The Burden of Being Sensitive
A talent for being extra tuned in to the feelings of others is a double-edged sword, and one of its drawbacks is what psychotherapist and educator Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., calls the empath’s dilemma: when carrying around the weight of someone else’s emotions, or energy, gets to be too much. Here, Freed shares personal stories from empath friends (people who feel the emotions of others especially deeply), along with ways all of us—even the less-empathic among us—can recharge in a world that, she notes, too often saps our energy and emotional resources. (You can read much more from Freed on goop here.)
The Empath’s Dilemma
Reflecting on how much energy it takes to navigate the intensity of lovely big cities like New York and Los Angeles, I told my friend Jen about an artist I met in D.C. who said, “I can’t live in the Big Apple anymore. I’m too sensitive, and the city is filled with angels…but it’s also filled with demons.”
“It’s the empath’s dilemma,” Jen said.
Anyone gifted with massive empathy will relate to this dilemma—feeling both deeply, euphorically, and intimately connected to others, and absolutely and devastatingly overwhelmed at times because they are so emotionally in touch. “Carrying each other” has such a profound weight when you are endowed with a great capacity to feel what another is feeling, especially when that other person is in denial of the feeling and it therefore becomes even larger in you.
“If you are someone who reads people like a book, hears the thoughts of others as if they were in your head, and/or picks up on people’s moods, symptoms, and emotions like a scent you can’t shake, then you, as an empath, are exquisitely wired to be of service.”
Empaths vary greatly, but they are often described as highly sensitive and pitied for being “high-maintenance.” If you are someone who reads people like a book, hears the thoughts of others as if they were in your head, and/or picks up on people’s moods, symptoms, and emotions like a scent you can’t shake, then you, as an empath, are exquisitely wired to be of service. You’re also tasked with an immeasurable social responsibility. Learning how to use this aptitude is key. Empaths are not the weaker among us; they are the power source of love itself.
A friend told me of walking into a home filled with unspoken tension. The minute she crossed the threshold, she got a stomachache. It wasn’t until she spoke directly about the difficulties the family was going through that her belly relaxed. The family also reported feeling something like a collective sigh of relief to know that their problems were at last out in the open in a constructive way.
A gifted healer talked about walking into a grocery store to buy some soap. When she approached the checkout counter, she was hit with crippling grief. She looked up and saw that the checkout person looked horribly sad. She asked, “Are you okay?”
The woman replied, “It’s been an awful day…my dad is in the hospital.”
My friend said, “Do you need a hug?” and the woman nodded. They had a moment of epic hugging in the checkout line.
A teacher discussed feeling like her head would explode during faculty meetings where everyone was ostensibly focused on a business agenda. She sensed the real conversation they were suppressing—one where they expressed their underlying frustrations. After these meetings, the teacher invariably had to go on a long run just to expunge the undigested angst.
The Gift of Empathy
Picking up on others’ moods and feelings takes considerable energy, and it requires tremendous skill to know how to be useful and effective, instead of simply succumbing to the tidal waves of feeling. The good news is that the more a person acknowledges their gifts of empathy and responsiveness, the more they can be of service—and set clear boundaries.
A clinician told me about a session she had with a teen who had been cutting her arms for months. As the teen coldly described the ritual of cutting, the therapist’s cheeks became wet with tears. The therapist said, simply and with an open heart, “I feel so sad that you are drawn to hurt yourself this way.” The teen could not push away the innocent clarity of the therapist’s feeling. In response, she dropped into a new place of admitting the deep desolation of her pattern.
What if everyone who felt differently than someone else was met with softness and understanding rather than judgment, defensiveness, or dismissal?
Feeling from the Inside Out
Empathy is not sympathy. It’s not feeling for someone but feeling with someone, allowing yourself to be a conduit for a river of emotion. Even when not required to, empaths feel from the inside out.
An artist I know has a hard time moving through the PR and marketing side of her job, because she has no capacity to make small talk. She sees through the masks and the shiny bravado. She possesses the emotional equivalent of an X-ray machine; she cannot help but strip off the outerwear of the persona. As an actor, she is able to surrender to a role because she has no problem slipping right into that character’s shoes.
When Being around Others Is Intolerable
Empaths love people. They love people so much that it sometimes becomes intolerable for empaths to be around others. In order to refuel and reboot from the incessant tuning in to others, empaths need considerable downtime, without external stimulation, to clear their field.
