A Candid Guide to Emotional Equilibrium for Highly Sensitive People and the ones that love them
Originally published in Happiness & Well-being Magazine
Years ago, when my mom attempted to give me the book The Highly Sensitive Person, I distinctly remember the feeling. I felt insulted, slighted and not in the least bit grateful. “I am not highly sensitive!” I declared with fervour and perhaps, although I seem to have repressed this particular memory, a small temper tantrum. This type of passion, I now realize, is generally only reserved for things that really sting because we know in our heart of hearts that they are true. Which was precisely the case in this situation. At the time I viewed being highly sensitive as something to be avoided at all costs. It was like admitting I was weak, emotionally immature, out of control even. And after spending a good chunk of my existence as a tomboy, over-achiever, control freak, goodie two shoes and not necessarily in that order, that pill seemed nearly impossible to swallow. It took me years after this passion-charged moment to understand/admit that this quality embraced is actually my superpower, amplifying my intuition, enhancing my ability to communicate non-verbally with animals, powering up my empathy and allowing me to walk into a room and read an entire crowd merely through feel.
So what is a highly sensitive person? And how do you know if you’re one? Thankfully, we live in a time where you can google highly sensitive person and there is quite literally pages of information on this exact topic. Because people all over the world are stepping into a different relationship with their highly sensitive selves. A healthier more loving relationship. Big bonus for you if you are one, if you love one, or if you are blessed enough to be parenting one (and I am only being slightly sarcastic on that last one).
Being highly sensitive means a few key things. First, you take in way more sensory information than the average Joe and you tend to filter it very differently. Overwhelm is not just common, but the norm, and many highly sensitive people also tend to be introverted. Your senses are finely tuned and not only your normal senses, but also your subtle ones. Meaning highly sensitive people tend to be incredibly intuitive, whether they like it or not, whether they make use of it or not. We also tend to be, for lack of a better description, emotional sponges, easily and, most of the time unconsciously, taking on other people’s stuff and carrying it around like very heavy awkward suitcases. Plus, we often cannot deal with violence or harsh sounds, sights or sensations and scary movies absolutely do the highly sensitive soul in. It’s common to feel overwhelmed, exhausted and even shut-down, unable to swallow one more bite of stimulus or experience.
You might have realized by this point that being highly sensitive is not for the faint of heart. It means that life is more vivid and that your emotions are way closer to the surface than most. It means you can’t hide how you’re feeling easily and that things can feel pretty messy at times. It takes practice to navigate the often emotional and turbulent waters of sensitivity. The truth is that being highly sensitive is far from easy, but the rewards can be incredible, with practice and the right tools. So, now that you’ve figured out whether you’re an HSP, (or perhaps you’ve realized that one of your loved ones is, in which case, I would recommend to read on…knowing what your highly sensitive loved one needs is going to help you out big-time), and you’ve done your darndest to embrace this unique and essential aspect, how do you go about creating a stable and lasting foundation for that often elusive emotional equilibrium?
I’m going to define emotional equilibrium it as the ability to experience and return to a state of internal emotional calm or peace (this is just my definition of it and by no means a set thing – always open to interpretation). A reader has shared since the writing of this article that the term was originally coined 30 years ago by John Welwood, psychotherapist, teacher, and author, www.johnwelwood.com – thanks reader for helping us learn along the way! I will be researching more into that for sure and probably shifting my personal definition of this term as well.
The reality is that every human being, regardless of their level of sensitivity, is going to have fluctuations in their emotional state throughout any given day. Stuff happens, people in your life drive you crazy, traffic gets jammed, plans get changed. It affects each of us and it affects our emotional state in wild and wonderful ways. But, as a highly sensitive person, this same stuff affects us more, and things that wouldn’t necessarily affect others can affect us, sometimes more than we would ever care to admit. Speaking from personal experience, being highly sensitive can sometimes feel like sitting at the very top of a mast of a sailboat in stormy seas, as we feel this and then that, plummeting to this depth and then into another. Just like the image, this emotional turbulence is not at all fun and it can feel difficult to extricate ourselves from the storm once it starts. So how do we do find emotional stability amidst this kind of sensitivity?
First, we have to understand energy. We, as human beings, are made up entirely of atoms, aka energy. And that energy is constantly interacting with other forms of energy – other people, animals, experiences, relationships, environments. There is a constant, often unconscious exchange of information, being perceived and experienced through our unique filters. Some of this information, for example, may trigger us into an emotional experience instantaneously. Whereupon, our emotion state fluctuates rapidly and sometimes without warning. Hence the storm. Sometimes, as an HSP, we inadvertently take on someone else’s emotion in the form of energy. Moments later we’re feeling something strange and unpredicted and trying to figure out why. The annoying truth is this – that as an HSP, you can’t just hope and wish for emotional equilibrium to happen, you need to work at it. There is no magic potion for this, and yes, I have definitely searched high and low for one.
