The blessing and curse of being “highly sensitive”

There’s an advantage to having a friend who is psychic, aside from the fact that it’s so fascinating to observe her from a research perspective. I can’t say that I’m entirely sold on the idea of fortune telling, but I still get shivers when she plucks thoughts right out of my head and repeats them to me verbatim. It’s like she stuck a nanny cam in my frontal lobe. How does she know what I’m thinking?!

I happened to mention to her in passing that I have a tendency to get angry, nervous, or sad for absolutely no reason. I feel drained after being around a large group of people. I assumed it was hormonal, or too much caffeine. She responded very simply:

“No. You’re an empath.”

“Who-in-the-what-now?” I responded.

“An empath. Someone who can, often unintentionally, pick up on other people’s emotions. But in your case, you don’t just pick up on people’s emotions, you totally absorb them to the point where they become your own. I think the term often used to describe people like you is ‘highly sensitive’.”

Before swearing at her and running out of the room crying, I decided to do some research on the concept. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (and an empath herself), describes me perfectly. I kept nodding after reading every sentence in her description, right down to the “angst-sucking sponges.” It’s a great short story – there’s vampires and everything. This woman so gets me:

For better or worse, [empaths] can become angst-sucking sponges. This often overrides the sublime capacity to absorb positive emotions and all that is beautiful. If empaths are around peace and love, their bodies assimilate these and flourish. Negativity, though, often feels assaultive, exhausting. Thus, they’re particularly easy marks for emotional vampires, whose fear or rage can ravage empaths. As a subconscious defense, they may gain weight as a buffer. Plus, an empath’s sensitivity can be overwhelming in romantic relationships; many stay single since they haven’t learned to negotiate their special cohabitation needs with a partner.

It got me thinking: We know the benefits of empathy: It allows us to connect with others and develop a strong rapport. But what are the downsides of being too empathetic? Can you get too wrapped up in your own and other people’s emotions? I analyzed the data we collected from our Emotional Intelligence Test on Queendom – specifically, the differences between people who score low on empathy vs. people who score high. The results were really quite surprising.

On the one hand, highly empathetic people excel in many other factors related to emotional intelligence, like:

  • They are more aware of their strengths and limitations (score of 71 vs. 61 for people who score low on empathy, on a scale from 0 to 100).
  • They are more comfortable expressing their emotions (score of 76 vs. 64).
  • They are better at resolving conflict (score of 69 vs. 56).
  • They are much more tactful and much more aware of social cues (score of 82 vs. 62).
  • They are better problem solvers (score of 76 vs. 64).
  • And they are more likely to have a strong value system (73 vs. 59).

The data also reveal, however, that being too empathetic might have a downside. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between high empathy and the issues outlined below; it is quite probable that there are other factors that contribute (e.g. high empathy + poor conflict-resolution skills = messy, emotionally charged fights), but the statistics are interesting nonetheless:

  • 42% of highly empathetic people (whom I’ll refer to as HEP from this point on) consistently put other people’s needs first, even when they don’t want to.
  • 41% of HEP are not content with their life.
  • 31% of HEP will avoid fights, expressing their opinion, or doing what they want for fear that it will upset others.
  • 29% of HEP find emotionally charged situations (a fight, a funeral) very uncomfortable.
  • 29% of HEP are not content with their relationships.
  • 28% of HEP admit that they spend hours over-analyzing and dissecting other people’s offhand remarks.

I do this all the time. “He said he liked it. But he didn’t say he loved it. Does that mean he actually hates it and he’s just being nice? Why does he hate it?! I must have done something wrong. What is wrong with me? I can’t do anything right.”

  • 24% of HEP feel that people take advantage of them.

I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, being highly sensitive means that my emotions are often heightened. Sadness is deeper, fear is intensified, and joy is absolute bliss. It also means that, despite the brave face I put on, I feel the pain of rejection quite deeply. I experience a torrent of messy emotions, which means that sometimes, I could appear cold or aloof because I’m trying my best to distance myself from my emotions – they can get really intense. But no matter what you’re going through, I will be able to identify with you. That’s why people love talking to me.

So to all my fellow empaths who feel like they’re on a constant emotional roller coaster, don’t fret. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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