There are 3 different ways that HSPs absorb people’s emotions. Here’s how to control it, and feel your own feelings instead.
Some days, I find myself feeling sad without rhyme or reason. My day might have been fun, productive, or even filled with reasons to celebrate. Yet, I’d be sitting on my couch sulking, whining, even crying. It was confusing to say the least.
Once, a friend asked me where in my body I felt it most. “It’s all over,” I said. “Like how you feel after a long journey or strenuous exercise — almost like I’m tired.” That’s when it struck me: Perhaps I was tired. In retrospect, I realized that often what I called sadness referred to the exhaustion I experienced at the end of the day, the beginning of an illness or while burnt out with work. I mistook a physical sensation for an emotion.
Other times, the emotions I experience come from outside of me. I might have spoken to someone who was sad, and after listening and empathizing, I made their sadness my own. Or I might have watched a movie filled with loss and tragedy or listened to a song with minor chords. I might even be responding to the moodiness of the weather. In these cases, the melancholy I feel — which derails my day and sometimes spills over to the next — is not mine.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), you might also absorb emotions. Maybe you soak up your partner’s stress. Maybe you cry when a friend suffers a loss. Maybe you’re bummed out by watching the news, or maybe thrillers and horror movies leave you scared and anxious for days. You’re experiencing this because of how empathetic you are.
Undoubtedly, our empathy is wonderful. It helps us understand others, moves us to action and enhances and deepens our interaction with people. However, sometimes the feelings we absorb can get overwhelming and distract us from our own experiences. That’s a problem, because your own emotions and thoughts as an HSP are just as important, if not more so, and they are getting lost.
In this article, I’ll dig into the science behind how we come to embody emotions that aren’t ours, why we need to be careful when we do, and how to guard our mental health as empathetic HSPs.
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The Science of Empathy
The Link Between Empathy and HSPs
Research confirms that HSPs are highly empathetic — more so than the average person. And, although everyone mirrors the emotional states of those around them, it’s been shown that highly sensitive people do so to a much higher degree.
Not surprisingly, there’s been curiosity around why HSPs are so empathetic. One explanation is that our empathy is linked to our perceptiveness and our ability to decipher body language, understand context, notice nuances and read between the lines. This is reflected in a study which looked at the functional MRI scans of the brains of HSPs. When HSPs in the study heard someone else’s story or witnessed their emotions, they showed far more activity than non-HSPs in the parts of the brain involved in processing information, detecting and interpreting emotions, sensing and understanding other people’s intentions, and preparing for action.
The 3 Ways People Absorb Emotions
Scientists have actually identified three separate pathways by which we as human beings can be deeply affected by the emotional experiences of others. We’ll look at three of these to help us understand ourselves better and determine how we can safeguard our mental health:
1. Emotional Contagion
Emotional contagion means that feelings tend to spread from person to person as if they are infectious. It happens almost automatically, to the point that just being in someone’s company shifts your mood. Research on emotional contagion suggests that when we interact with people, we notice their body language and mirror it. For instance, if someone is pouting, you might reflexively make a pouting face too. Then, the muscles in your body that are now pouting send messages back to the brain, which interprets it as unhappiness. Importantly, this pathway does not require you to know the context behind the emotion — emotions are transferred to you just from seeing someone’s expression.
The second pathway for absorbing emotions, known as perspective-taking, involves considering context. Whenever we hear or witness something, we imagine ourselves in that situation and, from our perspective, we think about how we would feel. Even though it’s only happening in our mind, it feels as if we’re living it. The specific emotions you experience from perspective-taking depend on who you are, what you believe and how you think — they stem from your own point of view. Because of this, the emotions you “absorb” may be different from those of the person you absorbed them from.
3. Cognitive Empathy
The third pathway is a bit more logical. Rather than putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and thinking about how we would feel, we understand their point of view and how they are feeling. We reason out what their thoughts, beliefs and emotions might be based on what they say and what we know about them and their situation. This process involves theory of mind and is sometimes called cognitive empathy. With this pathway, you understand the person’s emotions but you don’t necessarily internalize them. For example, you may empathize with a friend who wasn’t able to complete a marathon even if that goal means little to you. Since everyone’s values and interests are different, you might not feel the same way as your friend does — yet you understand how important completing the marathon is for them and you stand in solidarity.
Your Empathy Has No Failsafe
Your empathy, though beautiful, is not failsafe. The emotions you absorb may overwhelm you. You might get so upset or anxious imagining what it would be like to carry other people’s burdens that the weight of those emotions topples you. It might drain your energy and prevent you from moving on with your day. Yet carrying these emotions may not help the people you empathize with. In fact, the emotions you internalize may not even be the emotions that they feel. Have you ever had someone feel sorry for you when you didn’t feel that way about yourself? That person is empathizing with you. Only, they’re feeling emotions that are totally different from yours. You can imagine how unhelpful that can be. In fact, when we empathize this way, people might take offense at how we’re feeling or feel pressured to comfort us.
