When the World Hurts: Inside the Mind and Life of a Highly-Sensitive (Recovering) Over-Empathizer
December 20, 2014
When the World Hurts: Inside the Mind and Life of a Highly Sensitive (Recovering) Over-Empathizer
By Julie Obradovic
I never thought anything was different about me until I was an adult. I thought everyone experienced the world like I did, and once I realized that most did not, I actually began thinking that I was completely alone. By age 30, I was absolutely certain that I did not feel life the same way as normal people. I felt it significantly more.
For as long as I can remember, I have had the natural ability to instantly read people and their energy and the space around them. I can walk into a room and tell you immediately if there is tension; a phony person; an angry person; a sad person; a jokester who just made a bad joke; a bully; or someone who would rather I wasn’t there.
In short, I feel and understand everything about a person or situation that isn’t said, very, very intensely.
I can tell you precisely what people actually mean when they say it, without any regard for the words they choose. It was one of the main reasons I was always so driven towards the study of communication and foreign language, my college major. I ached to understand as much as I could about both.
I hated arguments where people claimed, “But I never said that” as a way to defend what they had communicated. Either they were lying, I believed, or they were unconscious. I couldn’t figure out which was worse. How could they not know what they said?
So when my first professor told me that something like 97% of what we communicate has nothing to do with what we say, but rather how we say it, I reveled in the validation. Ah-HA! I thought about all of the arguments between my parents and my self. I knew it! It’s not what you said; it’s the meaning you conveyed and the meaning I interpreted.
Although most people have this ability to some extent, I know for sure that mine is highly tuned. If there were an imaginary dial set for interpreting the world, mine would “go to 11”. I feel the energy and emotions of the world and the people around me in a way that can often be painful and overwhelming. Always. And I can’t turn it off.
As a result, I lived the majority of my young life unconsciously developing coping skills. Conflict, suffering, loss, and injustice intensely, physically hurt me. Even minor acts of unfairness or inconsideration can do the same. Something as simple as someone cutting in line can blow my mind. (What is wrong with that person?! How could they do that?!)
I’m not making that up. These feelings cause a sharp searing pain in my chest and drive my blood pressure and adrenaline sky high in an instant. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to pass out, and that could be just from watching the news.
Not surprisingly, I don’t watch much news. I could never watch a scary movie either. I still can’t. In fact, the idea of anyone wanting to pay to be terrified or entertained by someone else’s suffering completely and totally perplexes me. I honestly can’t wrap my mind around it. Plus, I’m quite certain such films would be capable of sending me into a panic attack or worse. I can’t even watch the commercials that advertise them.
When anyone would argue when I was growing up I couldn’t be in the same space. I had to isolate myself as quickly as possible. (Even when there was no arguing, I would find tremendous comfort in just being by myself.) I would spend hours in my room alone. I had to put on music or write or read or design things to take my mind to a safe place. Simply being present with that energy was overwhelming. Even today, I have to have daily alone time to function.
Likewise, I learned not to upset anyone. I couldn’t handle someone’s disappointment in me, and I often severely over-interpreted what that meant. Even neutral feedback on a paper from a teacher was painful to read, so I wouldn’t. I would grab it, quickly check the score with a glance, and turn it upside down as fast as possible. I never read teacher comments. Ever. Including the good ones, which were also too much to take. A perfect world was no one having any opinion about me, ever.
I said, “sorry” to someone for simply being in front of them in line or needing to grab something by them in the grocery aisle. Not “excuse me” or “pardon me”. “Sorry” was my default expression for years. “Sorry!” “Sorry!” “Sorry!” I was constantly apologizing just for being in someone’s space or possibly being in his or her way. Crazily, I would apologize to people before anything had even occurred.
Not surprisingly, I was also a “yes” person. I said “yes” when I meant “no”. I repeatedly agreed to things to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or disappointing them to my own peril.
That then made me a very passive person without even realizing it. For logically, if I couldn’t stomach saying “no” to their face, for the sole purpose of avoiding their disappointment in that moment, (which even the anticipation of would penetrate me like painful lasers), I would have to eventually find some way to get out of it.
