“I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that, now that when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often — because I’m paying attention.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

Do you cry at the drop of a hat?When you walk into a room, can you determine the prevailing attitude of most people in it and then, no matter how you might have felt before you came in, seem to have absorbed the energy there?Do people in your life tell you to “buck up,” “grow a pair,” or “stop being so sensitive”?

If so, you may be what is termed a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). According to Elaine N. Aron, PhD,the author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You, “the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.”

Often times, they feel out of sorts, different and not quite fitting into the norm. In actuality, Dr. Aron has observed, only a small portion of the population (20%) exhibit such qualities that would have them wear the mantle of an HSP.

She created a test (not a diagnostic tool) to assist in identifying traits of a Highly Sensitive Person. When completing it, I discovered that although I don’t represent the far end of the spectrum of those with these qualities who would be labeled ‘shy’, or who would self -identify as needing to withdraw into a dark room to decompress or re-group, I responded positively to 15 out of the 27 questions. It is an aspect of my persona that serves me well as a therapist and allows me to utilize what I refer to as my “Spidey Sense” to intuit what is occurring in the cognitive realms of my clients. It permits me to have my creativity flow and makes me an out of the box thinker. It has me appreciating beauty with all of my senses fully alive.That’s the upside of the condition. The more challenging aspects relate to the ways in which I ‘take on’ other peoples’ pain; both physical and emotional.

What Is the Difference Between Being Empathetic and Being an Empath?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings,” while an empath is considered “A person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.”Keep in mind that the first definition is from a mainstream dictionary, while the second was referenced in the Urban Dictionary. Even further extended is the description highlighted in the Oxford Dictionary: “(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to perceive the mental or emotional state of another individual.”

With open minded consideration, perhaps the concept of experiencing someone else’s reality is not so farfetched. As a clinician, I have indeed had a foot in each realm. There have been times when I have needed to be mindful of being an objective observer of a client’s distress and assisting them in recognizing the power to change their circumstances, by exercising solid boundaries. Without that structure in place, it would be far easier to succumb to the desire to care-take in ways that are not healthy for either of us. In a session with a client this evening, he described renewed feelings related to depression, as familiar and upsetting thoughts resurfaced. I asked him, “If I could get inside your head, what would I hear?” He proceeded to tell me, which made it simpler to comprehend. I knew that I need not feel with him, to understand him.

Judith Orloff, MD, author ofEmotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, speaks of the need for empaths to provide scrupulous self-care, since it can be literally a ‘no brainer’ to fall into the trap of taking on other people’s challenges as a way to earn favor, to get close to them or sustain the need to be “essential.” Orloff’s description of the characteristics of an empath mirrors those of HSPs.As a psychiatrist, she has worked with clients whose lives are impacted both positively and negatively by the phenomenon.

What some who identify themselves as a HSP fall prey to:

  • Somatic symptoms such as headaches, back and neck pain and gastro-intestinal distress
  • Sleeplessness
  • Emotional eating
  • Anxiety and/or depression to which they are not otherwise prone
  • Excessive worry about others whether or not they have a close relationship
  • Belief in entitlement, that because they are sensitive, their needs should supersede those of others
  • Feeling physically or emotionally drained after being around certain people and may require a period of rest to regroup
  • Poor concentration and easy distraction
  • The vision of others who are wounded by life experiences as being “broken” and in need of repair, thus exhibiting “savior behavior”
  • A feeling of “the world being too much with you

HSP Survival Skills 101

  • Take time to be alone, knowing that occasional solitude and a pattern of isolation are two different things
  • Go out to a natural setting
  • Journal about your feelings
  • If you go to a place that you know could feel overwhelming, have an exit strategy
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid self-medicating emotions with substance, food or behavior
  • If you are inclined to absorb the energy of others, imagine a bubble around you
  • See a non-stick Teflon coating on you so that anything you are inclined to take on, can be deflected and slide off, like a sunny-side up egg on a frying pan
  • Remind yourself that you are not responsible for the feelings, thoughts, experiences and actions of others
  • Learn about and utilize various forms of meditation
  • Have a workout routine that encourages strength and flexibility
  • Listen to music that is soothing
  • Attend CODA (Codependents Anonymous) meetings

Actress and author Mayim Bialik speaks of the joys and challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person.You may find yourself identifying with her unique take on the topic.