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The Hidden Effects of Being a Highly Sensitive Person or Empath on Your Daily Life


A woman looking at the ocean

In my practice, I often work with individuals who identify as being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) or an empath. The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron in the 1990s to describe individuals who are more sensitive to sensory and emotional stimuli than others. Around the same time, psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff popularized the term empath to describe individuals, who in addition to having high sensory and emotional sensitivity, also have a tendency to feel and absorb the emotions of others. Dr. Aron estimated the number of HSPs to be around 15–20% of the population, while the latest available research estimates the number for empaths to be around 1–2%.


HSPs and empaths often have many wonderful qualities. They are often caring, compassionate, and are excellent listeners. They tend to be highly observant of the world around them, have a strong sense of intuition, and are perceptive and insightful. Many are creative and tend to think deeply.


However, HSPs and empaths also experience challenges due to their sensitivities:


  1. If they have sensory sensitivities, they may be easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by things they experience in their environment, such as loud sounds or chaotic activities.

  2. They may easily pick up on and be affected by other people's moods and energies.

  3. They may be especially sensitive to criticism.

  4. They may be so compassionate that they have poor boundaries with others and end up sacrificing their own needs.

  5. They may think so deeply that they get stuck in analysis paralysis and have difficulty making decisions or taking action.

  6. Because they are so different from others, they may feel misunderstood and out of place.


Compounded challenges for HSPs or empaths living in conflicting environments


Being such a minority that is so different from the majority, it's not uncommon that HSPs and empaths find themselves living in environments and being among family members and peers that are in conflict with their qualities as HSPs and empaths. If this has been your experience, the above challenges may add an additional layer of difficulty to the day-to-day challenges you experience. The following are examples of how each of the HSP or empath challenges could have played out in your daily life as a child and/or adult:


  1. If you've experienced chaotic activities and changes regularly in your life, you may have felt overwhelmed due to your sensory sensitivities, making your experiences especially stressful.

  2. If you've been among people — family members, friends, coworkers, etc. — who are often feeling stressed and anxious, you may have easily picked up on and been affected by the unpleasant emotions of those around you.

  3. Any criticism for being different compared with family members and peers may have been especially hurtful and impactful.

  4. As the compassionate and sensitive individual in the family, you may have ended up as the listener or emotional caretaker for other stressed or anxious family members, and you may not have had your own emotional needs met. You may continue to sacrifice your own needs as an adult. This can create stress and anxiety, as well as impact your sense of self and identity.

  5. As an adult, the combination of deeply thinking about all possibilities and outcomes of a decision and not knowing your identity may have kept you stuck in life, or on the other extreme, restlessly trying out multiple possibilities.

  6. You may have felt misunderstood, disconnected, and a lack of belonging in your family, among peers, and/or in the workplace.

This list isn't intended to overwhelm you, but to give you perspective and perhaps some relief in understanding why your challenges and experiences may have felt so painful and difficult.


A deeper understanding of yourself as an HSP or empath may also help you find greater resolution as you work through your ongoing challenges. The list above suggests that it may be helpful to be mindful of broadly three aspects of your experiences so that you can gain a more complete understanding of them and find ways to resolve your challenges:


  1. How your sensory and emotional sensitivity may have impacted your experiences

  2. How your needs may have been neglected or sacrificed growing up, and how that impacts your your sense of self, your identity, and how you live your life today

  3. How your feeling of not belonging, not being understood, and feeling disconnected from others may be due to being an HSP or empath (rather than something else that you thought made you different from others)


Understanding and resolving your challenging experiences from an HSP or empath perspective


How your sensory and emotional sensitivity may have impacted your experiences


When we're trying to understand and resolve a challenging experience, usually we need to address the event that occurred. Often, we tend to think about what happened on a relatively superficial level. For example, what were the words that were said by whom? What actions were taken? One might say "Joe said X to me," and that gave them anxiety.


It could be helpful to go a step further and think about a few more aspects of the sensory experience. What was the tone or the volume with which the words were said? What was the expression on the person's face? "Joe said X to me in a loud, accusatory tone, and he had an irritated look on his face." For some people, they may feel that those additional aspects gave them more anxiety.


But with an HSP or empath, I might ask one more question that isn't often asked:


Could you also feel the other person's energy or emotion?


When people think about a sensory experience, they tend to think about the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But HSPs and empaths tend to be very attuned to an additional sense: emotions in the form of energy. They can walk into a room and quickly feel the "vibe" of the room. If they're sitting with a stressed or anxious person, they may easily feel that person's stress and anxiety. With Joe, they might say "I could feel Joe's intense energy." This intensity can immediately raise their level of anxiety.


So when you're trying to understand an unpleasant experience, it may be helpful to explore whether that energetic or emotional part of the sensory experience contributes to your discomfort. Sometimes, when I've helped people work through their experiences, they would realize this on their own. And it would be the "missing piece" needed to resolve their stressful emotions from an experience.


In addition, in experiences in which you were merely a bystander, it may be possible that you felt a certain way about those experiences because you shared the same space with someone else or because you passively observed another person's experience. Even as a bystander, you could have felt the stressed or anxious energy or emotions of another person. For example, did you feel anxious in a certain situation because of the events that were happening, or did you happen to take on the anxiety of someone who was with you?


There's one notable impact from situations like these if an HSP or empath grew up with a stressed or anxious caretaker. It's possible that they've subconsciously learned that certain situations are unsafe not only through observing their caretaker's behaviors, but also through the energy they took on from that caretaker.