Usually I waited until the very last minute to do that in some sort of way where I didn’t have to face them, again the goal being to avoid their negative energy through direct contact.
Over time, this got me in enormous trouble, as it would have to. In college, I got fired from a job I loved because of it. (I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a day off I needed, and instead of calling in, simply didn’t show up.) I ruined a friendship. I settled for things, jobs, and relationships I never wanted, and I often let people walk all over me, all to avoid “putting them out”.
As I searched and searched for answers to why I kept finding myself in these situations, and trust me, I was rational enough to know that what I would do made no sense (or so I thought)…the ones I discovered always left me scratching my head. They just didn’t seem right.
Apparently, they claimed, I had really bad self-esteem and no self-worth. Or my parents had done something wrong. Or I was simply an inconsiderate, insecure, immature, and irresponsible egomaniac. Or my favorite, I suffered severe repressed emotional trauma as a child.
But none of that was true. None of that was even close. I actually didn’t have bad self-esteem. I thought I was pretty, smart, and had a lot to offer the world. I was an honor student, a leader among my peers, and very well liked. Plus, I was extremely extroverted, had tons of friends, a great social life, and big aspirations too. More important, I also had a huge heart and an even greater passion for justice. I was anything but cold or disconnected.
My childhood was also rather idyllic. It wasn’t perfect, but it was darn near close. And I was not irresponsible, not even kind of. Nor was I immature, ungrateful, or entitled either (at least not more than normal for my age). And I most definitely was not inconsiderate. If anything, I realized early on, I was too considerate.
It was, as I would shake my head at them repeatedly missing the mark, actually much more simple than any of these psychological theories would speculate. In short, I would rather walk a high wire without a net than disappoint someone…and not because I worried intensely about a minor inconvenience for someone or because I thought I was unworthy of standing up for myself or because they might be disappointed I couldn’t do something.
I just didn’t want to FEEL disappointment or inconvenience.
I couldn’t tolerate the thought of being the source of that for someone, even a stranger, let alone actually absorb it. Why? Because it physically hurts, just like a burn. It actually feels like someone holding a branding iron to my chest. That’s the best way I can describe it.
I truly believe that if a medical study was done on me, where I was hooked up to a heart monitor, blood pressure meter, and more, that it would prove beyond any doubt that I experience a biologically different and more intense reaction to emotional stimuli than most people.
I have this instantaneous, disproportionate, anxiety-ridden, exaggerated, reflex response that consumes me. I imagine it feels like what two paddles on your chest feel like when they are trying to restart your heart.
In the moment when it happens, or even before it happens sometimes, I feel powerless. Protecting myself physically as soon as possible takes precedent over any intellectual response I should have. You don’t think when you touch a flame; you just move. That’s how it is.
So when life taught me there was a potential branding iron around every corner, I figured out pretty quickly I must avoid it or lessen its burn at all costs. How? One way: Tell people what they want to hear. Avoid them when you inevitably have to get out of it. Win-Win.
Only of course, that’s not a win-win. I didn’t want to be a liar, and agreeing to things without really wanting to do them was basically lying. It crushed me to be that person. Nor did I want to be a weasel that slipped out the back door of her commitments or responsibilities. No better. I was anything but proud of that behavior.
And yet, I didn’t want to feel or be the source of their disappointment, disapproval, irritation, time wasted, or any negative emotion as a result of something I did or didn’t do, more. As an over-empathizer, it was a matter of emotional survival.
So I did it. I said “yes” when I meant “no” (to really stupid stuff, mind you; things like agreeing to a doctor appointment for a day that I knew I couldn’t make because I didn’t want to take up too much more of the receptionist’s time) and then managed my way out of them…or, if I waited too long, went ahead and followed through with the thing I never wanted to do in the first place… for years.
Until finally one day in my early twenties, I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. I realized I had to figure this out. I had to stop this behavior, and that even if I couldn’t turn off the ability to feel things so deeply or over-empathize, there had to be a better set of coping skills than the ones I had developed as a child.
