Written by Lucy Higgins, ICF Life & Mindset Coach
I have always sought deep, human connections and I feel mine and other people’s emotions deeper than most.
I am an empath and Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) *- both of which I spent YEARS trying to deny. I was ashamed of my sensitivities, desperately wanting to appear “stronger” and “more resilient”. I was conditioned to believe crying was a weakness. While at school, I would sometimes pretend to be physically ill rather than be honest and say I was overwhelmed or anxious because that was always met with the dreaded words “Don’t worry”, “Don’t be so sensitive”, “Get on with it”, “People have it much worse”.
My heart would sink – what I heard was “Don’t be you” And what followed into adulthood was a core belief of “I am not good enough”.
The response I got as a child, psychologists call Toxic Positivity. It’s the belief that whatever difficulty you are feeling or facing you should maintain a positive mindset. It has been rife during the pandemic. The problem is, by not validating a person’s feelings it denies the person of getting the help and authenticity they need. And it can bring up feelings of shame, guilt, insignificance and anxiety.
Often if someone appears too busy to listen or uses toxic positivity language, the real reason is not that they don’t care or love you, it’s because by facing your emotion they have no choice but to face up to their own – and this can be more difficult for some than others. For example, a parent who has never felt safe to be vulnerable and express their own authentic emotions will not feel comfortable holding space for their child to do this.
In other words, “It’s not you it’s them”. It takes courage. And patience. And empathy. And not everybody has this.
Renowned Vulnerability researcher, Dr Brene Brown says “Empathy drives connection. Sympathy drives disconnection”.
Her definition feels very true to me. Empathy is getting down in the dirt with someone and saying “I see you, I hear you, we are in this together”. Sympathy is saying “You poor thing” “That sounds awful” “Let’s get you some help”. There is a distance between you. I believe in this time of change, loss and inequality, we need empathy more than ever.
Are you an empath?
Empaths are often called too sensitive, startle easily, prefer 1-1s to big groups, are great listeners, highly intuitive, find people who talk incessantly draining, and crucially feel other people’s emotions. Is this you? Take the tests below to learn more.
It wasn’t until I had a better understanding of who I was through therapy, coaching and reading about empaths that I realised what a superpower it was.
Also, my experience of toxic positivity made me into an exceptional listener – because I know what it’s like to NOT be listened to so I can’t bear the thought of others not feeling heard. But as with all superpowers there is always kryptonite. We care deeply about how others feel and carry their emotions so have to protect our emotional state more than most. I work hard at this in order to hold a space for my clients that best serves them.
3 Tips for self-care if you are an HSP or empath:
Set healthy boundaries
Practice being clear and honest with people – you are doing this to give yourself space to protect your own energy. Psychologist and empath, Dr Judith Orloff says “Remember “no” is a complete sentence. Empaths can feel overwhelmed and drained by people, particularly big groups so choose who you see and when.
Spending time alone connecting to ourselves is particularly important because we are often thinking about others or feeling other people’s emotions. Sitting quietly or gently moving whilst observing our thoughts and feelings reminds us that we are not our thoughts and feelings. It helps to separate ourselves from others, calm our parasympathetic nervous system and be present.
Spend time in nature
Empaths are very sensitive to environment and like to recharge in nature. Use this time to tune into your senses and breathe it all in. Observe and connect with what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Just 30 minutes a day will help to shift your energy.
It all starts with self-awareness. If this resonates and you’d like to find out more, here are a couple of self-assessment tests. I love meeting and working with empaths - you can follow me @bigtalkformums on Instagram. Click on the link in my bio to book a free 1-1 coaching session, download free workbooks and join the Big Talk community.
Highly Sensitive Person is a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron. According to Aron’s theory, HSP’s are a subset of the population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity or SPS. Are you an HSP too? You can take a quick test to find out.
Dr Judith Orloff is an empath, psychologist and author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide”. Take her self assessment test to find out if you are an empath.