Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have an immense capacity for empathy. Due to this trait, we tend to be drawn to helping professions like therapy and teaching, and we often become caregivers for our friends and family. Our empathy often surpasses that of the regular definition of the word. Rather than simply noticing what someone else is feeling, many of us actually feel it ourselves, in our own bodies.
As tiring as it can be to absorb the emotions of others, it also can be an asset in jobs or situations that require a little “mind reading.” However, when this trait starts functioning at high speed, it becomes emotionally exhausting, leaving our tank completely empty.
As a therapist candidate, it’s my job to hold the stories of others. And not just their stories, but the emotions and implications those stories have on their lives. It’s an immense honor to be included in the life stories of others and to witness their journeys, but some days, it’s a lot to hold, and my HSP tendency to not just hear emotions but also make them my own kicks in.
This is one of the biggest reasons therapists and other helping professionals burn out quickly, especially when proper self-care is not in place. Even if you’re not a professional caregiver, if you’re an HSP, you’ve no doubt experienced something similar with your friends, coworkers, or loved ones.
So, let’s take a closer look at why HSPs absorb the feelings of others, and how you can stop being so exhausted by it.
(Are you a highly sensitive person? Here are 21 signs that you are.)
Why HSPs Absorb Other People’s Emotions
All HSPs tend to be highly affected by the emotions of others. Many of us can walk into a room and immediately sense tension, joy, discomfort, sadness, etc., without any verbal communication. In a way, we are master non-verbal communicators.
But it’s more than that. Most HSPs have experienced something along the lines of being with a friend, knowing the emotion they are experiencing, and waiting for them to come out and tell us. This is one of the reasons we hate drama and conflict so much. We can see it coming from miles away, and often, we absorb the emotions surrounding it.
These emotions do not stay separate from us. Many HSPs would struggle to enter even a slightly tense atmosphere and not feel tense themselves. While most people can pick up on the emotions of others to some extent — thanks to mirror neurons — for many HSPs, the experience is much more common and intense.
What Are Mirror Neurons?
Although scientists don’t fully understand them yet, essentially, mirror neurons are special brain cells that help you understand what another person is experiencing. They work by comparing other people’s behavior with your own past behavior — “mirroring” them to figure out what’s going on for them. When we recognize someone’s pain or joy and relate to it, it’s because of this system.
Mirror neurons also help us learn new things. For example, you use mirror neurons when you watch someone demonstrate a new yoga pose, then try it yourself. They’re also the reason yawns — and laughter — are contagious!
To be clear, HSPs don’t necessarily have more mirror neurons than others, rather, their mirror neuron systems are more active. A few years ago, brain imaging research found that the brains of HSPs are wired somewhat differently than those of others. In the study, HSPs consistently showed higher levels of activity in key parts of the brain related to emotional and social processing. This higher level of activity was seen even in tests involving strangers, showcasing the highly sensitive person’s incredible ability to extend compassion to people they don’t personally know. However, not surprisingly, the effect was still highest with loved ones.
As a result of mirror neurons, HSPs have above average levels of empathy. It also means we may absorb others’ emotions and find ourselves feeling sad, irritable, or stressed even when we had a perfectly good day ourselves!
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My Clients’ Emotions Overwhelmed Me
As an HSP therapist, it’s been invaluable for me to learn to do two things: prioritize myself and set boundaries.
The first months of my internship, I was constantly drained, panicky before seeing clients, and exhausted afterward. I thought about my clients nearly all the time and planned our sessions late at night instead of sleeping. I convinced myself that I needed to be deeply emotionally connected to my clients in order to foster change.
In sessions, my anxiety rose when the emotions in the room escalated. As my client load grew, I became more accepting of my consistently elevated stress levels and simply became used to living at that debilitating level of exhaustion and anxiety.
At the same time, my own ability to emotionally regulate myself started slipping. I couldn’t control my anxiety, and I couldn’t sleep. I was tired all the time, I couldn’t focus, and my life felt like it was falling apart.
What I Learned
Eventually, a friend pointed out my right and need to prioritize myself. That was when I realized how much the emotions of my clients were influencing me, even though I thought I was totally fine. It wasn’t until I stopped and rested for a moment that I realized just how deep my exhaustion went.
This problem definitely carries over into other areas of my life, as does the solution. Some sensitive people may notice this problem in their relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and even the clerk at the grocery store. HSPs know when something is wrong with a person — it’s like our sixth sense.
However, just because we sense someone needs help does not mean we negate the right to care for ourselves. For me, this looks like giving myself a day off, turning my phone on “do not disturb” mode at night, and giving myself permission to ask for help when I need it.
Asking for help can be especially difficult for HSPs, because we don’t want to burden others. But just like we help others, we can ask for help ourselves. After all, we can’t effectively help others if our own emotional luggage is too heavy.
If you’re an HSP, remember: You have the right to a listening ear, the right to some quiet time, and the right to do your favorite self-care activity.
You Have a Right to Care for Yourself
Prioritizing self-care was only the first step in helping me overcome emotional exhaustion. I also needed to set better boundaries. When I first started seeing clients, I didn’t fully grasp the need to separate my own emotions from those of my clients. Empathy puts me in another person’s shoes for an hour, but after that hour, their emotions have to go back to being entirely their own.
Learning ways to keep work at work has been vital in taking care of myself. In helping professions, it’s especially difficult to create healthy boundaries, since we work directly with people. Saying no is incredibly hard, especially when, as HSPs, we sense the emotions of our clients.
If you’re not in a helping profession, maybe you’ve felt the same way in your personal relationships. You feel a duty to listen and help, and it’s hard to shut off the emotional absorption. If that’s you, I’m here to tell you that you do not have a duty to be swallowed up by the feelings of others.
Setting boundaries in professional and personal relationships is a challenge, but immensely rewarding. There’s a relief that comes with putting a time limit on your help, to giving yourself permission to say no, to simply getting a good night’s sleep instead of talking to a friend for an hour late at night. The problem will be there in the morning.
Of course, there are times when boundaries need to be flexible, but in those situations, the boundary can look like taking time for self-care afterward.
I’ve found that sometimes I feel an immense sense of guilt when I’m not taking on the emotions of another person. But in reality, not succumbing to the temptation to absorb their emotion just to make myself feel like I’m doing a good job of helping is a boundary in itself.
Accepting that I have the right to set that boundary, as well as listen to my body and mind when it’s asking for a day off, have been instrumental in sustaining me. HSP, how do you deal with absorbing others’ emotions? Let me know in the comments below.