My husband walked in the door, and I could instantly feel it. Sadness. Exhaustion. He had had a long, hard day at work. And while I tried to put on a smile and be uplifting for him, I could feel my emotional state slipping too. Swiftly and uninvited, I felt despair — even though I’d actually had a good day.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I’ve felt others’ emotions deeply for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, I’d come home worked up and angry after hanging with a friend who was mad at their parents. Or I could tell when a loved one was having a hard time, even if they didn’t say a thing. I can often walk into a room/office/store and pick up on the emotions of those in it.
And it happens whether I want it or not.
I can’t “not feel” people’s emotions as an HSP.
People want me to be able to. They tell me to control my emotions. They say I’m overreacting. And, yes, sometimes it’s inconvenient. But when you’re highly sensitive to your environment, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and silencing everything. As an HSP, I’m wired a little differently — and that comes with unique challenges (as well as strengths).
Here’s a look at what it’s like to sense emotions, why it happens, and how to stop it from overwhelming you.
Join the HSP revolution. One email, every Friday. Posts that heal, transform, and make you feel understood. Subscribe here.
What It Feels Like to ‘Feel’ Everything
HSPs are more in tune with the subtleties in other people. We’re highly receptive to tones of voice, hand gestures, facial expressions, or even how someone moves differently based on their mental state. And we can soak up others’ emotions like a sponge.
This can be tiring. I tend to prefer a night in versus parties, and I think it’s mainly because I know I can’t avoid others’ emotions when I’m out. When someone is sad, I often feel like I’ve climbed into their head and grasped the core of their suffering. I don’t know the story, but I know something is “off” — and I begin to feel uneasy. Sometimes I won’t realize that uneasiness comes from someone else instead of my own experience.
Of course, there’s a tempting solution: I could simply avoid being around other people (or going on the internet, or texting, or taking phone calls). But that’s obviously not healthy or realistic all the time. So, it’s better for me to accept that I will likely feel a lot when I see friends or family. It’s just part of my experience.
Yes, Absorbing Emotions Is in Your Genes
Many highly sensitive people and empaths describe their experience in almost spiritual terms. This is validating because it’s often true to our experience; it feels like something intangible is happening to us.
At the same time, make no mistake: There’s also a scientific basis for it.
There are at least three sets of genes that can contribute to being a highly sensitive person. One of those genes basically enhances emotional responses to what we sense and experience — in ourselves and from others.
Even the formal name for high sensitivity — sensory processing sensitivity or SPS — refers in part to this. SPS means someone’s brain processes physical and emotional stimuli more deeply. We look at the same amount of social and emotional “data” that’s out there for everyone else to see, but we process every bit of it.
In other words, sensing others’ emotions is a part of being highly sensitive, which means it’s a part of me. If I could completely “turn off” sensing those emotions, I’d have to turn off a core part of who I am.
Sensing Emotions Is Hard, But It’s Something to Be Proud Of
As much as feeling other people’s emotions can be exhausting, I wouldn’t change it for two main reasons:
- It’s made me more empathetic to what other people go through, and
- It’s given me an open-minded view of the world.
Being empathetic has allowed me to deeply connect with loved ones who needed someone to listen to them. People have generally felt comfortable opening up to me, and I think it’s because I pick up on their joy or suffering easily.
But I wasn’t always proud of it. For the first 20+ years of my life, I struggled with how much I would feel. I thought not being able to turn it off was a weakness to be fixed. And it took me a long time to learn how to mange it without getting overwhelmed.
Here are five ways I’ve learned to manage it.
5 Ways to Not Collapse Under Other People’s Emotions
1. Acknowledge your sensitivity is part of you.
Since I can’t “turn off” sensing what others are feeling, I begin with acceptance instead. I’ve spent many years of my life trying to grow a tougher skin and blaming myself for being so sensitive. Today, I realize that isn’t the answer.
I am highly sensitive, I always have been, and that part of me isn’t changing. It’s a part of who you are too, and it allows you and me to interact with this world in a very unique way.