So, what do these practices look like? I have a few tools and techniques that are daily must-dos and some I add in like sea salt, they just make everything that much better.
1) You’ve got to be grounded. This is a non-negotiable for the highly sensitive person. Visualize roots, put your tootsies on the earth, lie in the grass. However you do it, getting connected to the earth is not just some woo-woo thing. It’s essential. This is your safety and the safety of those around you we’re talking about. Because everyone is safer when you’re firmly planted in your body and on the ground. With the added benefit that when you are connected you’re sponge-like qualities diminish noticeably. This means way more energy and way less fluctuation with just a little work.
2) What is yours and what is not. I love this mantra and say it all the time in my work. “I release what is not mine out of my feet.” As highly sensitive people, it’s easy as pie to take on other people’s stuff, including their emotions, but the reality is it’s not helping anyone concerned. Take a deep breath and then on the exhale let go of what is not your burden to carry.
3) Turn on that brain of yours. Stress is hard on us. It breaks down vital connections and slows down our processing speed and capacity. Long-term stress can literally turn off parts of the brain. As highly sensitive people, we absolutely need all systems to be highly functioning so we can feel our very best. Here is a video of my absolutely favourite technique for turning my brain back on, getting myself out of overwhelm and connecting the left and right hemisphere so I can think clearly, logically, creatively and with heart.
4) Be empathetic not sympathetic. There is a big difference between trying to fix someone and feeling sorry for them and just plain loving them for who they are while being compassionate for where they are at. In this case that big difference might just be your emotional well-being. Trying to fix something that is not your thing to fix can be both exhausting and emotionally turbulent. Lovingly step back from the person or situation and see if you can’t find a way to hold compassionate space without needing to get in there and rescue or fix. I promise everyone involved will feel way more empowered and your emotional equilibrium will thank you!
5) Nurture yourself first always. There is no ifs, ands or buts about it. As a highly sensitive person, self care is not a want, it is a basic need. Your emotional equilibrium depends on it. Take time to figure out what nurturing looks like for you – maybe it’s regular baths, yoga, exercise, healthy food, meditation or time for creativity – whatever it is, do what it takes to add these things into your day. Your sanity (and your loved ones) will be so happy you did.
6) Fire your inner critics pronto. We all know them and we all have them. These often nasty little voices whispering/shouting in our ear were created to keep us safe, but just like everything, there is a point and time that we are fully capable of living our own lives without their help. Amongst other issues, these inner critics have a knack for causing incredible emotional instability as we ride waves of guilt, shame and fear caused by our own harsh judgement and criticism. Time to say no, let them go and get the help that we need to make it happen.
7) Get the animals in your life involved. Animals are incredibly sensitive and tuned in. They are connected to their senses, both normal and subtle, and highly intuitive. My horse annoyingly knows exactly how I’m feeling before I even leave my house in the morning. In fact, their safety depends on being deeply connected and sensitive to their environment. If you’ve been looking for a great teacher on how to navigate high sensitivity like a pro, look no further than the furry and feathered beings in your world. Yes, just one more reason animals are awesome!
8) You are not supposed to do it on your own. We are designed to connect in community. Creating a support network may seem impossible at times, because one of the not-so-wonderful things about being highly sensitive is the tendency to isolate oneself in an attempt to stop the over-stimulation and nuttiness of human existence and relationships. Plus we hate feeling like a mess especially in front of other people so we just decide to deal with it ourselves. I get it. I do this. And, it is imperative to have support when things feel too much to bear. Gather a community around you of friends, family members and professionals that you can reach out to when you need it. Have your favourite healer on speed dial, set a regular coffee date with a dear friend that you don’t break come hell or high water, open up to new highly sensitive connections that get it.
Hypersensitivity can seem like a curse, but I promise you, with a little work and some strong daily practices, it is actually an awesome blessing. Your first step is acknowledging your sensitivity and, instead of resisting it, starting to work with it, and then from there, finding your unique path and the practices and tools that work for you to cultivate a healthy physical and emotional balance. Because wouldn’t it feel awesome to feel centred and at peace no matter what happens in your life and be amazingly tuned in and alive? I think the answer you’re looking for is definitely! Happy trails y’all until next time!