Some of the emotions we feel may not belong to other people either. If you’re like me, you might have spent a few sleepless nights worrying about the characters in the dramas you follow. It’s even possible that the emotions aren’t human. We sometimes anthropomorphize things, attributing feelings and thoughts to inanimate objects. I once cried looking at a boulder that seemed to be all by itself. It’s fascinating how moved and bothered we HSPs get by the things in our environment. It is profoundly imaginative and can be cathartic. However, it’s also possible that we are involuntarily weighed down by these emotions.
And while ruminating on all these emotions, there’s a good chance that we may leave our own thoughts and emotions around our ordeals and escapades neglected and unprocessed. We may not celebrate our wins, feel our true emotions, or think through our doubts. However, our experiences, thoughts and feelings are important. We need to be attentive to ourselves as well. We can do this by being a little more mindful of the emotions we feel.
5 Ways to Hear Your Own Emotions — Instead of Someone Else’s
1. Ask, “What do I really feel?”
As mentioned earlier, we sometimes mistake our physical sensations for emotions. Our minds and bodies are intricately connected. When one is affected, the other feels it too: physical experiences affect mental health and emotional states affect the body’s function. I like to think of it as us empathizing with our bodies. So, when we experience an emotion, it would be worth our while to check in with our bodies asking questions like “where is that feeling felt?” “Is it a sign of something else?” “Do we need anything — food, water, a few extra layers of clothes, the air-conditioner, or sleep?” and “How can I provide for myself?”
2. Ask, “Why might I be feeling this?”
When we’re feeling a strong emotion, it helps to ask ourselves what’s making us feel that way. The answer might jump out at us. The emotion might be tied to a recent incident. Knowing what’s caused it can help us process our thoughts around it. Other times, we may not be able to figure out why we’re feeling the way we are. This could be an indication that the emotion is not ours.
I occasionally catch myself making up reasons for my emotions. For instance, when I’m feeling angry without anything upsetting having happened, I’d hunt for things that I could be angry at. I’ve come to recognize this as a clue that the emotion I’m experiencing isn’t mine.
3. Ask, “Whose emotions are these?”
If we notice emotions that feel alien to us or incongruous to our experience, we can ask ourselves whose emotions they are. Remembering when our mood shifted and whose emotions we are mirroring can help us pinpoint where and whom we picked the emotion up from. We can, then, let those feelings go if we choose to. If we’re close to the people we are empathizing with, we could also reach out to them and be present with them as they work through their thoughts.
4. Ground yourself in your reality
Recognizing emotions that aren’t ours and letting them go can reduce overwhelm. I imagine it as a fog lifting. It feels lighter and brings clarity. However, letting go of other people’s emotions, can also bring up feelings of emptiness or anxiety. This could be because there’s nothing distracting us from the scary task of reflecting on ourselves. Nevertheless, we need to sift through our own thoughts and emotions because they are important and only we can sort them out. It doesn’t have to be daunting, however. We could begin by grounding ourselves in our current reality. What is going on with us? What do we think and feel about it? Paying attention to ourselves this way, brings to mind things to celebrate as well as things that are bothersome. We can then give them the time and consideration they are due.
5. Curate your space
Finally, we can be deliberate about what we expose ourselves to. There are times when we have no choice but to be in the company of people, things and experiences that sway our mood. Most often, though, we can decide what we surround ourselves with. Our minds are like an art gallery that we are the curators of. We can decide what we fill the space with. We can be intentional about the people we spend time with, the influencers we follow on social media and the amount of time we spend watching the news. We can pick the genres of shows and movies we watch, the music we listen to and the books we read. And if something affects us in ways we don’t like, we can choose not to spend time on them.
The Best Person to Empathize With Is Yourself
We HSPs can be like sponges. We absorb everyone else’s energy, words and emotions and feel heavy and dampened by them. We may internalize other people’s emotions to such an extent that their feelings obscure and replace ours. While our empathy is powerful and helps make the world a kinder place, we mustn’t forget that our thoughts and emotions as individuals are precious too. We need to ensure that we make space for and validate them. As HSPs, we need to hear out and empathize with ourselves too.
You Might Like:
- How I Learned to Stop Absorbing Other People’s Emotions
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Mentally and Emotionally ‘Flooded’
- What Happens When a Highly Sensitive Person Grows Up with Emotional Neglect
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