What Is Emotional Buffering, and Why Do HSPs Do It?

A highly sensitive person who is emotionally buffering

If you’ve ever tried to numb your feelings through something like food, shopping, or alcohol, you’ve experienced emotional buffering.

If you’re a highly sensitive person, you’ve been handed some intense emotional experiences in your life. Somewhere along the way, either outright or through subtle conditioning, you’ve been taught that many of those emotions are unacceptable. So maybe you’ve tried to “cure” your feelings with online shopping, binging on Netflix, overeating, or drinking. I’ve used all of these coping mechanisms countless times. But until a few years ago, what I didn’t know was that they aren’t coping mechanisms.They make up a behavior called emotional buffering.

The Life Coach School (LCS) podcast is where I first learned the concept of emotional buffering. On the podcast, LCS founder/host Brooke Castillo defined it as “using external things to change how we feel emotionally.” It’s taking something like alcohol, television, food — anything really — and using it to numb how you feel. Learning what emotional buffering meant gave me a serious lightbulb moment, because I could suddenly see how often I was doing it in my life… and how little it helped me.

Real-life Examples of Emotional Buffering 

I used to drink to numb my feelings of social anxiety. I would pre-game to keep from feeling even the slightest bit of apprehension before meeting friends at a noisy, crowded bar, my sensitive senses assaulted by unwelcome scents, sounds, flashing lights, and the nonstop energy of all… those… people. I took Xanax that didn’t belong to me because I felt entitled to a sense of calm without having to do anything for it (like stay home). I wanted to not care what people might think of my appearance or personality. I wanted to reject those feelings in myself before anyone else got the chance to reject me. But I didn’t want to do any of the personal development work it would take to change those things at the root. I just took a pill or drank to feel better in the moment.

But the sneakiest part about it? You can use literally anything to buffer your emotions — and we highly sensitive types have many, many emotions. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as alcohol or illegal drug use. The action itself doesn’t matter so much as the reason behind it. For example, devoting yourself to your work seems admirable on the surface… but not as much if you’re killing yourself with 80-hour work weeks to avoid problems you’re having with your partner. Similarly, exercising more seems like a great aspiration… but it’s another matter entirely if you’re trying to yoga your way into feeling happier in your toxic family. Behaviors that start as emotional buffering often develop into more serious issues, like eating disorders and addictions.

Emotional Buffering Never Leads to an Answer

Another way to know you’re emotionally buffering is that whatever buffering behavior you engage in doesn’t actually resolve anything. It’s just a temporary escape from the truth of your lived experience. After you max out your credit card, sleep with another random person, or wake up hungover (again), whatever feeling you’re trying to ignore is still there, waiting to be attended to. You can feel it, and you can’t stand it. You feel anxiety not because you’re anxious, but because you’re resisting all your other feelings. Insecurity, inadequacy, grief, loss, fear: They aren’t soothed by outside means. Only by inside means, and only when you make the effort.

Here’s the thing: Nobody can escape their emotional experience of the world — least of all an HSP. I’ve tried. The lifetime of effort I’ve invested in stuffing down my emotions, suppressing things I didn’t want to feel, and actively ignoring their effect on me is shocking. If you’re like me, you probably learned from a young age that certain emotions are “unacceptable,” like crying or being open about your feelings. But in truth, every emotion is valid. Resisting your emotions is like holding a beach ball underwater. It can be done, but it’s physically and mentally draining. And once your energy is depleted, the beach ball will explode through the water’s surface with a vengeance.

Uncomfortable emotions aren’t easy for anyone, but HSPs feel the discomfort more keenly than most; truly — it’s biology and due to sensitivity genes. Our most challenging quality is that our capacity for feeling is so deep, though it can also be our greatest strength. I believe we HSPs are more adept when it comes to emotional processing because of our immense capacity to feel, not in spite of it. 

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What to Do Instead of Emotional Buffering

So, if you know you’re emotionally buffering and want to stop, the question is: As an HSP, what do you do instead? It comes down to three things:

  • Own what you’re feeling. Take responsibility for your emotional well-being. Because emotions are a choice, we can’t blame others for how we feel. Be honest about the truth of what you’re feeling and why you feel a certain way, even if you think it’s weak (it’s not) or a failure (it’s not). Let yourself feel it. Allow for any feeling that comes up, whether it’s anger, sadness, shame, happiness, you name it. You are human, and it is a completely natural, human experience to feel the full range of human emotion (especially as an HSP).
  • Let go of self-judgment. The only thing worse than letting yourself feel bad is when you feel bad about feeling bad. You’re not wrong or selfish or ungrateful because you aren’t happy all the time. Nobody can be happy all the time, nor should we be. (I mean, can you imagine being happy while getting fired? Or after receiving a serious diagnosis?) Shame has no place in emotional well-being. It holds us back from expressing the truest, most beautiful versions of ourselves.
  • Feel that sh*t. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. We owe it to our emotions to feel them all the way through. Anything less than that will lead to resentment. As Dr. Nicole Lapera, a clinical psychologist, says, “Resentment is a sign you’ve abandoned yourself.” This step is the hardest for me. Every time an unpleasant emotion comes up, it genuinely feels like it’s going to kill me. Like when I read a personal development book that addresses healing past trauma that I resonate with, it’s so hard to let those feelings come to the surface. They’ve been buried a long time. My brain is convinced I won’t survive it. But as hard as the waves crash over me, I always come out the other side.

Fellow HSP, I have faith in you. If I could stop emotionally buffering, so can you. Remember to let that beach ball float to the surface — don’t hold it underwater, which is not natural. Let it bop around with the current, similar to how your emotions will bop around, too. And the current will get more calm, I can assure you of that.

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