Does any of this sound familiar?
Your stomach clenches as you watch the news, and you feel the suffering of people you’re hearing about.
Your friend or family member is struggling and you don’t just feel sad for them; you feel their pain in your body, almost like it’s happening to you.
Your child is crying, and their distress is excruciating to witness. It’s hard to detach and let them “just cry it out.” Or, if you’re not a parent, just hearing a baby scream can upset you and quicken your pulse.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), other people’s feelings affect you. A lot.
People don’t even have to tell you how they’re feeling for you to know that they’re frustrated or stressed. You pick up on their mood through their facial expressions, tone and energy.
That’s an impressive skill, to be able to “see” or intuit things that aren’t obvious to others.
You just know when something’s wrong.
The problem for Intuitive Warriors is that this ability to pick up on others’ moods is exhausting.
When You’re Carrying the Weight of the World
Think about how profound this is. You pass hundreds (or more) people every day, and many of them are having feelings. If you’re absorbing them, that means you could be holding tens to hundreds of people’s emotions in addition to your own.
This “gift” can feel like a burden.
Not only do we have jobs and relationships and responsibilities to attend to, we’re often bloated with the weight of others’ feelings.
We Intuitive Warriors are tough, resilient people, though. And most people have developed strategies to deal with this struggle.
The problem is that most of them are harmful as well as hurtful. Here are some common ways people try to cope and their consequences.
How HSPs try to Manage the Emotional Weight They Carry
1. We use drugs/alcohol/food or any host of other behaviors to numb our sensitivity to others’ feelings.
The consequence: we face health, financial, relationship consequences. We feel bad about ourselves, and our overwhelm only grows bigger.
2. We withdraw from the world to try and avoid the exposure to others’ feeling.
The consequence: we start to feel isolated, depressed and anxious. As humans, we need connection with others to thrive.
3. We stay busy to avoid feeling.
The consequence: we lose touch with ourselves and burn ourselves out through running on adrenaline. Our relationships are affected over time, as it’s hard to be present while running at full-speed.
4. We take on the feelings of others as our own and make it our mission to “help” (whether help is desired or not).
The consequence: we have massive boundary confusion — where do I end and others begin? We neglect our own needs and desires as we focus on those of others. We may become sick after too much time soaking up unprocessed emotions that don’t belong to us.
5. We collapse, walking around feeling others’ emotions in our bodies, utterly overloaded.
The consequence: we lose connection with ourselves and feel immobilized and powerless.
We need another way.
The Solution: Boundaries
Boundaries are what separate you from everyone else. They are what make each of us individuals rather than just one big human blob. They define our values, expectations and needs. This includes how we expect to be treated, and how we expect to treat others.
Highly sensitive people struggle with boundaries in a way non-HSPs often don’t: we sometimes can’t tell where our emotions begin and others’ end. Hence the problem of soaking up others’ feelings (often without realizing it).
You might be saying, “But Brooke, are you trying to say I shouldn’t care about others’ feelings?”
No! Our empathy is beautiful, and I would never suggest we try and tamp it down. But there’s a difference between feeling for someone and actually taking on someone’s feelings as our own.
What highly sensitive people need is to learn to set better boundaries. And I say “learn” because this is a teachable skill. Most of us weren’t taught how to set adequate boundaries, so we must learn that skill as adults. And that’s OK!
How to Set Emotional, Relational and Energetic Boundaries
There are different types of boundaries. Most of us have heard about relationship boundaries, but it’s unlikely you’ve learned the concept of energetic boundaries. I’ll go through each type and how you can start strengthening them.
1. Setting emotional boundaries.
When you have an emotion, ask yourself: “Is this my feeling or someone else’s?” If it belongs to someone else, start practicing returning it to its owner. Imagine taking the feeling and handing it back to who it belongs to.
Alternately, you can imagine giving it to God or a higher power to do what they will with it.
Often, just recognizing a feeling doesn’t belong to you can break the spell.
2. Setting relational boundaries.
Here’s your new mantra: “Everyone is on their own journey. They are responsible for their feelings and I’m responsible for mine.” Problems with relational boundaries cause codependency, or taking responsibility for others’ feeling. Many HSPs are in the habit of doing this.
The first step to changing this dynamic is to notice you’re taking inappropriate responsibility for someone else’s feelings and experience.
That’s a huge step!
And if you’d like to take another, imagine handing back the responsibility to the other person or to God/Higher Power.
3. Setting energetic boundaries.
This is similar to the other two types of boundaries, but it happens in and around our bodies. Cyndi Dale, author of the book “Energetic Boundaries,” suggests every human being is full of and surrounded by energy, and some of us are lacking the boundaries to keep out energy that isn’t ours.
One exercise she suggests to strengthen energetic boundaries is called “Spirit-to-Spirit.”
Spirit-to-Spirit exercise (from Energetic Boundaries p. 94):
Step 1: “Affirm that you are a full, powerful and loving spiritual being. Breathe into your heart while making this affirmation.
Step 2: Affirm that the other person is also a fully developed and loving spiritual being. Sense the presence of his or her spirit… Feel how the unhealthy connections release and only love remains.
Step 3: Call upon the presence of the Divine, which immediately shifts the situation into whatever it’s supposed to be, while providing you with any necessary insight, protection, healing…”
Better Boundaries Means Peace for Highly Sensitive People
Our gift of empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes, is so valuable.
When empathy goes to the extreme, though, we take on the feelings and problems of others in a way that weighs us down. It keeps us from using our amazing gifts as Intuitive Warriors and dampens our spirit.
The solution to this is learning to create better emotional, relational and energetic boundaries. Be gentle with yourself as you learn these skills and practice them. Use the mantra “progress, not perfection” and you will notice that, little by little, you’ll feel lighter.
If you need support learning how to set these boundaries, programs like this are here for you.
Life will be easier, and you’ll be able to feel for others without carrying the weight of the world. That means more energy to shine your own light.
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Brooke Nielsen, LMFT has dedicated over 10,000 hours to supporting Highly Sensitive People as a psychotherapist and global HSP consultant. She practices psychotherapy in Boulder, CO and specializes in working with sensitivity and healing of trauma (EMDR). She's also the founder of Intuitive Warrior, an online platform offering resources and support to Highly Sensitive People worldwide. An HSP herself, Brooke went years feeling overwhelmed and anxious before learning how to support her nervous system. She considers it an honor to get to share that knowledge with fellow HSPs.
You are a gift to the world. You aren't alone. We need you here.