Are you frequently exhausted and overwhelmed after interacting with others? You may be inadvertently absorbing the energy of those around you.

Sometimes, it may be hard for you to figure out which emotions are yours and which ones belong to someone else. If this sounds familiar, you may be feeding off other people’s energy.

It’s possible. Everyone adopts other people’s emotions or moods from time to time.

If this happens constantly, though, you might have an inherited personality trait called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).

The trait may involve:

  • being able to process greater depth of information
  • having increased emotional reactivity and empathy
  • having a greater awareness of subtleties in the environment
  • being overstimulated easily

Highly sensitive people (HSP) in particular can have SPS.

“Research seems to indicate that certain neurons — mirror neurons — act differently in the brains of HSP than in the brains of non-HSP,” says Amanda Turecek, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed addictions counselor in Parker, Colorado.

“Mirror neurons kick in to gear in our prefrontal cortex, our area of the brain that also controls things like morality and planning around consequences. They encourage us to imitate others and are more active in the brains of HSPs.”

Even if you’re not an HSP, other people’s moods and energy may affect you.

You may have developed similar traits like sensitivity or empathy through epigenetics (environmental factors), like trauma or childhood experiences.

Also, some people may have such a strong presence that they can shift or drain your energy with their voice, tone, body language, communication style, or relationship dynamic.

If you have an anxious attachment style, dependent personality disorder, or you live with diminished self-esteem, you may also find yourself feeding off of someone else’s energy and emotions.

Coined in the 1990s by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, the term HSP refers to someone who has increased sensitivity to physical or emotional stimuli.

Rather than a mental health condition, being highly sensitive is considered a personality trait measured on a scale.

How do you know if you’re an HSP? Some of the signs include:

  • having a robust inner world, with deep thoughts and feelings
  • feeling you can easily pick up on the emotions of others
  • being consistently called “sensitive” by your loved ones
  • feeling deeply touched by music, art, nature, or human triumph and struggles
  • being overwhelmed by itchy clothing, loud noises, bright lights, or strong scents
  • avoiding movies, TV shows, or other media that involve violence or horror
  • being able to learn music by ear
  • having a need to retreat to a calm, quiet, dark space when things feel hectic
  • feeling overwhelmed by many tasks in a short space of time
  • arranging your physical space to avoid feeling overwhelmed
  • having a difficult time multitasking

There are several ways you can take your power back and protect yourself from feeding off people’s energies. Consider these:

Create boundaries

You may find it helpful to set appropriate boundaries with others, says Turecek. “The trick isn’t necessarily to stop feeling, but to be very intentional in creating boundaries that prevent you from owning those emotions as your own.”

By allowing others to own their emotions, it doesn’t become too overwhelming for you. It also supports a healthy relationship dynamic.

Boundaries can come in many forms. These include:

  • saying no
  • reducing the frequency of social interactions
  • setting a time limit on visits
  • keeping certain topics off limits

If you’re an HSP, visualization may help too. You could imagine being surrounded by a bubble or other impenetrable force during intense interactions. You can also visualize their emotions going through and down into the ground, rather than sticking to you.

Establish your baseline

When you’re in your own space, try checking in with how you feel and tuning into your own baseline. Awareness may help you differentiate between what’s yours and what’s not.

“I have my clients check their baseline emotions, then notice if that baseline shifts or changes when another person enters the room,” says Nadia Ahrens, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Seattle, Washington.

If so, says Ahrens, notice how your baseline changed. Are you more agitated, sad, or anxious? These can all be signs that you’re picking up on someone else’s energy.

Determine what’s yours

Once you’re able to identify a shift from your baseline, you can ask yourself: Is this feeling mine, or someone else’s?

“If the emotion is yours, then process your feelings,” says Ahrens. “If it’s not your emotion, then you can let it go, simply by stating to yourself: This isn’t mine. I don’t have to take this on.”

Practice grounding activities

There are many activities and lifestyle habits that may help you feel rooted and connected to an inner sense of calm. These include:

Ritualize separation

After social interactions, consider creating a ritual to help put some space between you and what you may have picked up. For example, you can take a shower after an activity with large crowds.

You could also use your hands to “scoop” emotions out of your heart and push them away from you. Some may find it helpful to burn some sage or palo santo.

Consider committing to those rituals you feel work for you.

Spend time in nature

You may find it helpful to recalibrate your senses in nature, taking a break from interactions.

Try taking a walk in a nearby park, spending some time watching waves move in and out, or putting your feet on the earth in the forest.

Make time for self-care

Besides finding a quiet place to retreat and process your experience, try journaling about your emotions or taking a warm shower or bath to reset your nerves.

“Self-care can be whatever feels good to you (of course), but use it in a way that you feel cleansed of the experience of taking on another’s emotional experience,” says Dr. Erin Miers, a clinical psychologist in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Process it with someone

You may find it helpful to offload your feelings in a neutral space. A therapist may provide useful strategies and resources to help you manage your boundaries.

For those who aren’t an HSP, this may help you dig into the “why.”

Is this ability to attune to others something that you picked up in early childhood, perhaps as a way to stay safe? If so, a therapist can help you process these complex experiences.

Empathy is part of the human experience. It’s what helps you connect with others and walk a mile in their shoes, so to speak.

“It really is a question of degree,” says Dr. Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California. “We all likely want to live in a community where people care about others and are empathetic, compassionate, and caring.”

Yet, we also need to be able to protect ourselves from absorbing other people’s emotions, says Plante. “It’s a balancing act, and having good and safe boundaries is important for many.”

There are some clues that absorbing other people’s emotions may have crossed a line:

  • Your feelings are interfering with your quality of life.
  • You leave interactions feeling overwhelmed and depleted.
  • You stay in relationships with people who don’t treat you well.
  • You avoid interactions with others because it feels like too much.
  • You find it increasingly difficult to distinguish your emotions from other people’s.

When you feel bogged down by the world around you, it may be helpful to remember that there are many benefits to being empathetic and sensitive.

It can help you to:

  • enjoy different activities more fully
  • understand your own limitations
  • navigate difficult situations more easily
  • connect with people from all walks of life
  • motivate you to serve and support those who need it

“You can use it by helping enhance your own life, by using your skills to connect with others,” says Miers. “For example, run a support group, volunteer, use your ability to connect with others at your job.”

When you absorb other people’s emotions and moods, you may feel more connected to those around you, which can be a powerful experience. However, your ability to attune may also be like a sponge: You end up inadvertently cleaning up the mess.

Increasing self-awareness, setting boundaries, taking care of yourself, and doing personal development work may help you manage this heightened sensitivity.

While being highly sensitive may be intense sometimes, ultimately, you can find immense strength in it.