Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2008.
All highly sensitive people, or HSPs, have stronger feelings than others. This is not a flaw at all. We think things through more, which is our great asset. But no one would do that if they did not feel something about the thing they were pondering, so to think more we need to feel more. Plus, the more you think about something, the more your feelings about it can increase.
Fortunately, we feel more good feelings as well as bad ones. We notice more subtle reasons to be happy, such as beauty or another’s kindness. But we can also feel more worried, sad, or irritated than others.
I said HSPs feel more, but some can become expert quite early at covering up their strong feelings. Boys and men do this more because in our culture they are not supposed to show very much emotion. (I will use “emotion” and “feeling” interchangeably.) Or you may be growing up in a family in which certain feelings, or most feelings, are not allowed. Or your parents may have been doing all they could, all of your life, to reduce your strong feelings, and you have accommodated their wish as best as you could.
But emotions bottled up often become emotions we don’t even know we are having, and then they come out in other ways. That is not a good method for dealing with emotions. Besides, feelings tell you how you are reacting to a situation and usually tell you what you should do in it. Anger means stand up for yourself or leave. Sadness serves to make you seek others, or make others come to you, in times of trouble. Fear is, of course, a warning. And so forth. You want to feel things and need to. But you do not want to, or need to, be overwhelmed by feelings beyond what is necessary for getting you to act. You also do not want others to think you have no self control.
What to Do When Strong Feelings Feel Too Strong
As you start to enter the adult world, you will encounter many more things to react to, and much of it is new as well–driving, dating, handling your own money–so you react even more strongly. You will be thrilled by some things, almost to the point of being scared by your excitement. You will be sad or even horrified by others. You will love deeply and be easily disappointed by others. All of these emotions can lead to over stimulation, which eventually leads to feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and then burned out. So you will want to learn ways to bring your feelings down to a comfortable level.
I will go through a list of some emotions and suggest how you might handle them. First, however, there are two general rules:
Rule One is wait. Of course sometimes you need to act immediately on a feeling. But when there is nothing you have to do or nothing more you can do, then wait.
- Waiting causes feelings to decrease. We just get used to things.
- With time you may see new ways to deal with something, or perhaps stop seeing the need to do anything at all.
Rule Two is share. Tell someone about your feelings–someone who might help by giving you another perspective or by just listening. We are “social animals.” We are designed to live with others and share our feelings with them. Let’s say you are worried about an upcoming test. By sharing your feelings you may…
- Feel better for having shared your worry and helped others by it. Hearing about your worry, your friends study.
- Be calmed. Hearing you, someone may give you reasons to worry less. For example, someone tells you that the teacher said she will drop the worst exam score.
- Find everybody’s worried, so that you can at least share the burden of worry. Maybe you end up studying together and by combining your knowledge–and your worry–you all do better.
What to do with intense…
Sadness and depression
Figure out why you are sad or depressed if you do not know. Often, once you know the reason for a mood, you know what to do about it. To find out the reason, think about when you first begin to have the feeling. For example, did you start feeling sad when you found out you were going to be separated from someone or something you care for? Is the school year ending, are your parents going somewhere without you, or is a friend moving away?
Sadness is usually about a loss, and the loss is something we could not help, such as someone leaving when you both would rather have stayed together. Sadness about a separation is utterly natural and will pass with time. But to feel better sooner, try thinking about when you will meet again, or plan to see or talk to the person again soon. Sometimes knowing you could have contact, somehow, if you had to, helps reduce your missing the person. Also, consider how fortunate the two of you are that you care so much for each other.
Depression is different from sadness usually, although if you are sad long enough you can become depressed too. Depression usually comes with feeling defeated or powerless, which then makes us feel bad about ourselves and our future for a little while or for a long time. For example, you might become depressed if someone rejects you, you do poorly on a test or in a competition, a friend betrays you, family members fight, you feel accused of something you did not do, or something makes you doubt you can succeed in this world. There are a thousand reasons to be depressed. Sometimes we can handle one or two reasons, but the next one completely depresses us, and we do not realize how it all piled up.
Depression is a complicated feeling that almost all HSPs will have sometime. If it only lasts a few hours, or a day or two even, you can learn to handle it. If it lasts longer, you need help with it, because the brain can get stuck in a pattern. One “major” depression–one that lasts two weeks or so–makes you more likely to have another unless you treat it the first time. The best place to get help is from a psychiatrist. Your family doctor can help you find one.
Other ways to handle a mild depression, besides Wait and Share, is to get a good night’s sleep, because depression is much worse when we are tired. This is why we say “things always look better in the morning.” It’s true. If you can’t sleep, that means your depression is more serious and you need to share it. If you can’t sleep night after night, then you need to speak to a doctor about it.
