In the fall of 2018, I found myself sitting in yet another meeting I did not want to be in. I have been the principal at a small charter school for three years and, since it’s a small school, I wear many hats — including something called data management technician. This position requires a biannual meeting, and since it ultimately brings in money for the school, it’s important that I attend.
Unfortunately, the other people at this meeting are never happy to be there.
In fact, the majority of them genuinely hate their jobs. (They weren’t afraid to say this outright; there was constant complaining and griping going on, and half the time, they weren’t even paying attention. This continued at every. Single. Meeting.)
This time, all that negativity became too much. I went to my car to have lunch, in order to have some peace and quiet, but I felt the anxiety tightening in my chest and tears filling my eyes.
I was fine this morning, I kept thinking to myself. Why am I so stressed out now?
I completely broke down. I ended up making an emergency call to a supervisor for support, and she assured me that things were going well, that I wasn’t the only one running into problems, and that I could get help if I needed it. She was right, of course, so again, I had to ask myself, why was I so on edge?
Only months later, when I learned about being a highly sensitive person, did I realize what happened: I was overwhelmed by everyone else’s negative emotions.
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Why HSPs Absorb Other People’s Negativity
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) feel and process external and internal stimuli deeper than non-HSPs. External stimuli can include sensory experiences, such as smells, sounds, bright lights, and textures, as well as other people’s emotions and energy. But it can also include internal stimuli, like emotions. (You can learn more about what it means to be an HSP here.)
Unfortunately, when someone around us is experiencing negative emotions, HSPs will take that in, and it may sit with us for much longer than it would non-HSPs. We process it, think about it, feel it, mull it over… and over… and over — and who on earth wants to feel negative emotions for that long?
Dealing with it can be exhausting and draining, more so since our systems are naturally on high alert just by living in the world. Even our normal day-to-day lives can easily be overstimulating, so when we add negative emotions to the mix, it’s a lot to handle.
That means that once we’ve been around negative energy and emotions, we have to cleanse our systems of it — quickly, before someone else comes around and dumps more onto us.
6 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Others’ Negative Emotions
If I was going to survive another one of those meetings, I knew I was going to have to come prepared. Here are six strategies I learned to protect myself from negative emotions and cleanse them out once they’re there.
1. Recognize what’s influencing you.
I went through four other meetings over the years where I did not know why my anxiety skyrocketed the moment I walked in. Now I do. I’m learning to better see where my emotions end, and someone else’s begin. Sometimes you can’t miss it — sometimes a person comes at you with incredibly strong negative energy. But sometimes it’s subtle. “Know thyself” has never been truer: If you know where your emotions are at the beginning of the day and check in regularly with yourself, you’ll be able to identify when an emotion doesn’t line up with where it should be.
That’s a good indication it belongs to someone else — take a look around and see if you can identify where it is coming from.
2. Mentally prepare yourself.
If you know you’ll be put in a situation with negative emotions (as I know I will be), plan time beforehand to relax and balance yourself. I personally use journaling, meditation, and visualization to help with this.
This is also a good time to…
3. Create a “white light” bubble or boundary.
My first year as a principal, I had a staff member who was constantly critical. Every time I saw her, all I got was a complaint. It wore me down to the point that I didn’t want to go to work.
Somewhere I heard of the idea of forming a bubble of white light around you that nothing else can enter. So I would imagine that protective light — that was my space, my emotions, and I was not going to allow my staff member’s negativity to influence me.
It may just be a mental trick, but it worked! I do have to be intentional about this one: It’s hard to come up with it on the spot (for me at least — at the moment), and sometimes the bubble is small, and I need to expand it. But it’s okay to adapt it as needed, and recognize that some days you’ll hit your limit sooner than others, and that it’s okay if your bubble needs to be bigger.
4. Get away when you can.
I instinctively knew I needed to take breaks away from everyone else at that meeting. I also knew that I needed to leave as soon as it was reasonably allowed. In social situations, if there are negative feelings flying around, make it a point to leave as soon as you can — or, at a work function, take breaks apart from the group. Your energy and boundaries are important, and you need to honor them.
5. In one-on-one situations, give yourself permission to set a verbal / physical boundary.
I’ve done it before — someone starts coming at me with the negative energy, and I politely, but firmly, make it clear that I am not open to discussion at that time. I might deflect, or get them busy with something else, or let them know I will need to look into whatever it is they asked for.
A physical boundary helps: I share an office, which also triples as the copy room. I have stepped behind my desk before and purposely opened my laptop to make it clear that I was getting ready to work on something. But often, just words are enough. I’m getting better at outright telling someone, “No, I do not have a minute right now.”
Depending on the person, I do try to go back at a later time and talk with them — but only once I’ve been able to prepare myself for it. Sometimes I need to make that happen fast, especially if it is in the school setting and is with a parent or teacher.
6. Take the time to recover — or schedule it in.
Seriously. This is important. Other people’s negative emotions will be out there, and won’t always be planned. They will take their toll no matter what. I have blocked out afternoons on my calendar that say “DO NOTHING” or “MAKE NO PLANS.” I also block out a half hour every day (if I can; if not, then most days) that says “breathe” on my daily schedule. That is my downtime — that is my “me” time to re-center, and re-focus on what is me and not taken on from someone else.
Right now, that next meeting is coming up, and on my schedule there is a half hour leading up to it that says “prepare” and a half hour after that says “process and recover.” The other 100 people may be unhappy, but I’m going in prepared, and hopefully it will be a better experience than the last time.
And you never know, maybe that white light will rub off on someone there.