Telling someone they are “overreacting” or they should “lighten up” disconnects them from their emotional experience.
Dear Highly Sensitive Person (HSP),
I want you to know that if anyone has told you that your emotions are “too much,” they are wrong.
For the majority of highly sensitive people, our experience includes having strong emotions. Indeed, a common trait among HSPs is our ability to feel deeply, as this is adjacent to sensitivity. Unfortunately, many non-HSPs don’t quite comprehend the depths of our emotions, which can result in feeling misunderstood.
While growing up, I repeatedly received the message that my emotions were “too much” — from people telling me that I was “overreacting” or to “lighten up” to shaming me for expressing my emotions and informing me that my feelings were “wrong.” Unsurprisingly, this type of rhetoric disconnects people from their emotional experience, and ultimately, ourselves as a whole. I have since made peace with my HSP tendency for feeling deeply and am now a psychotherapist as a result!
However, my experience is by no means a unique one. Many of my clients (especially those who are fellow HSPs) have described their similar struggles of being shamed for feeling “too much,” despite their feelings being perfectly valid and appropriate for the context. As a result, they subsequently have a difficult relationship with their emotions.
HSPs, we deserve better. It is all too easy to be labeled as “too emotional,” given that we live in a society that doesn’t value emotions. Instead, “rationality” is largely considered to be the antithesis of being emotional, and is valued and placed on a pedestal. I can’t help but wonder: Is it actually rational to deny something so inherent to the human experience?
As a mental health practitioner, I want you to know that these messages are wrong. You, on the other hand, are not wrong for feeling your emotions. In fact, there are actually many advantages to doing so.
6 Reasons Why Your Emotions Are Not ‘Too Much’
1. “You can’t heal what you don’t feel.”
Despite the misconception that emotions are superfluous, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, emotions aren’t just normal, they’re also healthy. There’s a popular saying in the world of psychotherapy that “you can’t heal what you don’t feel.” Essentially, this means that in order to adequately process and heal from a difficult experience, we need to allow ourselves to name, express, and of course, feel any and all emotions associated with that experience.
A great example of this is from the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out. At one point, Bing Bong, Riley’s former imaginary friend, becomes distraught after losing his rocket, prompting him to mourn his relationship with Riley. Once he’s able to reflect on why he’s feeling sad, express that sadness, and receive validation, his sadness begins to dissipate and he starts to feel better, allowing him to move on. Although a simplified example — we typically aren’t able to work through emotions quite this quickly — this does illustrate the importance of feeling our emotions in order to heal from life experiences. And since sensitive people feel on a deeper level than others, it may take us a bit longer to process things.
2. Repressing emotions does not work.
The message we receive from society is, in order to prevent being seen as “too emotional,” we simply need to repress our emotions, as this is the “rational” approach to take. However, as you likely already know — either from personal experience or on an intuitive level — repressing our emotions doesn’t work.
There’s a popular metaphor used in therapy: think of a beach ball floating on the surface of the water. What happens when you try to submerge the beach ball into the water? It doesn’t want to go down or stay down. Perhaps you’re able to keep it submerged for a bit, but it takes a lot of effort and struggle. Plus, the harder you try to keep the beach ball submerged, the greater force it’ll have when popping back up. This is the same for our emotions: we can try to repress them, but the more we do, the more we will struggle, and the more force they will reappear with. So it helps to avoid that struggle and simply allow your emotions to be.
Similarly, sometimes HSPs will try to numb their feelings through emotional buffering — they’ll mask them through things like shopping, food, or even substance use. But this, too, is just trying to submerge the beach ball instead of dealing with it.
3. For better or worse, emotions help guide us.
As alluded to previously, the common argument against displaying emotions is that they can be considered to be the opposite of rationality. That is a grave misunderstanding of emotions and the benefits they bring us.
Indeed, I am a strong proponent of our emotions’ ability to guide us. You can think of emotions like signals we can use to navigate the roads of life. Firstly, we need to identify what the signal actually is. When we are able to recognize and label the emotion we are feeling, we can then process our emotions with more efficiency. Secondly, our emotions have purpose; each one has useful information we can use to help guide us.
