What does it mean when we talk about absorbing other people's stuff ?
If you're quite new to the world of being highly sensitive or an empath you might be just beginning to discover that not everyone is as deeply empathic, intuitive and able to feel other people's feelings as you and other sensitives are.
Being a HSP (highly sensitive person) means being acutely aware of what's going on around us, and being able to intuit things that less sensitive folk wouldn't even notice. Things like the unspoken words that aren't said, but somehow hang in the air, the feeling that something is 'off' when you walk into a room after a heated discussion, or even the tone that you sense from a text message, even if the actual words don't portray it.
Not only are HSPs more keenly aware of the subtleties, they are also wired to feel other people's feelings deeply - often as if they are their own feelings. This can be a challenge... That feeling of being completely exhausted and drained after spending time with a certain person (or people), or being overcome with an emotion after spending time with someone in difficulty, or even the feeling of huge emotional upset after watching a deeply emotive and stirring film. If we don't have ways to protect ourselves from the tendency to absorb and get lost in other people's emotional worlds, then we run the risk of giving away our energy, power and sovereignty.
Of course these qualities of being acutely aware, empathic and intuitive are also special gifts - ones that can allow us to be exceptional friends and family members, as well as to excel in our professional lives. Yet, sometimes these gifts can support the development of unhealthy patterns of behaviour, such as over-giving, people pleasing and lack of boundaries. This ultimately can lead to things such as burnout, stress
and a loss of authority in our own lives.
There are many avenues to explore, when beginning to take back some of your empathic energy and reclaim your power, but in this article I shall share three of my favourites and which I have spent much of my time focusing on personally over the last few years.
1. Get really good at 'body awareness'.
What I mean by body awareness is any kind of practice that allows you a lot of opportunity to notice all the little, subtle sensations in your body, to become more deeply aware of how your emotions feel in your body and where different feelings are felt in your body. When we start doing this we essentially begin gathering 'data' on ourselves and how things feel in our inner experience of our bodies. This data can then show us patterns, such as 'I notice that when I am stressed at work, my jaw clenches', or when I am rushed I hold my breath', or ' I feel guilt as a tightness in my belly', and so on. This 'data' informs us of how we are feeling on a much finer level of detail and then we become empowered, because information guides us towards being able to tend to our needs better. Whether you simply notice that you are hungry, or that there remains deep sadness after a loss you've experienced, you are able to know yourself better and give yourself what you need.
As HSPs, we can have a tendency to stay in our heads and overthink, or cognise many things. However, whenever we are dealing with feelings and emotions, we have to be aware of the body because that is where they are experienced.
Why is greater body awareness important for avoiding absorbing other people's emotions? Because when we are deeply aware of our needs it becomes much harder to ignore them. As I became more attuned with myself and what I needed, it became much harder for me to abandon myself because it was just too uncomfortable to ignore the gnawing feelings of social overwhelm, tiredness, or just simply wanting to say 'no' to something.
There are many ways to develop greater bodily awareness. Of course a regular Yoga practice is perfect, because so much of Yoga is about turning inwards and noticing sensation and moving awareness around the body. Other mindful movement practices offer similar benefits. Certain meditation practices will also allow plentiful opportunity to become more aware of your inner landscape. A simple body scan practice, where you literally take your mind's eye around each part of your body and simply notice what is there is an easy way to get started.
It is important to say here that if you are a HSP that learnt at some point that being in the body is painful in someway, your approach to body awareness may need to start very small and gentle. Perhaps you had a difficult childhood, or experienced a trauma which has made it difficult to sense your bodily experience, or perhaps just being extra sensitive itself makes being in your body overwhelming. In any of these cases, returning to full body awareness can take time. A slow, gentle approach that begins with something as small as noticing the temperature of your toes for example may be the way to go. It may also be helpful to work with the support and guidance of a trained professional that can guide you through this and to help with the pace of building this awareness up..
2. Being Honest with Yourself
Okay, so the second step (and related to the first) is about being honest with yourself about your
capacity for other people. When I speak about capacity, imagine your ability to hold other people's 'stuff' as a bucket, a glass or some other container. This container is also the place that holds your 'stuff' - your stresses, worries, difficult conversations, sensory overwhelm, ruminations, etc. At different points in our lives, in different seasons, years, even at different points in the day, our capacity changes. For example, if you have just moved house, your capacity will be less than if you are in a settle living situation. Or if you have just experienced the death of a family member, your capacity again will be reduced. As a HSP your capacity will also be impacted by other elements. For example, any other sensory stresses in the environment can take its toll and our ability to process things so deeply, means other people's feelings will also take up more room in our 'bucket' anyway.
So keeping this in mind, what is your capacity right now? How much are you already holding in your bucket? Get really honest about what space you have available for others and consider if you are taking on more than your capacity can comfortably hold.
Sensitives often feel guilty about having a bit of left over reserves, about feeling okay when someone else is not. We have to really dig deep when this happens. We hate to see others in pain or difficulty, and so gifting the last of our reserves to a friend in need feels like the right thing to do, but at what expense? What if it was okay for us to feel resourced and alright, while still acknowledging another's pain but not getting caught up in it? Does it really benefit others if their pain depletes us? I personally think not. I believe the decision to let that guilt pull you into the allure of giving your emotional energy away so freely to others, boils down to one thing: not valuing, loving or caring for yourself as highly as you do others.
