I never considered the intensity of absorbing my partner’s stress — until I found my HSP senses depleted to the point of a sink overflowing with water.
I had met my husband, a full-time firefighter in New York City, at a time when I thought people in uniform were saviors. Of course, they had their own problems (who doesn’t?), but ultimately it was their line of work that had convinced me that I, a highly sensitive person (HSP) from a divorced upbringing, could be “saved.” In a way, this turned out to be true. But, mainly, what I found was an incredible shift in perspective.
Deep Affects: All the Feels
I never considered the intensity of absorbing my partner’s emotions — and stress — until it began to hijack our dinner conversations. At first, it was exciting (however jarring) to hear of the high-stake situations at his job in all its wake-serve-save glory, like the unpredictability of raging fires and the uncertainty of coming out unscathed. That is, until I found my overly heightened senses depleted to the point of a sink filled with dishes for sheer need to lie down.
What my husband didn’t realize was that I not only heard his words, which were drenched in detail and emotion, but envisioned the scene as it was unfolding to me. I was also feeling, smelling, and even tasting the details (oh hello, olfactory senses, my dear HSP friend!).
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HSPs and the Emotional Contagion
Emotional contagion is how people copy emotions and behaviors from what they observe whether they are conscious of it or not. In this research, “The Study of Emotional Contagion From the Perspective of Interpersonal Relationships,” it was revealed that spouses deeply affect one another’s moods and mental health. In other words, the absorption of stress and emotions between partners was significantly stronger than that of acquaintances. For an HSP, that absorption could easily translate into emotional overload and oversaturation.
The Conundrum: So Whose Stress Is It?
Relationships are fickle creatures all their own. As a sensitive soul in one, it could sometimes be hard to discern which emotions are yours or that of your loved one. However, according to the findings of another relevant study, “hierarchical regression analyses revealed that the spouse’s race, health, care-giving appraisal, self-efficacy, conflict with other family members regarding their partner, and their partner’s depressive symptoms significantly predicted spouse depression.” So, in short, a mood, feeling, or state of mind, like depression, can “spread” from one partner to the other. And depression in either partner tends to decrease marital satisfaction in both partners, research has found.
Similarly, other research suggests that your partner’s personality traits can affect your well-being, as well as the caregiving spouse’s well-being. So, sensitive person or not, it’s important to be mindful of this so that neither one of you is too greatly impacted by the other’s stress and emotions.
Like many HSPs, I am an empath who’d fixate on my partner’s wants and needs as a way to reduce his stress. And, because the vibe of a room really matters to empaths, I carefully curated home experiences where he’d feel safe and comfortable when off the clock. This included playing his favorite music, making his favorite meals, and even curating the shows we’d watch on television.
But what I’d found, despite these efforts, was that this was grossly undermining my own wants and needs, my own joy. Over time, the lack of reciprocation, or at the very least, the awareness of this neglect, could no longer be ignored. I knew something had to change…
How to Stop Making Your Partner’s Stress Your Stress
After years of mislabeling and mismedicating myself to find out what was “wrong” with me — Maybe I’m just anxious, depressed, or experiencing trauma/PTSD by proxy — I finally sought out Dr. Elaine Aron’s body of work, including her book, for guidance.
For instance, before this, I couldn’t comprehend why I felt a deep void when it came to giving and receiving in my relationship until I read Dr. Aron’s blog regarding HSPs and love. Her various posts helped me compile some real steps for taking action in harnessing my feelings, identifying when it was another person’s issue, and how to move forward.
Please keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules here, as we HSPs are all unique with varying needs. So use this list as a menu, of sorts, and pick ‘n’ choose what suits you.
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.
Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.
1. Have a clear picture of who you are — and to be able to communicate that view of yourself if necessary.
Establishing this personal inner work is important when deciphering your emotions from that of others. This can be done through various coping mechanisms, such as journaling, getting quiet and meditating, and/or through therapy.
2. After an episode where you’ve found yourself absorbing your partner’s stress, take a break in another room.
Go anywhere (even if it’s the bathroom). There, you can focus on breathing in and out slowly for a few minutes to recenter yourself, peek in the mirror and, quite literally, see that you’re okay. Then, tell yourself (out loud!) that you’re okay, and enjoy the silence after the sensory dump you just experienced.
3. If you simply cannot shake the overload, take care of yourself.
Don’t overprotect, be a doormat, or become secretly resentful of your partner. Instead, thank them for sharing their world with you, then excuse yourself for a little bit. You may need a change of scenery by getting out in nature and taking a walk or going on a bike ride. Or, take a bubble bath or have a nap. Any and all of these are wondrous self-care activities for HSPs and are perfectly acceptable, and there are many others you can try, as well.
4. Establish boundaries — for yourself and your partner.
Whether you create boundaries for yourself, or along with your partner, setting these parameters can be helpful with reducing the intake of stress. Otherwise, you’ll feel emotionally “flooded” more often than not.
For example, I established a boundary for myself where I would ask/invite certain topics into dinner conversations only when I felt mentally prepared. For example, if I myself had a ruffled day, then that day was not the one to engage in additional hard conversations.
I also made it a point to ask my husband about his work a couple times a week instead of daily. With some creativity, I steered the dialogue away from stress-inducers and toward a lighter, more engaging chit-chat between us based on our interests (camping, hiking, restaurants we haven’t been to in a while, and so on).
The Revelation: Acknowledgment Equals Relief
Once this truth, that I was absorbing my partner’s stress and mistakenly identifying it as my own, revealed its messy (yet beautiful) self to me, I felt a sudden sense of relief. I no longer had to adopt that wake-serve-save mantra — because it was never mine to own. It was my adaptation of what was happily serving someone else.
I have a deep admiration for people who commit their whole loving selves to servicing the community, whether locally or abroad. I myself am an educator in the public school system, pre- and post-COVID-19. That said, there are many significant others who desperately try to provide a safe space for their partners — yet to no avail.
If you are a highly sensitive person who absorbs your partner’s stress — regardless of their profession — I hope you find refuge in that you are not alone; many of us do it. The key is to push past the guilt and recognize what isn’t yours. And, mostly, accept what you can change, but acknowledge what you cannot. It’s the only way to self-preservation.
You might like:
- How to Actually Set Better Boundaries — the HSP Way
- Why Highly Sensitive People Absorb Other People’s Emotions
- This Is How It Feels to Be Emotionally ‘Flooded’
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