound and technicolour, with smellivision, and true emotional engagement.  It is what underpins their deep empathy for others and the living world, and is what allows them to appreciate art, beauty, the written word, a kind deed, to a level that is not experienced by others.  It is also this intensity of ‘feeling’ that tends to be noticed by others, most particularly when it is response to overwhelm or discomfort.

 

The sensory ‘feelings’ of discomfort and ‘too much’ are generally easier to identify by us and for others to identify with.   But when it comes to emotions this can be much more tricky.  I have had a week this week full of ‘feelings’ (of the emotional kind) and it has highlighted one of the big challenges that feelings present for the HSP, which is that often the feelings we feel, are not even our own.

The ‘E’ in DOES stands for Empathy and Emotional Reactivity: HSPs are hard wired to connect with how other people are feeling, and they do so more reflexively and more intensely than others.  They deep processing of ‘information’ includes the processing of emotions.

This is great in terms of our capacity to provide that empathic response to others, and it is a natural skill, which makes HSPs very intuitive, some would say possessing a ‘6th sense’.  It’s what makes many HSPs great at and attracted to roles in life requiring emotional support or providing counsel.

However, it comes at a price, which is that it adds to our bucket of spaghetti.

If, as an HSP, we are conscious that we are adding to our bucket with all this emotional stuff , perhaps simply because we are aware of our innate sensitivity and we are actively engaging in empathy, or because we are recognising that our bucket is getting full,  we can make provision for emptying our bucket. And whilst this may not always be possible, exactly when we need it, we know there is an end in sight!

BUT, things are not always that obvious or straightforward, because as HSPs we are often empaths, which means that we can ‘absorb’ the emotional energy of others, without necessarily realising that we have done so.  If you have found your mood suddenly changing, without being able to wholly pinpoint why, it could well be that you have reflexively, subconsciouslty, picked up on what someone else is feeling, and taken it on as your own feeling.  This happened to me this week and contributed to the many ‘feelings’ I was contending with.  Something happened to my son at school this week which was very unjust and insensitive and unreasonable.  I had a very emotional response: a mix of upset, anger, rage, affrontery, humilation, victimisation, sadness, injustice, lack of voice, disappointment, shock, confusion – amongst many other things.

I knew, because I have learnt, that some of those feelings were emotions that were actually my son’s and in order for me to appropriately deal with and respond to the situation, I first of all needed to distill the facts, from my feelings, from his feelings.  Until I could do this, I couldn’t fully understand my feelings on what had happened, I couldn’t determine the proportionate response, and nor could I adequately support my son’s needs.  I needed to be able to empathise, whilst also trying to take a step back to be able to manage my own emotions  As it happens, I still feel most of those things, but I am able to recognise which are ‘my’ reactions, and which are the feelings that are actually my son’s and which are what I am seeking to address with the school.

Top-Tip No. 1 – Learn to identify what’s yours!

Practicing that sifting of what is my ‘stuff’ and what belongs to others is one of the things that has really helped me in being able to understand and manage my emotions as a HSP, and to support my son as a HSC.  There is no magic wand to gaining that understanding, it is essentially a case of actively reflecting on what you are feeling and what is happening, and digging deep to get to the root of what is you, and practice is how you do that as you begin to learn to trust your instincts.   There is one trick though, if you find yourself in a situation where your mood inexplicably changes, and I find this at home when my husband may be grouchy, short-tempered and intolereant after a stressful day at work, and I find myself responding in the same way, even though I had been fine before:  I have now learnt to move away to give me physical distance from him and his emotions, and this usually gives me the space to recognise that the rising levels of anxiety I am feeling, are his, not mine and I can try to push them away from me so that my behaviour reflects how I’m feeling, not how he’s feeling.  You can do a similar thing if it happens at work; leave the room and pop to the loo for 5 minutes – if your mood rapidly reverts to what it was before, chances are you had picked up on someone else’s. (Sometimes too it can be a geat thing, if you are picking up on someone’s joy and excitement about something, hang onto that feeling!!).

Top-Tip No. 2 – Choose your Battles

The time spent dealing with all of those emotions was draining, distracting and actually left me unable to focus on much else for a couple of days: and this also lead me to reflect on the  difficulty HSPs can have with ‘letting things go’.

As an HSP ‘letting it go’ can be really hard, and it is something that we need to learn to get better at.  I have found that whilst essentially it amounts to the same thing, ‘Choose your battles’ is somehow easier for me to relate to (perhaps because letting-go implies severing any connection with something, whereas choosing your battles doesn’t necessarily mean you have ‘forgotten’ about it or are ‘ignoring’ it, it just means you are choosing not to use up your valuable energy in dealing with something: a thought to explore another time…).

I take much more time these days to choose my battles, and to allow some things to ‘go’ because I can’t spend valuable energy on everything that I feel intensely about, because that truly would be everything .  I have realised that life really is too short, and my bucket just isn’t big enough!

In this case, having sifted and considered the situation, this is one of those battles that I need to fight: it is important for my son, it is about something that is a true injustice and not something that deserves to be ‘let go’ without further discussion or a different resolution.

So I give myself permission to vent and rant about this, and to acknowledge and accept that until I have worked through this issue, I may not be so well able to take on other things; whether that be a different emotional issue, or focusing on the market research I’m doing at the moment for my business, or developing the business content – I can’t do it all, there’s too much spaghetti in there and I need to dish some up first!

Top Tip No.3 – Give Yourself Permission to Feel it Your Way

This is another thing I have got better at and I recommend you try it!  Give yourself permission to lean into someting that is really upsetting or grating on you, that really matters to you: allow yourself to go deep, unapologetically, to truly feel just how angry and irritated you are about it, and to grant yourself the space to work it through, and to fight for the outcome you feel is right.   Not only will this give you strength to channel your sensitivity into getting a more positive result in the end, it will actually in the long run enable you to let other things go, because you will know that when it really matters you then have the reserves and the energy to give something your full attention, and to set the boundaries to your integrity.

Can you relate?  I’d love to hear your experiences.