Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person dealing with emotional overload

How I Deal With Emotional Overload as a Highly Sensitive Person

As a therapist who works with highly sensitive people (HSPs) — and a highly sensitive person myself — fellow HSPs often ask me, “How in the world do you do what you do? I could never be a therapist!”

Of course, I know what they’re really asking: “How do you not take on all the emotion of others? How do you empathize so deeply and not get overwhelmed or exhausted?” ​

​I understand their question completely.

Anxiety Used to Run My Life

Twenty years ago, when I learned I was a highly sensitive person, I was just like many HSPs. Being around too many people in noisy environments made me feel overstimulated. My mind spun obsessively with anxious thoughts, and I couldn’t watch the news or certain movies without having my day ruined.​

So, when I was in my early 20s and a mentor suggested I be a therapist, I thought, “Me? How in the world am I suited for that? I’m just trying to find some equilibrium in my own life, let alone help someone else.”

I knew I had the predisposition and natural gifts to be a therapist, but my own struggles with anxiety, shame, and big feelings took up much of my energy. Did I really have anything left to give others? At the same time, my self-esteem had taken a hit because of my sensitivity, and I over-focused on my struggles rather than acknowledging my strengths.

The idea of joining a profession where I invited more emotion into my life seemed crazy.

I Listened to My Intuition Instead of My Anxiety

Beneath the roar of my fear, my intuition whispered something different: This is your calling. You’ll figure it out; just step forward.

Mustering up all my courage, I decided to pursue my degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.

It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. A decade later, I can’t think of a better-fitting job for me. But it wasn’t always easy.

I Needed to See Myself Differently

While my story had a happy ending eventually, I didn’t get there by accident or without effort. In fact, it required a dramatic change in how I viewed myself and my emotions.

To thrive as a highly sensitive person — and therapist — I needed to start by seeing myself differently. Not as a weirdo with too many feelings, but as a valuable soul with a tender heart and depth.

This subtle change in self-perception happened slowly, over time. Little by little, I acknowledged the powerful and unique parts of me, which gave me the confidence to show up as fully myself, rather than as the more socially acceptable version of me I often showed others. Ironically, the more I let my true self be seen, the more I was able to connect with and support others like me.

I began to understand my finely-tuned nervous system and appreciate the gifts it brings. I even began calling myself and other HSPs by a new name: Intuitive Warriors.

But that wasn’t all. The more I began valuing myself and listening to my inner voice, the more I started to understand the specific things I needed to do to survive the “broadcast” of everyone else’s emotions — without running away.

The Power of Self-Care for Highly Sensitive People

As I listened to my inner voice, the changes I needed to make came into focus. Here’s what I learned:

  • I acknowledged my limit. I had to be honest with myself about how many people I could see in a day without burning out. I learned to make choices about my day based on this limit.
  • I needed to prioritize exercise, relationships, and hobbies outside of the office. Exercise, human connection, and enjoyment add goodness to our lives, and without meeting these needs, my mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing suffers.
  • Simple inner practices go a long way. Therapeutic techniques helped me “give back” any emotion that I’d unconsciously absorbed from others. For example, I got in the habit of asking myself, “Is this feeling mine or someone else’s?” — and if it wasn’t mine, I imagined releasing it back to its owner. Likewise, I learned how to use visualization to create boundaries; I particularly like imagining a vacuum cleaner sucking out all the energy I’ve unnecessarily collected throughout the day.
  • I learned ways to detox after a particularly intense day and set boundaries that made sense for me. One of my favorite ways to detox from the energy of others is to take a bath with Himalayan sea salt. Boundary-setting involves things like not working more than my capacity and making sure I get the rest I need to recharge.
  • I began to redirect my thoughts when they became obsessive and unhelpful. It’s okay to have feelings, even negative ones, but the way we think about them and narrate our inner experience is a big part of how much those feelings dominate our lives.

What I thought was an unsustainable profession for me turned out to be my dream job — but only because I acknowledged my needs and learned the skills to take care of them. This self-care habit was essential to living my best, happiest life as a highly sensitive person.

All Highly Sensitive People Can Learn Self-Care

I soon understood that what I was learning was applicable to all highly sensitive people. We are at our best when we’re firm about honoring the way that we’re wired — even if it means making adjustments to our lives. These same habits also support us in environments that bring us meaning and joy, and help keep us from burning out of those environments because of exhaustion or overwhelm.

Learning to do that can take time. But If you’d like to learn, here are some of my favorite resources:

It’s true that our sensitive nervous system creates some limitations that we can’t ignore. And leaving the room or doing less is one way to respond to those needs. But it’s not the only way. It’s equally true that many of our challenges can be mediated with the right tools, and we don’t always have to leave an environment in order to get our needs met.

Because we’re not only highly sensitive. We’re also highly resilient beings with a profound potential when we have the right support.

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