For better or worse, highly sensitive people can’t help but absorb others’ emotions.
Something people who know me don’t expect is that I love the music of rapper Kendrick Lamar. One of his early hits, “B****, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” has a line that says, “I can feel your energy from two planets away.”
That part of the song always resonated with me, even if I took it out of context. (It may have been meant as a reference to the idea that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.”) The concept of feeling someone else’s energy even if they are really far away might imply that their energy is very strong.
Or their emotional energy just feels really strong — perhaps to someone who is highly sensitive to other people’s vibes and emotions, like I am. Instead of “I can feel your energy from two planets away,” for me it’s more like, “I do feel your energy from two planets away.”
If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you may not only become overwhelmed when your five physical senses are overloaded, but also absorb other people’s emotions at every turn. You tend to quickly pick up on how other people are feeling when you enter a room, especially if you know them well. And their feelings don’t just whisper to us, they’re loud — very loud.
The Science Behind All the ‘Noise’ We Feel
There is science behind being highly sensitive, and research shows that emotions really do hit HSPs harder.
Yet there is a lot scientists don’t yet fully understand (or agree on) about how human brains work, from mirror neurons to the prefrontal cortex, but we do know that HSPs’ brains function somewhat differently. To put it simply, parts of HSPs’ brains — areas that are responsible for making us aware and process emotions, values, and sensory data — may be more active than non-HSPs’.
Because of all this, HSPs often have vivid dreams, experience beauty deeply, can’t stop thinking about the needs of others, and, yes, can feel someone else’s emotional energy from “two planets away.”
One thing experts seem to agree on is that, highly sensitive person or not, emotions are contagious in a small group, commonly referred to as “emotional contagion.” This might explain the effects of the emotions we “pick up,” both positive and negative. (Thankfully, positivity spreads to us highly sensitive types, too, not only negativity.)
Emotions Are Contagious Even When You’re Not In Person
For me, not only do I feel others’ feelings in person, but also through social media. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy social media, as it’s a great way to keep in touch with people, especially these days.
While some people seem to share everything, others are more reticent. Some people are all about selfies whereas others seem to focus more on current events or sporadically share meaningful experiences. And then there are those who use social media to vent. Through stories or posts, they may share a lot about everything that’s on their mind lately or their life struggles.
Now, I should make it clear, I actually really like most of these friends. If I don’t watch all the Stories or read all the posts, honestly, I feel like less of a good friend. Sometimes, though, I just want to say something about how their extensive sharing about all their difficulties affects sensitive people — like me! — connected to them online.
After I watch or read their post, I feel the negative feelings they’re expressing through their tone, expression, and word choice. In addition, if their struggles are something super common — such as the effects of all the events of 2020, budget and financial concerns, or relational things — it also brings up the emotions that go with any similar issues I have.
I definitely care about what they are going through, but it hits me kind of viscerally and I get mentally and emotionally flooded. I may not be two planets away, but even if I am 1000 miles away, I sure can feel their “energy” — their moods and attitude — like they’re dominating the room.
In my head, I even think things that aren’t very nice sometimes, like, “Don’t you know that almost everyone is going through something like this? Does this have to be shared with all of your friends or followers, even though you don’t know what they’re going through at this moment? Yes, I can feel your feelings — and they’re loud!”
What I do admire, though, is that these people sharing everything on social media are being real: that’s how they feel and how they’re doing, and they’re not afraid to say so. I’m not an advocate of pretending to be OK when you are not. For HSPs, though, it can come across like speakers booming at high volume.
And let’s not forget about the contentious “discussions” people have in the comments section.
Sometimes, it reminds me of road rage — if people are behind a screen or a windshield, the awareness of the emotional impact they could have on others is dulled; they say things online they would not say in person.
Once again, when you deliver all of this in a short moment to a person that easily senses and absorbs other people’s emotions, the impact is even greater.
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How to Deal with Someone’s ‘Loud’ Feelings
To deal with people’s “loud” feelings both in-person and online, I think it’s critical for HSPs to create healthy boundaries. I think awareness is key and that HSPs can gently train their close friends to do something that’s more and more common lately: ask you if you have the capacity for them to vent (before they do it).
Recently, I actually kind of wanted to vent. I tried asking someone close to me, but I knew they were coping with a lot. They implied that another time would be better, and I understood. If you do this as the listener, it might even open up a conversation about what it’s like to be a highly sensitive person.
And when it comes to social media, I’ve learned to cut myself some slack. Maybe I’m not a bad friend if I don’t make it through all dozen of a person’s Stories or their latest posts. Maybe, some days, I need to choose to mute certain accounts or take a break from social media altogether. In fact, when I do the latter, I get to take the time-out that my highly sensitive self so desperately needs.
And if I’m really invested in a certain friendship, I even find kind ways to start a conversation about how their posts may affect others. Those are conversations that take courage and have to happen at the right moment, but HSPs can bring their natural genuineness to them. And, most of the time, the friend is receptive to hearing my thoughts.
You Don’t Have to Shoulder the Burden for Someone Else’s Feelings
As much as we can try to educate our friends, for lack of a better word, about our high sensitivity and how their feelings impact us, the burden shouldn’t all fall on us to set boundaries. It would also help if others understood HSPs better and how to be a good friend to us.
Once, someone close to me was in a trauma treatment program and I attended a meeting with one of the doctors. At the end, I asked him a question related to absorbing some of my loved one’s emotions, day-to-day. (I actually used the word “absorb” because it felt like the best description of what was happening before I even knew that was something HSPs did.)
The doctor answered with something about being independent and boundaries. I’m sure he wasn’t wrong, but it would have also been helpful if he’d acknowledged that some people are just wired to absorb others’ emotions. We can’t help it — we’re predisposed to empathize and be extra sensitive.
As a female, too, I am all too aware that it’s only been a handful of decades since women were deemed “too emotional” to have careers (that were stereotypically male-oriented), vote, and so on. Some women of color have also shared that they are expected to uphold an image of strength, which feels at odds with being naturally sensitive and emotional.
That’s why I think it’s extra important to emphasize here that being an HSP does not mean there is anything “wrong” with your mental health or intellect. Man or woman, it does not mean that you are “too” anything or that you are weak. In fact, we highly sensitive folk have many unique strengths, including high emotional intelligence, creativity, intuitiveness, and much depth of thought.
So HSPs need to be better understood by society at large, starting with those closest to us, both online and off.
Remember the friend I described who shares — erm, overshares — quite a lot on social media? Even though I never told her how “loud” her sharing came across to me sometimes, lately she’s made an effort to share more positivity, good news, and beauty. And I’m pleased to report that I’ve started “catching” those positive feelings from her Instagram more than the negative ones.
When we can find a balance — between the loud negative feelings and the positive ones — it makes all the difference. And, with practice, even the “loud” feelings sound more like a whisper sometimes.
You might like:
- Do You Feel Emotions ‘More’ Than Other People? You’re Not Alone
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’
- 16 Ways to Calm the Heck Down When You’re a Highly Sensitive Overthinker
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