Highly Sensitive Refuge

How I Learned to Let Go of Other People’s Emotions

“You realize you don’t have to carry those people’s emotions, right?” My counselor peered at me over the edge of her laptop, her eyebrows slightly raised.

I pulled my feet closer underneath me, twirling my hair around my fingertip. I could feel the weight of the emotions I’d been collecting over the past few weeks. It was as if I were wearing a winter coat in the middle of summer, stifled and buried underneath the heat, but unable to remove it because it was all I knew.

For two months, I’d been wrestling with being at my house. There was tension in the air that lingered no matter what room I was in. Tension that, to me, signaled I wasn’t safe, that at any moment, things might crumble. Tension that came from one specific person, with whom I had butted heads a few months prior.

It was silly, really, just some drama that could have been avoided, but because it wasn’t, I found myself at this crossroads. No matter how hard I tried to create casual conversation or fix things with her, whenever she was in the room, I felt tense and emotionally overwhelmed. Often, just her being in the house would take my great day and completely flip it upside down. I felt the need to fix things; to help her along in her journey, to fight for a friendship that deep down, I didn’t even want.

If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) like me, maybe you can relate.

How Could I Stop Carrying Others’ Emotions?

Slowly, I put my journal and pen down. “But how?” I asked my counselor. “It sounds nice in theory, but my whole life, I have carried the weight of others’ emotions, feeling what they feel. It’s second nature to me, and I don’t know how to change that, how to distinguish between what I feel and what other people feel.”

I knew my reply was a bit hopeless, but it was the truth. My whole life up to this point, I’d felt like a blank canvas, a space for others to paint and create on, yet I had no control as the artist. I accepted the different colors and the way they painted, letting their strokes shape me into something I am not.

I tell people what they want to hear, I hide my emotions and thoughts in order to appease their vision, and to let them use me as a sounding board. I’m great at giving advice, at listening to others, but not so great at expressing what is deep within my heart.

The result? I feel like a victim to the emotions they express.


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What I Learned

Which is why I started going to counseling. I knew I had to take a step in advocating for myself, and had to start learning how to use my voice that for so long I’d kept quiet.

“I respect how you feel, and I knew it seems frustrating,” my counselor answered. “But before you start telling me this won’t work, let’s just lay out a map of ways that you can start to take control over these things. I want you to understand that just because people feel something doesn’t mean you have to feel it — you have the power to choose something differently.”

I sighed deeply, picking my pen and paper back up. I knew that the next things she said would be important, and I would want to record them for later.

Here’s my counselor’s advice. I hope it helps you, too:

  • When you go into a room, and you immediately feel your mood shift, I want you to start by taking a moment to pause and ask yourself why you are feeling what you are feeling.
  • Then I want you to ask yourself if you felt that way before or after being around the person (or people) there.
  • In that moment, I want you to tell yourself that those are not your emotions — just because you sense the tension or the emotions present doesn’t mean you have to feel them.
  • You have the ability to tell yourself that you will not receive them or wear them as part of your identity, that what that person is dealing with isn’t your responsibility.
  • If needed, take a moment and go to your room or a bathroom (or anywhere you have space to breathe for a second). Use that time to recompose yourself and allow yourself to recognize which emotions are yours and which ones aren’t.
  • Remember that you are not responsible for fixing the brokenness in other people, even if you sense their deep internal struggle or emotional conflict. That’s on them, not on you. You can recognize it, and you can offer advice or help if need be, but it isn’t your job to sort through their emotions.
  • When you know you’re going to be around someone who is emotionally draining, make sure you take some time beforehand to mentally prepare yourself, so you know what you are feeling prior to that.

“Most importantly, I need you to remember that you are empowered to choose what you feel, and you are able to communicate that clearly. Set the necessary boundaries that you need in order to thrive,” my counselor reminded me. “Your job is not to carry their emotions for them, rather to make sure you are protecting yourself and creating space to handle your own emotions.”

HSP, You’re Not Alone

I left my counseling session that night with a lot to think about. Over the course of the next few weeks, I started to apply what she said, as well as to dive deeper into what it means to be an empath and HSP. (You can learn more about being an empath here, and a highly sensitive person here.)

Being an empath and HSP are connected, and it’s beautiful to finally have the tools to discover who I am and what makes me unique. It’s empowering to discover that I have a rare ability to feel what other people feel and to help others in unique and compassionate ways — without allowing others to take advantage of that.

HSP, I want you to know that you’re not alone, that you are more than what people may have told you. You aren’t made to be a canvas for others to create on and define. You are made to be your own unique creation, to express yourself freely, and to be a work of art for others to admire.

Don’t get tangled up in the hopelessness of it all; and most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. For me, going to counseling has been the best thing I have ever done because it has provided somebody in my life who can help me in the journey of advocating for myself. I want that for you, too.

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