It was also then that I realized that lots of people don’t live like this. Lots of people aren’t afraid to listen to their voicemail (you never know if someone’s upset on the end of that message). Lots of people can accept constructive criticism and laugh at themselves. Lots of people aren’t afraid to put in for a day off. Lots of people can tell their hairdresser they don’t like their cut or would like another two inches off without being afraid to hurt their feelings. I just wasn’t one of them. So I decided to learn.
My husband has been my best teacher. I fell in love with him in large part because he could laugh at himself and acknowledge his flaws with no problem. He doesn’t particularly like confrontation either (and I’m not suggesting anyone does), but he doesn’t have a dysfunctional relationship with it like I did. He doesn’t feel the world like I do.
He has helped me enormously with difficult discussions and situations. I have learned so much from him and come so far it’s hard to put into words. I am truly not the same person I was twenty years ago where this is concerned. Even so, I am still a work in progress. Although I will now definitely have uncomfortable conversations (a huge win for someone like me), it is my wish to avoid them if at all possible. I swear I became a good writer because of it.
Thankfully, two of my three children did not acquire this trait. It’s such a relief to see them tolerate emotions in a normal way and not burst into tears when I ask them for the second time to take out the garbage.
But my youngest, well, she is my younger mini-me, highly sensitive and all. And whoa, it is a challenge already. I am her worst enemy and her greatest ally. I know exactly what will set her off, and I know exactly how to diffuse her.
Here’s the best way I can explain it. I’ll use taking out the garbage as a perfect example. If I ask my son to take out the garbage and he doesn’t, I will raise my voice a little more the second time with a tone of annoyance, but certainly not rage or disappointment, to let him know it’s time to get moving. And this is what he feels and thinks:
“I don’t really feel like being bothered, but I better take the garbage out now, or mom’s gonna get mad.” He will then take out the garbage.
If I did the same with my oldest daughter, she would feel and think:
“I wonder what’s wrong with mom? When did she ask me to take out the garbage?” And she would then take out the garbage.
But if that exact same scenario took place and my sensitive daughter heard it, she would feel and think:
“I am a lazy, no-good, irresponsible, ungrateful child who just disappointed her mother yet again! Why does she hate me so much?! I better defend myself right now because I am not those things!”
And then a very aggravated, highly annoyed, extremely defensive little girl would respond with either, “I know! You don’t have to keep telling me! God!” or she would burst into tears at the thought of not being a good child. She would then hurry up, take the garbage out in a tizzy, and spend the rest of the night in her room alone recovering from the trauma. Most likely we would also argue about her being so over the top and disrespectful in her response to me, making her feel even worse.
I have to constantly go back and remind myself not only that communication is mostly what we don’t say, but also that a highly emotionally sensitive person can have an exaggerated, intense perception of even what is implied. They often confuse irritation and constructive criticism with profound disappointment. And they take it very, very personally.
In other words, it’s not that my daughter is wrong that I was annoyed at having to ask her a second time to take the garbage out. She has correctly identified the emotion being emitted from me. I am annoyed. The problem is that on a scale of 1-10, I was really only emitting a 3, but that she feels a 10. It’s as if people like us have an amplifier for incoming energy (or perhaps our filter is broken…who knows?). We properly identify the energy. It just comes at us at 11. And there’s nothing we can do to stop or control that.
Worse, because it sears us or overpowers us so quickly, it leaves us with only a few options for survival in the moment: retaliate, defend and deflect as quickly as possible, or crumble and cry under the weight of it. If possible, we may bolt from the room or person, an even better option. (Or as we get better at managing it, smile and pretend it doesn’t bother us even though inside it is taking all of our power to hold it together.)
But unfortunately, all get us labeled as dramatic and difficult, which only makes us feel worse. A side of guilt and shame to go with the burn, and perhaps an order of anger to boot. All because we feel things so deeply. It sucks. And as you may imagine, can make for very difficult personal relationships.
