Highly Sensitive Refuge
A woman happy and showing off her big emotions

How I Learned to Stop Being Ashamed of My ‘Big’ Emotions

It took a major breakup to help me realize that my emotions aren’t something to be ashamed of.

I have always struggled to reconcile logic and emotion. As a naturally analytical person with a textbook Type-A personality, I often feel like I should be able to outreason my emotional impulses. But I’m also a highly sensitive person (HSP), and that means my strong emotions only intensify the inner battle I constantly seem to be waging.

For years, my strategy for any negative emotion was to isolate whatever was making me sad (or lonely, or irritable) and then think up a solution. I can stop feeling angry because this whole problem is meaningless, I would tell myself. Or I shouldn’t feel sad today because I had a really nice breakfast. And, more often than not: Be sensible! Nobody wants to deal with an emotional wreck right now. You have other stuff to deal with — focus on that.

It turns out, it only took one major upset in my personal life for that approach to completely fall apart. 

Ignoring My Emotions Left Me Blindsided

My most recent emotional “problem” came in the form of a nasty breakup. It had been a long time coming on my part — months and months of telling myself I was  “too stressed” to think of ending things, or that my growing resentment would disappear if I just ignored it a little longer. I think some part of me believed that going through the motions of a relationship I was no longer emotionally invested in made me strong, that to give into the feelings of anger and frustration and (let’s face it) exhaustion made me weak. 

Eventually, though, pretending everything was fine could only get me so far. He caught wind of my growing detachment and I felt compelled to end things over the phone. It was as though the facade of the relationship crumbled as soon as I acknowledged what I was truly feeling; I could no longer ignore the problem. 

After that, I did everything right. Or rather, I did everything the world tells us to do to get over someone. I put together a bomb breakup playlist. I called up my friends to rant and rave about how I was done with him. I unfollowed him on social media. I went out for drinks, looking hot, and played the part of someone who couldn’t be happier to be single again.

I wanted to be the amazing girl who could instantly move on with her life, who didn’t feel sad or hurt. The concern of my friends and family felt like a weighted blanket in summer. I needed to show them I was okay, that I could get through this. In all honesty, I would rather have seemed heartless and cold than be seen to care “too much.”

To be strong, I reasoned, was to keep pushing down those feelings of heartache and loss, and locking them away in a dark corner of my mind. What I didn’t realize was that all of those actions meant to gloss over my feelings didn’t put me in a better place. It’s only now that I can see thinking that way for what it is: a fear of feeling deeply. 

Feeling Deeply is Painful, But Essential

It took me three weeks to break down into tears about my ex-boyfriend. This overwhelming sadness came out of nowhere for me — one minute I was sitting peacefully on my bed, and the next I was sobbing into a pillow. The feeling I had been actively trying to ward off with positive thoughts and a poppy playlist overwhelmed my defenses, crashing through me with the force of a tidal wave. 

It felt like my heart had shattered. And no matter how desperately I tried to remind myself of the reasons I’d left him, or insist that I was doing better than ever, I couldn’t work through that feeling of utter brokenness. 

I called my dad — another HSP — and he gave me what sounded like the worst advice I’ve ever heard from another human being at the time. He said simply, “Sit with it for a while.” He encouraged me to feel that brokenness, to give in to the tempest of loneliness and guilt and heartbreak and unfiltered sadness. He told me about his first breakup and how he’d wept onto his best friend’s shoulder in the middle of a loud party. He reminded me that emotional pain, just like physical pain, demands to be felt before it can begin to heal.

Following his advice felt impossible. But I did it. I am still doing it. Because the truth is that for those of us who feel more deeply than we think we should, embracing that intensity is the only way forward. The world teaches us to be insensitive, to guard ourselves against pain – both within us and without. We learn to put up walls and compartmentalize because we are afraid of what will happen to us when we let that pain in.

But we forget that pain is not the only thing we are locking out. 

What surprised me about my experience of sitting in my pain (even just for a few days) is the clarity I gained. My intense emotional response gave me perspective on my breakup and a more nuanced understanding of what it meant to me and how I could move past it. 

If pain is a tempest blocking out the sun and destroying all things in its path, it’s also a storm that refreshes, renews, and washes away debris. Most importantly, the pain of feeling — and feeling deeply — left me with a sense of finality. 

My relationship was behind me, which meant I could grieve it. And only in grieving it — really allowing myself to feel it — could I move on. 

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Being Emotional Makes You Strong

Highly sensitive people are often misjudged for the emotional intensity they bring into (and out of) relationships. It seems to me like we’re constantly battling with ourselves to feel less, to show less, and to “stop being so sensitive.” But this mentality is particularly harmful when we’re going through a difficult stage in our lives. It’s easy to give into the pressure to pack away our emotions for later, so that we can confront them at a more convenient time that may or may not ever arrive.

For me, it took a major breakup with my college boyfriend to help me realize that my emotions aren’t something to be ashamed of. Not only are these feelings an integral part of who I am, but they’re also the source of my strength in a world that tells me to isolate myself, to shut up both verbally and emotionally.

In the face of this pressure to conform — to compartmentalize — the most important thing we can do is set those emotions free. It hurts. It makes us vulnerable. It may even cause others to think less of us. But it also gives us the power to press forward, to overcome, to seek out a fresh start and embrace a new challenge. 

Our emotions may not give us the same armor that detachment provides, but they make it so that we don’t need that armor anymore. When we dare to feel in an unfeeling world, those feelings move us to places we never thought we could go: a new job, a different country, a better mindset, a healthier outlook. 

I can see now that my emotions are not a sign of weakness. They never were. Sensitivity is a strength that comes naturally to HSPs. And I’m going to try my very best never to take it for granted again.

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