I am a big feeling person. By some definitions, I’m considered a highly sensitive person, or HSP. I’m thin-skinned or overly empathetic. I’m dramatic and emotional. I have big feelings — about everything.
I don’t just overthink things; I make a job out of turning things over in my mind and fretting about them. My specialty tends to be things outside of my control too, particularly all those regrets and mistakes from the past. I don’t just dwell on them; I build a freaking tent and take up residence there.
A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about the drama of parenting, the ups and downs of life, and the general clusterfuck of the daily news. After listening to my emotional rants and tearful woes, and comparing her own feelings, she said, “I think you might feel things more than most people.”
If this sounds exhausting, it is. Not just because all of ruminating and fretting can keep me up at night, but also because it’s emotionally draining.
But I am who I am, and I’ve made peace with it. For the most part anyway.
As an HSP, my emotional “feelers” have been in overdrive for the past few years. Since the night of November 8, 2016 if I’m being precise, but they’ve been kicked up even further in the past few months. The coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm for empath tendencies. Anxiety is at an all-time high. We’re worried about the health and safety of our family, of course, but we’re also practically sick with fear over the possibility of other’s getting sick. We cry over all the folks who have lost loved ones or jobs due to the pandemic.
Allostatic load makes us feel like we’ve run a marathon every day for the past 3+ months, even if all we’ve done is walk from our bed to the fridge to the couch. Decision fatigue is making us feel like we’re losing our minds. And then there’s all the second-guessing anytime you leave your house or try to safely move through the new reopening phases. Is this safe? How about that? What if I do everything “right” and still inadvertently spread the virus? Is it more harmful for my kids to stay shut off from their friends or are things like bike rides while wearing masks okay? Any way I look at it, I feel like I’m failing someone or doing something “wrong.”
Add to that the acute awareness that racial justice is an illusion in this country. As a white person, I feel immense shame just about every minute of every day. I feel anger at the rampant racism. But it’s not just anger — it’s like a blinding rage.
When you’re a highly empathetic person, you don’t just feel compassion and sympathy and joy for others; you feel these feelings as if they were your own. Empathy, by definition, extends beyond compassion, and means that you vicariously experience the thoughts and feelings of others.
But here’s the real kicker… as an empath, you also see nuance. You sometimes feel conflicted because when you feel things in a big way and can feel the pain of others, there are fewer clear-cut answers. (Though, don’t get me wrong, when it comes to things like racism and listening to public health experts, there are right and wrong answers.) For some things, there are infinite shades of gray, which can create a lot of confusion. You feel the pain of working parents who desperately want schools to return to in-person learning in the fall; you also feel the immense fear of parents who are terrified of sending their kids out into the world. You feel the cautious optimism of folks who are trying to figure out a way to manage this “new normal” safely by going to an outdoor café; you also feel the loneliness of folks who due to an underlying medical condition or their own comfort level are still socially isolating.
Being an overly empathetic, big feeling, thin-skinned, highly sensitive person sometimes feels like a curse, but ultimately, I do think it’s a blessing. Your empathy creates understanding and connection; it helps you do what’s good for others, not just yourself or your family. Being a highly sensitive empath is the reason I’m so diligent about mask-wearing and social distancing. I’m not trying to protect myself or even my kids; I’m trying to protect you.
Fellow empaths, I don’t have a lot of advice, but I have found a few things that can help manage those big feelings. I sometimes take breaks from social media and significantly cut down on my news consumption. I’m careful about who I let into my “circle” — focusing on a small number of close friendships rather than a boatload of lukewarm friends. Therapy and medication also helps.
One of the biggest risks for empaths, however, is letting your big feelings trick you into thinking that you’ve actually done something. Let me be very clear here: emotions do not equal action. It isn’t enough to cry when you read about micro aggressions or lynchings; you need to actually protest, sign a petition to defund the police, or otherwise advocate for justice. Worrying about coronavirus isn’t enough to keep you from getting it; you need to also wear your masks, use that hand sanitizer, and stay six feet away.
Bottom line: big feelings aren’t enough. You need to actually do something too.
The good news is that doing something usually helps temper those out of control big feelings. At least I’ve found that to be true. So get out there and do something. Start small if you need to, but do something.
Whenever my big feelings start to feel too overwhelming, I try to remind myself of this quote by Iain Thomas (though it’s often credited to Kurt Vonnegut): “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.”
So, stay soft, my empath friends. We may be overly empathetic, big feeling, thin-skinned, highly sensitive people. While it can seem like the world is going to hell in a handbasket some days (most days lately?), we stay soft. We fight the urge to become bitter. We take pride that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still believe the world to be a beautiful place.
And then we can try to make it so.