Oh to be a deep, discerning teenager again. I remember I would take a long drive on the back roads to decompress in high school—hand out the window doing the ubiquitous “roll wave” while listening to the song “Sensitive” by Jewel on repeat (probably did not anticipate that one, did you). Sure, usually the mixed CD was comprised of other, more predictable adolescent things like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Ben Folds, but on the days when I was feeling most tender, these lyrics brought the empathy I couldn’t find in my peers. It wasn’t until just lately, in my thirties, that I grasped the fact that my sensitivity was not in fact the hindrance or flaw I’ve always thought, but a gift to welcome with outstretched arms.
A friend of mine in college once (lovingly) said, “You wear your heart on your sleeve, face, and pant leg,” to which I added, “Yes, and it just gets brushed into a lot!” I’d spent the better part of my life wishing I wasn’t this way; wondering how much lighter the day-to-day life would be if I didn’t feel everything so deeply. That is, until I started doing more work on myself and deliberately began placing yellow tape between anxiety, empathy, sensitivity, and so on. Until then, the lines had gotten completely blurred as I’d spent more and more time listening to external chatter. Once I began to draw those blatant boundaries, I realized that maybe, just maybe, these parts of myself could be a gift.
The more we let the vitriol of how others think we should be reacting seep into our being, the more we create a soil that’s ripe for quieting our voices, for shame.
The thing about sensitivity is that when it comes down to it, we are embroiled with our own internal dialogue. The comments from others of being “too sensitive” might be easiest to blame for why we feel discomfort about being an empath, but if the pillars of shame are not put up and solidified by us, they wouldn’t exist in the first place. The more we let the vitriol of how others think we should be reacting seep into our being, the more we create a soil that’s ripe for quieting our voices, for shame.
There is something about being highly sensitive that can make one feel socially marginalized, if you let it. If you’re in a situation in which you are significantly more affected by something—visible to others or not—I highly encourage you to practice the art of not alienating yourself. (It’s hard, which is exactly why it’s a practice!) Take a moment if you need space, of course, but try your damnedest not to shut down.
When you feel things at a higher frequency, this can make you want to put up your imaginary hood and zip it all the way to the top. But the more we are able to lean into it, the more things shift. Whether you are highly sensitive, or empathetic, or neither at all, this rule applies to you: Listen to only your rhetoric when it comes to how things make you feel.
Surely, people make us feel things—that is the beauty of life, of human connection and exchange. But you and only you are in charge of your reaction. And if you are in fact highly sensitive and, like me, sometimes feel you cannot control it because it hits your heart before your brain can catch up, then ask yourself how you will react to your reaction. Will you meet yourself with grace? Will you put your blinders up to self-ridicule that you were “too much” or “too sensitive” to that person’s feelings or situation? Yes, yes you will. Because when you are able to channel that sensitivity into action, electricity happens.
Surely, people make us feel things—that is the beauty of life, of human connection and exchange. But you and only you are in charge of your reaction. And if you are in fact highly sensitive and, like me, sometimes feel you cannot control it because it hits your heart before your brain can catch up, then ask yourself how you will react to your reaction. Will you meet yourself with grace?
Remember this is a life’s work. As a highly sensitive and/or empathetic individual, it’s most likely that there isn’t a day in which you aren’t navigating situations with these loads on your back. But when you turn them into a cape? The change happens imperceptibly and eventually, you will feel lighter and armed for goodness. You will feel prouder of others and of yourself. When we can “break the fourth wall” of a stranger, so to speak, it slices through distance. It creates space for unity and allows a collective understanding.
Permission will liberate you—permission to rinse out a rhetoric that’s been comprised over situations of you being called “too much” and being asked to “be less.” It’s absolutely key to find a way to view your high level of sensitivity as a gift. That once you rinse so hard, all you are left with is what did not wash away; what’s left is these golden nuggets that will serve as your superpowers in life. But these powers don’t come with inherent knowledge of how to use them or a handbook; you have to do that one yourself, kid.
So you’re a highly sensitive empath. That’s wonderful. Here are a few things to keep in mind that will allow you to harness your sensitivity, so it can serve you (and the world) as a gift:
You can be the friend that provides the most loyal support because you can put yourself in their shoes. When your sensitivity allows you to feel other people’s feelings, you’re able to help them feel less alone. There is no greater feeling in the world than being seen. And you? You can do that for people.
Addendum: This is best practiced while simultaneously maintaining understanding around the fact that their feelings don’t also have to be your feelings in order to be helpful (I am still learning this). This will allow you to show up for them, while not draining you in the process.
If you are a parent, you may be a pro at sensing when your child needs something on a different level before they can express it.
Learn your triggers. For example, I cannot watch violent movies—I just can’t. I am not squeamish about blood; I simply mentally cannot separate reality, even if I know it’s fiction, or not take the feelings that arise into whatever it is I am doing next. This is where boundaries can feel challenging because of FOMO, but slasher films don’t hold value for me, so I just don’t watch them, and my husband has accepted he will need to watch them alone on the couch. Learn those every day ways that prevent you from enjoying certain activities and kindly decline: “That’s a no for me dawg.”
When you are highly sensitive or empathetic, outside emotions can feel somewhat “contagious.” Or you may yourself feel the need to openly share and find that others will have the fear of “catching it.” But do not for a second confuse vulnerable with weakness. These are not mutually exclusive, and do not let others tell you otherwise.
Boundaries are your friend. If something causes a negative visceral reaction, pay attention to that. Remember the children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon? If he can draw the moon and the very sheets up to his head, you too can create space for that which does or does not need to be in your lane. (Okay, this is a stretch but I am running with it. Chances are strong the author was nodding to something here.)
Your barometer of emotion and environment is not at all the same as the next guy. And that’s okay. Two people can be in a room having different experiences. It’s wild and weird and also the human condition. It may feel frustrating that others cannot be as impacted by minute things, but again: This is okay.
As I am finishing this article, I have my toddler watching a show because sometimes you just need to whip out the big guns to get things done. I’ve tuned it out until just now, when this line made my ears perk: “Sometimes you have two feelings at the same time, and that’s okay!” Even Daniel Tiger knows what’s up, and frankly I am all here for instilling this narrative in humans from the get go; let the collective sigh of relief resound.
Sarah Hrudka Behlke is a gal with big feelings, even bigger hair, who’s never met a stranger. She is the co-owner of design brands linyage and velvet raptor, as well as a lifestyle photographer. When she is not spilling coffee on her white tee, you can find her at the park with her husband and toddler son, where he is likely wiping his sticky hands on her back-up white tee.