Often you can end a mild or brief depression by thinking through carefully whether things are as bad as they seem, especially whether you are really as bad as you think or that whatever happens will have any real long-term consequences. How important will this be in a year? It helps to get a “reality check” from someone you trust to be reasonably honest with you (not someone who always says you are wonderful and everything will be fine).
Depression usually has a reason, but it always involves chemical changes in the brain. Thus physical things such as sleep and rest often help to change that chemistry. Other helps are eating a few balanced meals if you do not usually (no junk food, fast food, or binging), exercise, and simply getting out of the house and going for a walk. The worst thing to do is to stay in bed in the daytime. Force yourself to get up. And don’t drink–alcohol will almost always increase depression, as do most other drugs. A small amount of caffeine (a cup of real tea, for example) for someone who never uses it can sometimes help, however.
If your depression does not go away within a day or two, or makes you think seriously about ending your life, or seems to have no cause, then you MUST get help. Depressed people often have a hard time doing that. Sometimes a depression comes on so slowly you do not notice it. In that case it helps to compare how you are doing now to how you felt a few months ago. Sometimes when you can’t see a cause you think you can’t ask for help. But some depressions are due entirely to physical changes, and they are still depressions. Sometimes people hesitate to get help because it seems like a defeat or makes you look bad. But almost everyone becomes depressed sometime in life–people just do not talk about it. We’re supposed to be cheerful all the time, especially young people. In fact, young people are less happy than older people. So you are not alone. And seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Anger is an incredibly useful emotion, but one that HSPs often fear because when you express anger you often get anger back. For HSPs that can be very upsetting. In other words, we can dish it out but can’t take it.
The trick with anger is to know you are feeling it, but not to express it exactly as you feel it. Instead, figure out how to use it to your advantage. For example, suppose someone cuts in front of you in line. You feel furious. What should you do? You might want to consider whether it seemed deliberate. If not, you should say something, but not in an angry way. If that gets no response, then you can consider turning up the anger, like the flame on a stove. But first you have to think about what will happen in the long run. Maybe this person is truly mean and spoiling for a fight. Is having to wait a little longer really worth a confrontation?
If you think others around you will think less of you for backing down, you might say something loudly to those around you that expresses your contempt for such behavior. “People who cut in line are total jerks.” If the person turns on you, smile and say something to the effect that if the shoe fits, wear it. “You turned around when I said that, so I guess you must have thought it applied to you.”
If the same person keeps bullying you, you will need help. Bullying at school has to be dealt with at a higher level. If you are being bullied in public, think about what you can do–travel with a group, speak to the police, or whatever will work. But don’t keep taking it.
When you are angry with adults, think about whether they are trying to do what is best for you. If so, your anger is probably a way to defend yourself from feeling ashamed about having made a big mistake or being treated like a child. It’s hard when you feel like an adult, and are treated like one most of the time, to be criticized suddenly as if you are incompetent. It’s also hard to have your desires frustrated. If you are sure the adults are wrong, you should be able to get them to listen to your side of the story. Parents especially are often slow to let their children have their freedom, so reassure them, and prove by being trustworthy that they can give you more freedom.
If adults are being unfair, unreasonable, and won’t listen, they generally have the power and fighting them will only bring you more trouble. So think of ways to avoid them, or at least their anger, until you can get away from them.
The point is, think strategically. Use your anger to your advantage, not to your disadvantage. Anger is the most moral emotion. When you express your reason for your anger in the right way (often without needing to express any actual anger), it simply tells others they have gone too far. If well done it should not cause a big flare up back. Your anger actually helps them know what you like and not do what you do not like. They are doing something to you that is wrong for you. Your anger keeps them from doing it again. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Your anger is like one of those invisible fences that gives a dog a zap when it crosses it. After a few times, it stays in its yard.
What is the right way to express anger? In a way that does not make the person feel ashamed. When people are ashamed they become what we call defensive. They will blame you instead, or deny they did anything wrong, or say you do it too. If they think you are saying they have done something wrong, they may feel you are also saying they are a bad person. Then it is as if you have thrown a sticky shame ball at them. They don’t want it, so they throw it back at you. “You started it, not me.” “I didn’t cut in line–you were so slow I went around you.”
If you want your inner anger to have the outer effect you want, your job is to find a way to set the shame ball down. “I’m sorry–I think you didn’t see that there’s a line here. I’ve done the same thing at times.” No one is to blame. You are saying this is a normal mistake, not a bad thing about the person. Or you can even be open to sharing the blame: “Maybe this doesn’t bother everyone, but when you cut in line it really irritates me.”
Fear is a tough one. You don’t want to shut it off entirely, because it is so important for warning you in time to avoid danger. The problem is that often there is no danger. But how do you know for sure? Often you can’t. It’s just like gambling. If you are right, you win, if you are wrong, you lose. So you have to consider your “risk tolerance.” How bad would it be if your worst fear were realized? Would you or others be badly hurt, or just inconvenienced. Try to save your fear for situations that are truly bad.
