There you are, just going through your day, minding your own business, when suddenly, out of nowhere – you have all the feelings.
All of them. All jumbled together.
You’re not sure what started it. Was it the way the barista drew a tiny bird on the top of your decaf latte that was just so beautiful, combined with the contrite smile she gave you as she handed you the steaming mug? Was it strange man you dodged outside who was talking to an invisible friend and seemed determined to loop you into the conversation? Was it because your mother called last night and you’ve been feeling off ever since?
To all of the things, probably, yes.
A key component to high sensitivity is being emotionally responsive, or possessing mad skills in empathy. This means that we naturally feel emotions – both the good and the bad – much more deeply than your average Jane. There are benefits to this – we tend to be great caregivers, friends, guides, counselors and artists. There are also disadvantages – we can feel emotionally overwhelmed and react poorly to what we’re feeling if we don’t have good tools for managing everything that we feel.
In The Australian Journal of Psychology, a study was conducted asking whether sensory-processing sensitivity and negative affect were aided by emotional regulation. One important finding of the study showed that HSP’s are more likely than others to experience so-called “negative” emotions – depression, anxiety or stress – and get stuck in patterns that keep us feeling this way.
So these things that you’re feeling as a highly sensitive person? You’re not alone. We’re in this together.
That’s the science.
From an energy medicine perspective, being highly sensitive means that you tend to have a more porous energy field or aura. In my experience, it’s not so much that we have tiny holes in our aura, but more that we spend the majority of our time in more subtle upper chakras. Emotions are just another form of subtle energy – they can move, flow or get stuck. When most of our energy is focused away from our emotional processing center, we spend less time actually processing anything in concrete ways – instead, we become subject to the whims of the feelings themselves. Additionally, this creates a space that leaves us susceptible to taking in outside energies. In fact, whenever we fail to fully occupy the whole of our energy field, we leave ourselves open. Thus, from this perspective, emotional sensitivity is about feeling our own emotions more deeply, and it’s also about our ability to “let in” the emotional energy of others and process it as if it were our own.
In the study talked about above, the researchers described five emotional coping techniques that we can all use to help us regulate our emotions. What they found in their research was that HSP’s tend to use these methods less than other people. The five coping strategies are:
- Accept your feelings
- Don’t be ashamed of them
- Believe that you can cope as well as others do
- Trust that your bad feelings will not last long
- Assume there’s hope – you can do something about your bad feelings eventually
Why we don’t use the five coping strategies more was speculated upon – maybe we just feel too deeply in order for them to work, maybe we believe we simply cannot change our feelings, maybe we never learned emotional regulation as a child or had a traumatic upbringing that left us without good coping strategies.
Researchers found that the biggest stumbling block we had in using these five techniques was that we simply feel our negative emotions so much more deeply than others. We are more aware of them, or feel like we can’t shake them. They become so real to us, even though emotions are just energy passing through. In fact, they become so real that I find we identify ourself with our emotion – we believe that we are the sadness, or the stress, or the anxiety and have a difficult time staying differentiated from our experience.
How Yoga Philosophy Tackles Emotional Coping
Yoga philosophy is very clear that we humans are dualistic in nature (well, it claims that everything is dualistic, and we are simply part of the natural order of things). It discerns between our purusha – the unchanging part of us that remains calm even in the storm – and prakriti – everything that is changable (everything else). You can think of purusha as your highest consciousness or your spirit. This is the place you touch in on when you meditate deeply and experience great peace. This is the part of you that whispers the path ahead. It is subtle, wise, and unwavering. Our purusha is our true nature – we are spirit.
Then there is our prakriti, and this is everything about us that changes – our body, our preferences, beliefs, circumstances and yes – our emotions. These things will always change because it is their very nature to change.
When we confuse our prakriti for our purusha, we will suffer.
In other words, when we believe that the core of who we are is a part of us that is, by it’s very nature, changeable, and then that part of us changes – we will suffer.
Here’s an example a teacher of mine once gave: Let’s say I love my car. It’s a Prius, it’s blue, and I just think it’s the greatest car on earth. I feel so great because I’m using less gas, I can jet around the city with my low mpg’s, and life is awesome. My Prius is a statement about who I am. It is part of my identity.
So what happens, then, when my Prius breaks down? Or is stolen? Or gets beat up in an accident?
As my teacher said, “If I’ve tied my identity to that car, I’m fucked.”
Or, more elequently, when I attach the core of who I am – my value – to a part of my prakriti (something that changes), and then it changes, I will feel a great sense of loss.
Emotions are part of our prakriti – they are changeable things that we experience, they are not who we are. So if we attach our sense of identity to our feelings, and our feelings are giving us a negative experience, we can begin to believe that we are the negative experience.
This is dangerous. This is exactly how we get caught in a flooded sea of feeling and can’t seem to swim our way out.
We often do this even in how we speak about emotions. We say, “I am so sad,” which inherently links the core of who I am to how I’m feeling. Instead, we could say, “I am feeling sad today.” Even this language creates separation between who I am and how I’m feeling.
The coping strategies above are a good place to start. My all-time favorite book for coping with difficult emotions is by Miriam Greenspan and is called, Healing Through the Dark Emotions. I talk about her strategies a bit more in this article.
Who’s Emotion Is This Anyway?
When I ask HSP’s what they struggle with most, emotional regulation is often high on the list. But a related and close runner up is the struggle to discern which emotions are theirs and which they are picking up from other people.
Because we feel things so deeply, the distinction is not always (or even often) clear. While most people know that someone else’s sadness made them feel sad for a while, or were luckily enough to be gathered up for a few moments in a friend’s joy, those experiences lend themselves more to basic empathy rather than the absorption of someone else’s emotional energy.
Above, we talked about the energy body. Emotions are just another form of energy that move and flow within the body and the energy field. Emotional energy needs to flow – that’s part of it’s purpose – and will flow to the place of least resistance. So if your friend is excitedly spewing her happiness, that emotional energy might overflow from her energy space into yours. But here’s the thing – while she experienced that emotion as pure joy and happiness in her body, her energy in your body is foreign – it doesn’t belong to you. Plus, you process everything more deeply. So you might not experience her happiness as happiness. It might just feel . . . loud. Or icky. Or strange. Or confusing.
Someone else’s emotional energy in your body may not have the same affect that it has in their own body.
The quickest way to discern between your own emotion and the emotions of others is to fully occupy and own your personal energy space. You do this by grounding your energy fully in your body and releasing the energy of others. There are many techniques to do this – you can start by grounding. If you’ve signed up for my weekly Sensitive Missives, you can use the meditation you received as a thank you. (Aren’t signed up? Do that here!)
On a more dense or practical level, you can work through the emotional coping strategies listed above or work through the exercises in Miriam Greenspan’s book. You can also choose an activity that is enjoyable to you that brings you back to yourself. For example, when I’m feeling like an emotional stew, I often go for a walk in the woods. I imagine offering up any foreign energy to the ground with each step I take, and set the intention to get clear by the time my walk is over. Then I simple look around and enjoy the natural scenery – it’s like a moving meditation. It allows me to be the witness to everything that I’m feeling, rather than attaching myself and my identity to those feelings.
Doing something you enjoy that helps you detach yourself from your emotional experience – even, and especially, when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed – can help bring you back to yourself, clear your energy field, and help you feel more like you again.
This is a big subject, and there is more to learn.
Developing discernment between your own emotions and the emotions of others is often a long journey. It takes time, tools and practice in order to become good at it. I teach a variety of techniques through my courses. If you are still struggling with this and need a place to start, do that here.