My young friend Brandon was visiting his sister and her friend in Berkeley, and he had an uncomfortable evening receiving tremendous negative energy and harsh words (the two women were discussing sexism). In the moment, he tried to stay open, even as his body was quivering from trying to process their pain. He left feeling emotionally beaten and drained. It took him two days to recenter and not feel the weight of all the negative male behavior projected onto him. He doubled up on his self-care routines, which included spending quality time in nature, making music, working out intensely, resting, and, most importantly, sharing with his outstanding empath mom. He had learned early from his mother that no one can move through gigantic collective feelings without a deep listening, nonjudging, and caring connection. Upon reflection, though, Brandon realized that in this particular instance, his best move would have been to let his sister and friend know that he needed to leave earlier in the evening because he felt their emotions too deeply.
One of my teen coworkers, Brandi, is a wildly talented musician who everyone else turns to for understanding and support. She often becomes the repository of everyone else’s unsaid and unacknowledged sorrow. Recently she told our staff that she’s been taking one day off a week from all social media and devices as a cleanse from being emotionally barraged; on that day, she takes a dip in the ocean. She said doing this has helped soothe the aching in her body—empaths will often feel others’ grief as soreness in their own bodies, so taking time to be completely free of social energy is essential. Seawater is an incredible antidote to unintentionally collected misery, and swimming in the ocean is a great way to help neutralize the emotional field. Bathing with Epsom salts can also assist empaths in a similarly restorative way.
“Recently she told our staff that she’s been taking one day off a week from all social media and devices as a cleanse from being emotionally barraged; on that day, she takes a dip in the ocean.”
Marla is one of those women who takes on the world from 5:30 a.m. until she hits the pillow exhausted at 11 p.m. She interacts with hundreds of people a day and, as a result, is something of a human emotional vacuum cleaner. She takes in every bit of people’s unprocessed gloominess and turns it into sunshine with the sheer force of her outrageously positive nature and infectious warmth. When Marla experienced a real blow in her own life— a very close friend of hers died of a metastatic cancer—she was seriously challenged to uphold her role of emotional transformer for others. The electricity was temporarily unavailable for her emotional hoovering, so Marla coped by gathering numerous times with her empath friends to mourn and to digest. Highly sensitive folks need highly sensitive friends who know how to hold immense feeling without analysis or interpretation. When the waters of the empath’s heart are overfull, they need to spill with absolute acceptance and the absence of problem-solving. Empaths are wells that need periodically to be purged of all the old water in order to be able to go on replenishing others with purity.
Marla also learned that in order to maintain her herculean pace and social effectiveness, she needs to start every day with an hour of private reflection. At 6:30 a.m., she finds a mountain and climbs it—literally. Marla finds her recharge with the density and solidity of stones and rocks on a hike. Mountains are grounding for empaths because they represent our capacity to hold a deep stillness and perspective as we traverse the vast span of human experience.
The Way Forward
Unfortunately, many supremely sensitive and gifted people do not know how to bracket their receptive antennae from full-time use; they drown in the soup and resort to numbing behaviors to stop the flood of feeling. While intoxicated and artificially expanded states can give rise to tremendous creativity and insight, there are innumerable stories of creative people who suffer from addiction and suicidal despair—who simply cannot bear all the channels being on at one time.
“Imagine receiving the most glorious and opulent bouquet of flowers and a barrel of contaminated crap on your doorstep. You open the door to both and there is no note from the sender.”
The same muses that supply folks with exceptional genius in their creative expression can also become tormentors when they deliver a chorus of undifferentiated, collective pain. Imagine receiving the most glorious and opulent bouquet of flowers and a barrel of contaminated crap on your doorstep. You open the door to both and there is no note from the sender. It’s up to you to figure out how to take it all in.
One of the consequences of the digital age is that young empaths are growing up without any reflection and integration time because they are rarely unplugged. For a true empath, nothing can take the place of recharging with quiet and nature. An empath on a steady diet of online content is like a plant being fed soda instead of water. It looks like the real thing, but it won’t sustain. Without crucial time to go within and fill with healing silence, empaths can become fragmented, desperate, and often self-destructive.
“In a world saturated with bad news, hardness, and the constant noise of doing over being, it is a terrible casualty to the anima mundi to lose the soul whisperers.”
If we are to glean the extraordinary gifts of people who can access feeling on a connected and profound level—a level that immediately calls to the soul center of others and heightens their abilities to love, care, and nourish—then we need to provide more support and time for empaths to hone their craft.
It’s not enough to say people are “highly sensitive.” We need to honor what empaths bring to our species by creating spaces where that sensitivity is valued and encouraged. In a world saturated with bad news, hardness, and the constant noise of doing over being, it is a terrible casualty to the anima mundi to lose the soul whisperers—those who, by bridging the space between us and embodying all the colors of human emotion, make the world a more loving, connected, peaceful place.
Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., M.F.T., the author of PeaceQ, has been teaching and consulting worldwide for thirty years. Freed is the executive director of AHA!, which specializes in transforming schools and communities by focusing on peace-building peer-led initiatives. She is also a psychological astrologer.