I know that this is brutally honest, and you may have felt a small emotional reaction reading that last sentence, but being honest with yourself is one thing and making the decision to act on it is another. Funnily enough, by building a greater awareness of our body we can start to cultivate compassion, acceptance and even love for ourselves, which in turn can empower us to take action on those honest, intuitive whispers that tell us when our capacity is maxed out, or close to. Again, regular practices of Yoga, meditation and other mindful modalities help us over time to see ourselves for who we are, to value all parts of us, which in turn can gives us that strength to challenge the well ingrained habit of being so willingly available for others.
Of course, there's nothing terrible about being there for others - it is a gift to be able to hold another's pain and understand them so deeply. It is when this happens, without any regard for our personal needs and capacity for it that it becomes a problem. Love for another is so much richer, when we first love and care for ourselves.
3. It's All About Boundaries!
Being deeply aware of your body and its needs, being honest about your capacity and beginning to value yourself enough to know that your capacity is important are the building blocks that form our ability to create and maintain BOUNDARIES.
Boundaries are invisible structures or 'rules' that basically tell others how we want to be treated. They are super important in all relationships, for all people. When I was a Primary School Teacher, I understood how important boundaries were in the classroom and how the children in my care, wanted and needed them in order to feel safe and for everyone to learn effectively. I think the same is true for other relationships. Although, it is not a classroom or a formal learning environment, relationships with family members, friends, work colleagues, etc need to have boundaries so that ALL parties in the dynamic feel safe and can receive whatever the purpose of the relationship is - love, shared connection, enjoyable work...
As sensitives our needs are often a little different from the general population (e.g., needing more downtime, dislike of loud noises, greater need for sleep, and so on) and we may have experienced negative feedback from others growing up because of this. This may have given us the belief that we are somehow just a little bit wrong, or that we aren't good enough as we are and would be better off trying to fit into the typical way of being. So when it comes to setting boundaries, we may struggle with honouring our needs because on a deep level we believe that our needs simply aren't as important as others and that to be accepted we must be available to everyone all the time.
Being accepted is a primal need of all humans; we all fundamentally are driven to want to belong to the group. This is even the case when the group is not yet able to acknowledge, let alone accept us as being a little different. Once again, this brings us to acceptance of ourselves. When we do that we are more able to advocate for what we need and want in relationships, and can begin to say 'no' when we need.
If boundaries are tricky for you, start small. Begin with a trusted relationship where you can have a more open conversation. You could even share that you are working on looking after yourself better and that this will include saying 'no' sometimes, so that you can tend to your own needs. Perhaps this person will also benefit and give them the permission to do the same! You can also just start to become aware of relationships where the dynamic involves you giving more than receiving and those where you often come away feeling drained. Just notice, don't feel pressured to do anything different just yet. Perhaps journal your feelings about these relationships and how you might begin to create boundaries.
On a practical level, sometimes we just cannot avoid being in the company of others who drain us. I have a small handful of people who I have to see from time to time, but drain the life out of me! In these instances, certain visualisation practices can be really helpful. A few minutes before seeing them, take yourself to a quiet place, close your eyes and imagine a protective force field around you. This can be anything you like - a white orb, a mist, cloud, rainbow... Let your imagination choose whatever sits well with you. Imagine it covering the whole of you, Take some slow deep breaths and know that this force field allows words to move in and out, but protects your energy and stops their emotional state from connecting with you. With practice, this technique can be really powerful. Essentially it is a moment in time when you are letting your body know what you are willing to let in.
Another important aspect of setting boundaries for sensitives is that it is imperative to find your tribe. Connecting with others who understand what it means to be sensitive is hugely validating for any HSP. When you do, you can be part of a group that allows you to feel accepted for who you are, which may in time empower you to be able to say no more, value yourself and choose actions that nourish you more than deplete you.
I know how difficult it can be to create boundaries. Personally, it has taken a lot of body work, inner reflection and good conversation with the right people to get me to a place where I am able to let my need be met. There will always be those people that test your boundaries, there will always be situations where it is a difficult choice to choose you, there will be moments when there is real conflict - let these act as little gifts from the heavens where you can test your commitment to yourself. With time, lots of tuning in, lots of recognising what you actually need, being honest about how much you have to give and finding a place of acceptance and belonging in yourself, it is 100% possible to say no and ask for what you need in relation to others. Don't beat yourself up when you get it wrong, it's all part of the journey!
And just for the record, 'no' is a full sentence! Although I know it can be feel super blunt to use this word, so try phrases such as 'Im afraid that is not going to work for me right now', or 'Im really focusing on other things at the moment', or 'Im afraid I do not have the space for that right now' instead. Another helpful technique, is to just get into the habit of saying, 'I'll need to check and get back to you'. This gives you a pause, time to sit with whatever request has been asked of you and then you may find you can say your version of 'no', more easily. This is particularly helpful for any sensitives that say 'yes' as a knee-jerk response without even thinking it through.
These three points; body awareness, honesty about our capacity & working on our ability to form boundaries, are how we begin to protect our precious energy as Highly Sensitive People. This is crucial for how we look after and nurture our special gifts. There is so much going on in the world right now, and so it is even more important that we look after ourselves, so that globally and in our communities our gifts as sensitives can shine and support the new world we are moving into. We no longer can afford to keep depleting ourselves and taking on other people's pain and so I hope this article has sparked some reflection in you and perhaps given you some ideas as you move forward.
I love connecting with other sensitives, so please let me know in the comments any thoughts, musings or reflections about this article!