How your needs may have been neglected or sacrificed growing up, and how that impacts your sense of self, your identity, and how you live your life today


If you've grown up in a situation where you were made the listener or emotional caretaker in your household, you may have learned that your emotional needs are less important than others'. If, as an HSP and empath, you have also lived your life trying to adapt to or fit in with others and their expectations, this can be a very good recipe for losing your sense of self and thus, your identity. In this case, identity is about who you are, what you want, and how you live your life.


Often, many HSPs and empaths find they have difficulty in their everyday life prioritizing their own needs. This pattern has become so much a part of who they are, sometimes they're completely unaware of the extent to which it's affected them. The pattern often comes to light when they explore why certain situations in their everyday life have become so stressful or unpleasant. When they reach the point of being able to assert or prioritize their needs, they may feel guilty or uncomfortable, and never feel satisfied. There's a very strong internalized belief that it's their job to make other people happy.


Adapting to or accommodating others to satisfy their needs and expectations on a continual basis can lead to losing a sense of who you are and what you want. A part of you may know who you are and what you want, but that part is often overshadowed by second thoughts concerning the emotional or practical impact of your choices on others. At the end of the day, you can feel confused, stressed, and anxious about where you are in life.


If this applies to you, it's important to work through your experiences to understand when it was vs. wasn't your responsibility to take care of someone else emotionally. Being able to understand when it wasn't your responsibility allows you to be freed from the situations and events that in reality were not your fault or yours to fix. By understanding that you were taught that you have to take care of someone's emotions when it's not your responsibility, you can unlearn this belief. You can then begin to assert your needs and desires, nurture your sense of self, and build a stronger identity. With a stronger identity, you'll live your life with greater clarity about yourself, less stress and anxiety, and more joy.


How your feeling of not belonging, not being understood, and feeling disconnected from others may be due to being an HSP or empath


Very often, the people I work with see themselves as "outliers" in their family. They might refer to themselves as the "black sheep" of their family. This feeling of being an outlier or black sheep is due to feeling that they have little in common with the rest of their family. They may hold a different perspective on life due to their qualities of being observant, perceptive, and inquisitive of the status quo, even from a very young age. Some may have even been criticized by their family for being "too sensitive" or "too soft" while growing up or teased for their interests.


They also grew up feeling different from many of their peers. However, not understanding that it was due to their experiences and perspectives as HSPs or empaths, they may have attributed their lack of belonging to something else that made them different from others.


This raises some questions that may be helpful for you to explore: Have you felt out of place, not understood, or disconnected from others because you're an HSP or empath? Is it possible that you felt lonely or anxious growing up because few people understood you on a deeper level?


When you work through any experiences of feeling different or lonely, addressing this aspect of being an HSP or empath may be what's needed to resolve the emotions from certain experiences.


In addition, you may find that the connection you've been seeking is with people who share the HSP or empath experience and perspective on life and who can understand you on a deeper level.


Understanding and resolving your challenges as an HSP or empath


Based on my observation and experience, I believe that HSPs and empaths do have some degree of sensory and emotional sensitivity that's innate. However, I've also observed that there's a "chicken or the egg" quality to some of the listed challenges of HSPs and empaths, in that they can be learned or exacerbated from an individual's personal experiences.


  1. Sometimes, easily feeling other people's emotions may be due an individual's past unpleasant experience being triggered. For example, if you feel sad because someone is sharing a sad experience with you, is it possible that their story is triggering a sad memory within yourself and you're feeling your own sadness? If you feel someone's anger easily, could it be triggering a past experience of being with someone who was angry?

  2. Easily absorbing other people's emotions may also be due to learning in the past that you were always responsible for taking care of someone's emotions. Might you unconsciously take on another person's anxiety because that's what you were taught to do?

  3. Sensitivity to criticism can be developed and worsened if individuals have grown up receiving criticism in a harsh manner and/or they didn't receive enough love, affection, or emotional support. In such cases, they can learn to associate criticism with judgment and understandably become sensitive to it.

  4. Poor boundaries and sacrificing one's own needs, as explained earlier, tends to be learned.

  5. Continually analyzing and having difficulty making decisions or taking action may in part be due to past experiences in which one formed beliefs such as it's bad to make mistakes or that it's wrong to do what they truly want.

  6. Past experiences of not being understood may lead to anxiety in social interactions, which could contribute to difficulty connecting with others even when there's potential.

I've seen that the more that HSPs and empaths clear the emotions and energies of their past experiences with EFT, the freer they become from the common challenges they're known to experience.


If you would like to explore how we can work through your challenges and experiences with attention to how your HSP and empath experiences might have affected them, please don't hesitate to reach out to chat or send me a note online.


Resources

For more information on HSPs, you can visit Dr. Elaine Aron's website and take her HSP self-assessment test.


For more information on empaths, you can visit Dr. Judith Orloff's website and take her empath self-assessment test.

2 Comments


Laurie Duffy
Laurie Duffy
Oct 30, 2023

Wow, this was very illuminating, and I truly wish I could have read this when I was a teenager, it would have really helped me understand myself instead of thinking there was something wrong with myself. I have figured out a lot of this, but it's taken 56 years and a lot of discomfort and feeling lost. Reading this was very validating, thank you.

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Akiyo Kodera
Akiyo Kodera
Nov 01, 2023
Replying to

Hi Laurie, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm so glad that the article was validating for you. You're not alone in that many people don't start understanding themselves as HSPs and how it's impacted them until they are older. Perhaps it's partly due to lack of resources. But I think it's mostly because there's a time and a place when we can truly begin to self-reflect and have perspective and understanding about our experiences, and that tends to be more challenging when we're younger, for various reasons. The beautiful thing is that once someone arrives at this point of self-understanding, it's an opportunity for a new life to unfold, no matter one's age. I see so many starting this…

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