For example, sadness can mean that a need of ours is not being met; anger can indicate that our boundaries are being violated; fear can warn us against a potentially dangerous situation; guilt can help us learn from past mistakes and make amends; and happiness can keep us returning to something that promotes overall well-being. As a highly sensitive person, you may feel all these emotions more so than a non-HSP, which can add beauty and depth to your life.
When we are connected to our emotional experience, we are better able to define our emotions. That way, we can then receive important knowledge about what steps to take in order to live our best possible lives.
4. Emotions allow us to be embodied.
Embodiment is the ability for us to fully feel into our bodies and be present with our experience. Embodiment also has many benefits, including better physical and mental health. Sounds simple, right?
Unfortunately, we live in a world that frequently promotes the opposite of this. Feeling tired? You can sleep when you’re dead! Feeling hungry? Diet culture rewards you for that! Feeling pain during exercise? No pain, no gain! We receive messages that we are “weak” for listening to the important signals our bodies are trying to communicate to us: for getting enough sleep, eating when we’re hungry, and stopping exercise when we’re in pain. (And sensitive people need even more sleep than others!)
It’s difficult, to say the least, to be embodied in a culture that tries to disconnect us from our bodies. Being with our emotions, however, can help bring us back to our bodies. Indeed, our emotions reside in our bodies. Have you noticed how your chest feels heavy when you’re sad? That your heart races when you’re scared? That you feel hot when you’re angry? Or even that you feel light when you’re happy? By recognizing our physical sensations, including those associated with our emotions, as they are happening, we are able to return to embodiment.
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5. Emotions increase our self-knowledge.
As previously established, emotions are a basic component of the human experience. Therefore, when we deny our emotions, we in turn deny ourselves. Instead, when we can be with our emotions — something we HSPs are naturally good at anyway, given our intuitive abilities — we can better recognize them. And then, we can comprehend how to approach them healthfully, both within ourselves and others. This is what research psychologist Daniel Goleman defines as “emotional intelligence.”
Although allowing yourself to feel your emotions does not automatically equate to emotional intelligence, it’s a step in the right direction. Conversely, we move further away from emotional intelligence when we attempt to repress our emotions. This not only makes the experience of being with our feelings less familiar, but it also sends the message that feeling our emotions is unsafe.
6. Only you know your own experience.
The fact of the matter is — you are the only one living your life. Therefore, you are the only one who knows your experience. Only you can determine your emotional reality. Therefore, when others accuse you of being “too emotional,” this is gaslighting, which is when the other person uses a form of manipulation that makes you question your sanity or your version of things. In this particular situation, the gaslighting by the other person is typically rooted in an effort to make themselves feel more comfortable.
However, dear reader, you do not have to censor yourself for the sake of others. It’s okay to have a lot of feelings and to express those feelings — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You are the author of your story and you alone are the expert on your experience.
A Note on Emotional Response vs. Reaction
When discussing our experience of emotions, it’s important to distinguish between an emotional response vs. an emotional reaction, in addition to the emotion itself. Emotions are a feeling and state of being (i.e., happiness, sadness, anger, jealousy, etc.). When we describe HSPs as “deep feelers,” this means we feel our emotions more strongly and more frequently than non-HSPs. There’s no action inherent in emotions. The proceeding action can be either a response or a reaction. A response is using data from the emotion to make an informed decision; a reaction, on the other hand, is being overtaken by that emotion.
Let’s illustrate this with an example: You are having a conversation with someone, when all of a sudden it turns sour. The other individual turns to rudeness and insults you. Most likely, you would be experiencing the emotion of anger in this situation. An emotional response would be to inform that individual what they said was wrong and hurtful, and that you will not be engaging with them if they continue to treat you poorly, i.e., using the signal from your anger to rectify the situation thoughtfully.
Conversely, an emotional reaction might include insulting the other person back, storming out of the room and slamming the door, or turning to physical violence, i.e., being controlled by your anger. As we can see here, it’s not the emotion of anger that’s wrong, but rather, how that anger overtakes you. However, since we HSPs are deep processors, we are more likely to take our time to respond rather than react immediately (yet another benefit of being a sensitive person!).
Emotions are not only normal — they’re also important. Our society undervalues emotions and doesn’t understand that by feeling deeply, we are not “too emotional,” but in fact are experiencing an essential part of life. So, fellow HSP, I urge you to continue to feel your emotions, express your emotions, and be that deep feeler that you are. It’s a beautiful thing.
An HSP Therapist
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