While in some respects I like being able to read most people and situations clearly and instantly without a word, there are just as many reasons why I don’t. It makes the simple act of being alive a potentially very painful experience, one where you are often worried you are going to put someone out, or disappoint them, or need them, or upset them.
You work tirelessly to be good and independent, thinking if you’re just super nice, and super good, and super self-sufficient you will bother or upset no one. And that is your goal: Don’t bother or upset anyone.
You have a hard time accepting that people want to take care of you, and honestly, really don’t want them to. The cost is too high. And by the time you are an adult, you are actually not that good at taking care of them in return because you’ve spent a lifetime taking care of yourself. That’s a painful realization.
And yet, although it’s taken awhile, I finally recognize this part of me for what it is: a blessing and a curse. While at the same time making parts of my life somewhat difficult, it is also a gift that helps me enormously.
For example, I know immediately when danger is at hand and have used it to get out of some very bad, life threatening situations. My instinct is spot on. Always.
I also have a tremendous ability to identify with people and express the human experience, not to mention a compulsion to help people, right wrongs, and fight injustice. We are the people that change the world. I actually am the person who if she won the lottery would use it all for good. I would help every single person I knew.
As a teacher, I could instantly pick out the bully and the vulnerable victim like a bloodhound, which allowed me to intervene way ahead of anything actually happening. I could even sniff them out in the hallway.
And I am the person who would never, ever even think of breaking a code of ethics, vow, or oath; who would run into traffic for even a stranger; and who would without question lie down her life for a friend. In fact, I have a hard time relating to people that wouldn’t.
It’s a way of perceiving the world that is not wrong, but not always accurate, a hyper-interpretation of the emotional energy directed at and around me. One that can be quite painful when you realize everybody doesn’t care about others nearly as much as you do. And one that feels intensely personal, even though I now know, is not necessarily so. Sometimes it is just energy that has nothing to do with me.
If you have a friend or a child or a relative who reminds you at all of what I have described, please understand that this is not an inconsiderate, selfish, insecure person who likes to manipulate people or just doesn’t care who their decisions affect. They are likely not emotionally repressing something horrible, probably have nice parents and spouses, and do not try to be dramatic for the sake of getting attention. It’s not that layered, and it’s not that complicated.
This is simply a highly intuitive person who has learned that life is the art of minimizing their intense absorption of the energy and emotions around them to the greatest extent possible, certain ones even causing profound physical suffering in them…and that the only way they can protect themselves is to isolate themselves, be good, be nice, be independent, say “yes” when they mean “no”, and sneak their way out of things at the last minute without ever having to speak to anyone. (Or if that doesn’t work, see the commitment they never wanted to make through anyway and complain at length about it later.)
For the highly emotionally sensitive person, the world and the energy of the people around them, quite simply at times, hurts. It overwhelms. And they are just trying to make it do so less. The worst thing in the world they can imagine is hurting someone, and it makes perfect sense. They assume everyone feels like they do. Why would they ever want to be that source of pain to someone else, and what kind of a person would? And worse, what kind of people would want to hurt them?
This is how they experience the world, life as a constant battle between choosing to emotionally protect them selves or protect others. The effort to do both can result in the dysfunctional behavior I described.
Interestingly, if you are an emotionally sensitive over-empathizer, you actually are likely neurologically different.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a famous neurologist from Harvard and a stroke patient who wrote about her experience with the temporary loss of the use of some of the left side of her brain, particularly the language center. She lost her ego and all self-identification as well.
For months while recovering, she relied on her right-brain, which took in the energy of the world around her without the left side being capable of filtering it out and making sense of it.
At one point, she had to have a sign placed above the door that said, “Be responsible for the energy you bring to this room.” She could only experience people’s vibes. She knew immediately what people’s intentions and state of minds were when they entered her room, and she was overtaken by the power of it.
Without the left side of her brain to filter it, other people’s energy overwhelmed her.
I believe that we highly sensitive people simply have a very dominant right-brain in this respect. Her description is the closest I’ve ever heard anyone come to explaining it and giving it a scientific, not psychological, context. Clearly her condition had nothing to do with her self-worth, her parents, or her childhood. It was physical.