Instead of trying to fight it, I can live my life in a way that fits my sensitive nature. And I can use that as a way to better care for myself.
2. Explain the emotional connection to loved ones.
My husband knows that I am sensitive to the smallest things. Since we’ve had many conversations about this, he knows not to take it personally if I absorb tough emotions he’s experiencing. (I’ve also made it clear that I do still want him to come to me with his feelings; I just might need some extra time to process them.)
But communication is two-directional, and I have learned not to take how he’s feeling personally either. That’s not always easy, but it helps to remind myself that it’s not about me. If he’s feeling sad and I sense it, for example, I remind myself it could be something he’s going through at work or with a friend or family member. I can feel the sadness with him, but I don’t have to act.
Another technique that helps it to imagine myself mentally “zooming out” from the experience. I pretend I’m viewing the situation as a casual (yet very kind) third observer. It allows me to look at what’s happening without making it too personal.
Then, I can think about what that observer would say about the situation and words of advice they would give. Most of the time, it helps me to recognize the moment isn’t as hard or intense as it feels.
3. Be mindful of emotions that are not yours.
Mindfulness has been incredibly helpful for nurturing my highly sensitive nature. When I feel powerful emotions, from myself or others, I’m prone to reacting immediately. I call this “damage control” because it’s like my mind is trying to fix whatever is making me feel bad — right now!
Instead of reacting to or avoiding how I feel right away, I try to do the following:
- Give the emotions space, letting myself feel them without judgment or shame.
- Remind myself that no emotion lasts forever.
- Ask, “Is this coming from me or from someone else?”
If I realize an emotion has come from someone else, it helps to separate from it and not absorb it as my own.
Mindfulness can be so powerful for HSPs. It takes some practice, but if you can accept what you’re feeling without trying to push it away — just observe it — it’s easier to handle.
4. Have compassion for your sensitive self.
When you absorb others’ emotions, self-compassion is a must. It’s tough carrying the weight of other people’s feelings on top of what’s happening in your own life.
Practice being the most loving, unconditional friend to yourself. Accept that you can’t completely avoid picking up other people’s emotions — but you can recognize that it’s hard sometimes and do what’s necessary to care for yourself.
Here are three ideas to help you practice self-compassion:
- Tell yourself, “Hey, this is hard for me right now.” All humans deal with suffering, so it’s normal if you’re having a hard time processing everything. You’re not wrong for feeling the way you do.
- Give yourself comfort. It might sound silly, but simply giving yourself a gentle hug or stroking your arms can release the same chemicals as when someone else is hugging you. (Asking a friend for a hug, of course, is a darn fine idea, too.)
- Ask yourself what you need. What will help you move through the emotions you’re feeling? Is it something you can give yourself, or do you need to ask something of a friend or loved one?
Even if you can’t give yourself what you need right in the moment, acknowledging that your emotions are hard — and that it’s part of being human — can help reduce suffering.
5. Prioritize your emotional needs.
Because sensitive people are more tuned in to emotions, we can use that heightened awareness to recognize our own emotional needs. Personal needs must come first if we want to show up for others. For me, that often looks like:
- Having some quiet time every day, such as reading a book with a good cup of coffee.
- Talking my feelings out loud to someone I trust or just to myself!
- Saying no to things when I need a break. I’ve learned there’s no shame in declining an invite just because I need time to sit alone on my couch, cuddle with my dogs, and watch a movie.
Sensing Emotions Makes You Valuable
Truthfully, even if I could “turn off” the way I sense other people’s emotions, I wouldn’t do it. Now that I better understand my high sensitivity, I see it as is a gift (albeit sometimes in disguise).
Being an HSP has allowed me to understand others’ views of the world better. And I’m able to be there for loved ones when they need empathy and kindness. I view my dialed-up emotional receptor as a real-world superpower — and if you’re a fellow HSP reading this, I hope you can see it that way too.