If you've been called "too sensitive," or "too much" by the people in your life, join the club. There's a chance, like me, you're an empath or Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). People often used to tell me I was being "dramatic", and that I shouldn't take things so personally. The reality is that I was being dramatic, and I was taking things too personally. I had this incredible capacity to pick up on everyone's emotions and feel very deeply, but I didn't have a clue what to do with it. As a consequence, I was constantly hurt, overwhelmed and exhausted. It also meant I sometimes hurt others because I didn't understand what I was dealing with.
Through practice, research and a lot of coaching, I was able to harness my ability to perceive and feel. Now I relate to my high-sensitivity as a superpower, and with that power comes great responsibility. These are the 5 principles I live by as an empath that make my life and the lives of the people around me much happier:
1. Respect People's Emotional Privacy - Just because you can pick up on what people are feeling doesn't mean you need to reflect that back to them, or probe further. Unless you have someone's consent to explore their emotions with them, it's important to respect their boundaries. If they want to discuss something with you, they will!
I understand it can be really difficult to keep your perceptions to yourself. It's kind of like having a crystal ball where you can see a person's internal world. It's often very tempting to tell them what you see! While you might want to know what someone sees inside you, that doesn't mean everyone feels that way. Always ask. You could say something like "I'm picking up on some emotions from you, would it be OK if we talked about it?" If they say yes, great! If they say no, drop it. If you don't have their consent, your ability to see could be a violation, and feel quite intrusive.
2. Accept Responsibility For Your Feelings - You feel deeply--both your own feelings and other peoples'. This makes your ability to empathize incredibly powerful. It can also make things difficult when challenging emotions like fear, sadness and anger are in play. If you feel hurt after an interaction, it's important to remember that your hurt feelings are your hurt feelings. It's OK to feel deeply, it's just not OK to use your sensitivity as a weapon and make it the other person's problem.
It is easy to blame others, and slap labels like "narcissist" or "toxic" on them, but highly sensitive people tend to lean on this too much. Just because your feelings are hurt doesn't mean the other person is toxic.
This is not to suggest that you should continue engaging with hurtful people! It's vitally important to set and respect your own boundaries, and let people know what's acceptable to you. If someone is trying to hurt you or is unwilling to respect your boundaries, distance yourself as quickly as you can.
Taking responsibility for your feelings also means honoring your feelings as valid. It doesn't necessarily mean your feelings are the ultimate Truth of the Universe, but they are true for you right now. Stepping over them, or shoving them down doesn't serve you. If interactions with someone continue to leave you feeling unsettled, drained or upset, that's valuable information.
3. Trust Your Instincts,They're Probably Right - For empaths our intuition is our North Star. We pick up on subtle things that other people don't, and if we have a gut instinct, it's usually right. The challenge is that we're often trained to doubt ourselves. We want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but 8 times out of 10 (or more) our initial instincts are accurate.
I personally believe in second chances. I also take full responsibility for giving someone a second chance if my gut tells me something is off. If they prove untrustworthy a second time, that's on me, and I get to choose if I want to continue to engage with that person. Sometimes I do (usually in a different role), and sometimes I don't. That doesn't mean the other person is bad, it just means they're not a fit for me. This lesson has taken me the longest to learn of all. I've given 8th or 9th chances while still acting like I was the victim. It wasn't a cute look on me.
4. Get Plenty of Alone Time - If you're an empath, you NEED alone time. It is the best way to recharge your batteries, and get fully in touch with yourself. While it is possible to build up energetic boundaries over time, until you get there it can be very difficult to tell exactly what you want and need when you're around other people with wants and needs. Even after you've mastered the art of holding your own around others, alone time is still the most replenishing, centering time for a highly sensitive person. If you can spend your alone time in nature or with animals, you will feel even more refreshed!
While I recommend taking entire days to be by yourself, I realize that isn't always realistic for everyone. Even 10 minutes alone can make a difference--just make sure not to pick up your phone during that short time! Even scrolling on Instagram can have similar effects as socialization for an emotional sponge, so take that time to be with yourself and with your own feelings.
5. Learn to Tell the Difference Between What's Yours and What Isn't - This skill takes time and practice. If we are around others, their feelings can feel just as real to us as our own. Just because it feels the same however, doesn't mean it is the same. When we take others people's problem on as our own, we end up feeling like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. It is, quite simply, exhausting.
Staying curious about your experience can really help when you're trying to figure out where your feelings are coming from. Does it make sense that you're feeling this way right now? If so, the feelings might be yours. If there's no explanation for your feelings, they might not belong to you. If a feeling comes out of the blue, bring gentle curiosity to it, and listen to your intuition. You likely know more than you think you do!
It can also be helpful to take some notes about your experiences to look for patterns. Do you always feel sad after hanging out with a certain person for no explainable reason? You might be feeling their sadness. Do you feel very anxious for no reason every time you go to a specific place? It could be that you're picking up on the energy from the environment. When I lived in LA this used to happen to me every time I went on Hollywood Blvd near Vine. Nothing bad ever happened to me there, so at first I didn't understand it. After a while I realized I was picking up on residual energy from countless people in that area, and it made me feel very anxious and uneasy. Noticing these patterns can be a game changer!
Please note that if sadness or fear come up for you consistently without explanation, it could be a sign of depression or generalized anxiety disorder, so make sure to talk to a mental health professional to rule out an underlying condition.
If you have other principles that you've learned in your own experience I'd love to hear them in the comments below!