Understanding Empathy and Being a Highly Sensitive Person

I recognized something in my personality that has existed in me since childhood but was recently brought to my attention. It’s something that often impassions, challenges, inspires, torments, and often overwhelms me – empathy. For better or for worse, I have the innate ability to latch on to the feelings or attitudes of others, I see through to their motives and emotions and even personally experience them for myself. This became apparent during a vehement disagreement with my mom over differing opinions in which I became overwhelmed by emotion. (Now, I am naturally an emotional being, and pregnant to boot…but defending people is a common trap in which I find myself.) My entire being was reacting to the supposed thoughts and emotions of those that I was so passionately defending. It’s the same character flaw (or flair) that often got me into arguments with my older brother; I felt it was my responsibility to defend others against the tyrant. It’s also the same sensation that causes me to write emphatic blogs about the poor or down-trodden.

I’ve been reading a memoir this week and weeping over her descriptions of dying children and her own suffering. The problem is: I don’t know how to turn the empathy valve “off”. At times it can feel like a curse – like some fictional superhuman power that absorbs the feeling and emotions of anyone in a close proximity. Other times it is a blessing, especially when it comes to listening and comforting others. Perhaps it’s simply the product of an over-active imagination. Yet it’s unbridled and untamed, and can run away with me at any moment, catching me in an undertow of emotion. Some weeks I’m so emotionally thin that I have to avoid the nightly news, sad novels, and depressing movies for a time to recharge. I read an interesting article called “5 Gifts of Being Highly Sensitive” which isolated the positive and negative traits of having a sensitive personality. I’ve listed them here for you, but you can read psychologist Douglas Eby’s detailed explanations at the article here.

1. Sensory Detail

2. Nuances in Meaning

3. Emotional Awareness

4. Creativity

5. Greater Empathy

He also gave five “curses” of being highly sensitive which are: easily overwhelmed or overstimulated; affected by the emotions of others; need lots of space and time to ourselves; unhealthy perfectionism; and living out of sync with our culture.

Would you consider yourself to be a highly sensitive person? Do you ever wish that part of you away? Maybe we should start asking God to shape this trait into something He can use and that doesn’t make us feel crazy emotional at the drop of a hat! Dear Lord, I hope so…but who better to ask for help, than the very Creator of human emotion and the Crafter of our souls and personalities?

~shalom, lr

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