Highly Sensitive Refuge
highly sensitive people absorb emotions

Why Do Highly Sensitive People Absorb Other People’s Emotions?

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have an immense capacity for empathy. Due to this trait, we tend to be drawn to helping professions, and we often become caregivers for our friends and families. Our empathy often surpasses that of the regular definition of the word. Rather than simply sensing what someone else is feeling, many of us actually start feeling it ourselves.

As exhausting as it can be to absorb the emotions of others, it can be an asset in jobs that require a little mind reading. However, when this trait starts functioning at high speed, it becomes emotionally exhausting, leaving us feeling like our tank is on 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 had 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, this is a lot to hold, and my HSP tendency to not just hear emotions but make them my own kicks in. This is one of the contributing factors to the problem of burnout in therapists and other helping professionals, especially when proper self-care is not in place.

Let’s take a closer look at why many HSPs absorb the feelings of others, and how they can stop being so exhausted by it.

(Not familiar with highly sensitive people? Check out this complete guide.)

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 — it’s like we can just “sense” emotion. 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 conflict so much: We can sense it coming and experience the feelings of the other person as well as our own.

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 HSPs, the experience is much more intense.

As a result, we may find ourselves feeling sad, irritable, or lethargic. When this starts, it’s often due to one of two things: Either we are picking up on the emotion of the other person and making it our own, or we have already taken on this burden of emotion and our brain is telling us it’s tired of carrying someone else’s weight.

The Surprising Power of Priorities

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 emotionally connected to my clients in order to foster change.

In sessions, my own 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 level of exhaustion and anxiety.

At the same time, my own ability to emotionally regulate myself started slipping. 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 other people. But just like we help others, we can ask for help ourselves. After all, we can’t effectively help if our own emotional luggage is weighed down by that of others.

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.

Why HSPs Need Healthy Boundaries

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 these kinds of boundaries, since we work directly with people. Saying no is incredibly hard, especially when, as HSPs, we sense the emotions of our clients.

The same goes in our personal relationships. When HSPs take care of friends and family, it’s hard to shut off that emotional absorption. We have a duty to listen and help, but we 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 it can be immensely rewarding. There’s a relief that comes with putting a time limit on our help, to giving ourselves 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 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, to listen to my body and mind when it’s asking for a day off, has been instrumental in sustaining me — and is something all HSPs will benefit from embracing.

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