If you see yourself in the behavior pattern that I was, do yourself a favor, and start to work on that today. My experience is that you are not going to be able to change your absorption of emotional energy no matter how hard you try. What you can change is how you deal with it.
For starters, just being aware of what’s going on with you and how you are dealing with it is enormous. It sounds cliché, but it’s in the awareness that you can really start to handle it better.
Next, tell the people you love. Tell them you are prone to taking things really personally and that you need to be approached gently when possible. Also tell them that you have a tendency to feel attacked very easily and may over-react a lot. They probably already know this!
Then start paying attention to your reflex reactions. You may not be able to control them at first, but you can hear yourself as well as they can. When you hear yourself being too intense, take a step back and breathe. Apologize. Acknowledge what you’re doing. Then try again. It really does work, and you really can get better.
(And for those of you who love we sensitive folk, a piece of advice. It may feel unnatural, but if you love a sensitive person, they actually really truly need you to talk to them differently than other people might. Highly sensitive people are obsessed with the way they are addressed, not usually as much with what is being said.
To avoid one bazillion arguments from here forward: Tone. It. Down. Touch them while you say something difficult. Make them feel safe; reminding them you are not attacking them. Talk quieter than you normally would. Your “5” on a scale of 1 -10 is a “10” for them. Aim for a “2”. The more you diffuse them, the better for both of you. Trust me on this!)
Additionally, find a confidant that will support you and advocate for you. In the past, I have literally had to have my husband hold my hand while on a difficult phone conversation. (And “difficult” could be as simple as requesting a day off.)
Think of it as having a lawyer with you at all times to do the negotiating of your life on your behalf. And honestly, this is for your own protection. Over-empathizers tend to give people the benefit of the doubt that absolutely do not deserve it. They also tend to fail to hold people accountable for their actions. It’s easy for them to get taken advantage of. Because they would never purposefully take advantage of someone, they assume no one else would either.
The bottom line is if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. If you know you’re likely to pay the higher price for something because you feel “mean” getting the better one, have someone else handle that.
Be honest with your self, but at the same time, advocate for yourself. Ask for help! You have nothing to be ashamed of by having a middleman. This is not a matter of just “growing up” or “being an adult”. Don’t let anyone tell you that.
Likewise, you can also do breathing exercises, meditate, journal, and even practice the conversations ahead of time. And you can and should confide in someone about your upcoming responsibilities and deadlines so that they can help you avoid your normal pitfalls. If you have spent a lifetime agreeing to things you really don’t want to do to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and then dodging them at the last minute, it’s going to take a while to do differently.
I would also consider a therapist. This person can walk you through the difficult moments or coach you…actually teaching you the language to use…and an even better one will know what hurts you when you don’t even say it. I have a friend who will ask me after a hair cut, “Do you like it? No, I mean really. Look at me. Do you like it?”
Just that question used to be enough to make me cry sometimes, especially if I didn’t. It’s how I ended up with a wedding dress, wedding ring, and first job I didn’t want. Trying to avoid hurting the feelings of the personnel, my parents, and people buying things for me led to my inability to assert myself, for putting my feelings first felt more painful than accepting what I didn’t want (even though both definitely hurt). That is no way to live.
I have done the things I suggested above for many years now, and it has helped enormously. I am much, much better at asserting myself, laughing at myself, and using my support team to help me with difficult situations. I know what I can do for myself and where I need some assistance.
And the more that I have employed my coping skills in the difficult moments, the easier the moments have gotten. You really can get better at handling them even if you might not ever be able to control how they come at you.
I’m sharing this private part of myself so that others like me know they are not alone. I also want them and their loved ones to know they are not selfish, irresponsible, thoughtless, insecure people.
They are the exact opposite. People who care and feel so deeply, so intuitively that sometimes the only way they can get through life is to behave in a way that protects them from the intensity of it all…. which ironically can make them look like naïve, isolated, selfish, uncaring, jerks.
One more thing, unfortunately, that can make the world hurt a whole heck of a lot.