HSPs do tend to worry. We look ahead more than others, which is a good thing. And we really dislike bad surprises, like finding we have lost our purse or wallet. After losing the same things a few times, we start to be “compulsive” about checking whether we have the things we consider essential, such as house keys, cell phones, or homework.
About fear, you need to do two things. First, really consider whether there is reason to worry. Often we are afraid of something that happened to us in the past, something fairly traumatic. That makes us so alert to anything like it happening again that we see the danger of it everywhere. Are you afraid of being betrayed by friends because it happened to you once, so you don’t trust anyone? But what a waste. So try not to fret unnecessarily, and approach each situation with a fresh attitude.
Second, accept that as an HSP it is your nature to worry. Don’t feel too bad about it, or let others hassle you for it. As I like to say, “You are called a worrier if you notice where the fire exit is in a theater–until there is a fire. Then you are called a hero.”
If your fear will not settle down after thinking about it and using “wait” and “share,” then your body is having a fear reaction. It has been set on “anxious” and is stuck there. Often you can solve it in a physical way: Rest, exercise, get out of doors. Be around someone who is staying calm in the same situation. Pets can work wonders. Often a larger perspective helps–the kind you can get from a hilltop, rooftop, or the shore of an ocean, lake, or river.
Excitement is generally wonderful. In a mild form it is curiosity, which causes us to learn more about the world around us. In a strong form it is desire, eagerness. It makes you go for what is important to you. It gives you reason to be alive at that moment. But even good excitement can be too much. For one thing, it can cause us to do something foolish. If we announce we are in love with George without preparing George for this news, we may be rejected. Intense excitement or desire can also cause you to take risks you will regret later. We’ve all bought something we “just loved,” and later wished we had saved our money.
Wait and Share are again the keys. The passage of time and the opinions of others will give you a bigger picture. If your excitement involves others, is that the time to consider how are they feeling? How will they take your approach? They may well like it. People enjoy being around others who are excited in a good way, especially about them! But you do have to watch for signs that they are ready for your excitement. If someone has just failed a test, they do not want to hear about your good grade on it. But I do not have to tell you that–you’re highly sensitive to such things most of the time.
Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are “social emotions.” We only feel them in relation to others. We can be afraid of a tornado or excited about a car, but we only feel shame or guilt when we think about other people (or animals). Guilt is what we feel when we have done something wrong to others. Guilt is fairly easy to fix–we undo it, do something to repay, or apologize. If you can’t do any of these for some reason, then you have to forgive yourself and plan how you will not do it again. I know these are easier to say than to do, but if you add Wait and Share, that package usually works with guilt.
Shame is the emotion we are having when we feel we are worthless to the core. A quick dash of shame can do wonders for shaping people up so they are in harmony with the rest of the group. That is its purpose. More than a dash of it, however, starts to feel very bad. People do not often use the word shame. But it is usually behind things we do talk about a lot–low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and shyness.
HSPs tend to be easily shamed, for many reasons. We are by nature alert to our mistakes so that we can correct them. If we focus too much on our mistakes, however, we can conclude that there must be something very wrong with us. Often other people do not help. We are a minority, and since others often see only the down side of our trait, such as our performing poorly under pressure, we can be the subject of prejudice.
The most important thing to realize is that it makes no sense to see your core self as no good. No one is NO good. Think about how you came into this world. Like any baby, you were innocent and ready to love. The things you are ashamed of are the result of things that have happened to you since then. You are not to blame. Your core self is not bad and never was. Yes, you are responsible for doing something about whatever problems you have, but you are not responsible in the sense of having deserved them or “brought them on yourself.”
Shame is a pretty unreasonable emotion, however. If you feel it for long, and you can’t talk with others and get a reality check, then you will need to treat it as you would depression, and get some help. In this case it is probably better to see a psychologist or psychotherapist, not a psychiatrist or doctor.
Emotions are so much a part of who we are as human animals that we cannot possibly avoid them. All animals are capable of strong emotions, and for good reasons. Sensitive humans and animals feel emotions especially strongly, and for the same good reasons. It is difficult to be one of those who feel more than others, but it is part of the package deal of being highly sensitive. I hope by now you are proud of your trait. I hope that if you could choose whether to be born highly sensitive, you would choose it. You feel more pain sometimes, yes, but you are more aware of everything, and that brings its own kind of happiness. As Aristotle supposedly asked, “Would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy human?” I don’t mean to call non-sensitive people pigs by any means, but in the long run, you know what you would have to choose. And with some attention to dealing with your intense feelings, you will be a happy human anyway.