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Testimony: one of my biggest challenges, empathy to the power of 10!

Why do highly sensitive people and empaths absorb other people's emotions?

If for some people or on certain occasions, absorbing the emotions of others is a huge asset, in the majority of cases, it is not a blessing. It can even be difficult to live with on a daily basis. If you are unfortunate enough to come across or interact with someone who is in pain or who is not having a good day, their state of mind or their pain can have repercussions on your general condition.

So imagine how it feels when being in a crowded place, with all the energies flowing around, we may even feel physical discomfort without knowing why. This goes even beyond for empaths who can sense the emotion of the collective. So with each tragic event, like earthquakes or attacks, for example, it is a real torture.

Many people believe that absorbing other people's emotions is just an attention-grabbing fantasy, and that there is no such thing. Fortunately, as I will explain in this post, neuroscience comes to the rescue to explain why this happens.


Highly sensitive people have an immense capacity for empathy. It is for this reason that they tend to be drawn to helping professions like therapy and teaching. Often they become confidants to their friends, caregivers to their family or support to those around them. The empathy of highly sensitive people and empaths often goes beyond the usual definition of the word. They don't just notice how others feel, they feel it themselves, in their own bodies and emotions.

It can be extremely exhausting to absorb the emotions of others, but it can also be an asset in certain jobs or situations that require a bit of “mind reading”. However, when this trait intensifies, it becomes emotionally and physically exhausting, and can leave highly sensitive people and empaths feeling completely empty.

As a coach for HSP and empaths, it is my job to hold the inner or outer stories and struggles of each of my clients. It involves the emotions and implications these stories have on their lives. So, without a doubt, it is a huge honor to be included in the life story of others, and their psychological and emotional journey, but some days it can be particularly exhausting. Juggling my emotions and those of others can make me vulnerable if I am not careful between what belongs to me, and what belongs to my clients. It is a constant and daily work of self-control in order to dissociate and purge in full consciousness, in order to maintain balance.

One of the main reasons therapists and other helping professionals burn out quickly is when proper self-care is not implemented. Even if you are not a professional caregiver, as a highly sensitive person, you have undoubtedly experienced similar situations in contact with your friends, colleagues or loved ones. Absorbing the emotions of others, even if everyone does it at different levels, is one of the contradictory characteristics - advantages/disadvantages - of the sensitivity trait.

So why do highly sensitive people absorb other people's emotions, and how can you stop or reduce the exhaustion this causes?

As we have seen so far, all highly sensitive people tend to be strongly affected by the emotions of others. Many of us can walk into a room and immediately feel tension, joy, discomfort, sadness, etc., without any verbal communication. In a way, we are masters of nonverbal communication.

But it does not stop there ! Most highly sensitive people don't need to be a person's verbal confidant to "know what's going on" with someone. It is often enough to be in the presence of a person to know their discomfort, their distress, or their joy.

Have you ever experienced a situation where you were with a group of friends, for example, and knew the emotion of one of them, without even speaking to them? And then, learning some time later from this person that what was happening to them was exactly what you had felt earlier? This is one of the reasons why highly sensitive people and empaths hate drama and conflict so much. We can see them coming from miles away, and often we absorb the emotions surrounding the situation without understanding what is happening to us.

The problem is that these emotions do not remain separate from us. Many highly sensitive people have difficulty being in an atmosphere, even slightly tense, and not feeling tense themselves. This is a phenomenon that most people can experience because we all have the ability to pick up, to some extent, the emotions of others, thanks to mirror neurons. But for highly sensitive people, the manifestation of this ability is much more common and intense.

Thanks to neuroscience!

Let's see together what mirror neurons are.

Although scientists don't yet fully understand the phenomenon and the real implications, mirror neurons are essentially special brain cells that help us understand what another person is experiencing through the mirror effect (hence the name). These small cells have sympathetic activity. They compare the behavior of others with our own past behavior - "mirroring" them to understand what is happening to those we are talking to. It is thanks to the functions of mirror neurons that we identify ourselves when we recognize someone's emotion.

But mirror neurons don’t just help us identify with others and feel what they feel. They also allow us to learn new things. For example, we use mirror neurons when we watch someone demonstrate something and then try to do it ourselves. To take an example that everyone has experienced, it's our mirror neurons that are in action when someone yawns and we yawn too. Same thing for laughter, it's contagious!

Does this mean that highly sensitive people have more mirror neurons than others? No ! But their mirror neuron system is more active. Brain imaging research has revealed that the brains of highly sensitive people are wired differently than those of others. In these studies, HSP consistently had higher levels of activity in key parts of the brain related to emotional and social processing. What was also observed is that HSP had a higher level of activity even when the tests carried out involved strangers. When they were shown photos of people close to them, not only did they have higher than average brain activity, but also when the images depicted unknown people. So these studies demonstrated the incredible ability of highly sensitive people to express compassion towards people they did not know personally. However, the effect was even more pronounced when it came to loved ones.

Thanks to mirror neurons, highly sensitive people and empaths have levels of empathy well above average. This therefore explains why they can absorb the emotions of others and feel sad, irritable or stressed even if they themselves have had a very good day! This is also valid for positive emotions, but more important for “negative” emotions.

Testimony: one of my biggest challenges, empathy to the power of 10!

The emotions of others overwhelmed me for a large part of my life

As a coach for highly sensitive people and empaths, it has been essential to learn to do two things: prioritize myself and set limits. However, this was not always the case. Before I discovered I was highly sensitive, I truly lived on a roller coaster every day. Back and forth to doctors who were perplexed, and who only knew to give me a prescription to calm my anxiety. Permanent flight forward to try to escape my crippling discomfort and my invasive anxieties. Isolation so that I no longer find myself in states of confusion and overwhelm. By thinking that “there must be something wrong with me”. I am sure some of you will certainly find themselves here, because I'm not telling you anything new about the effects/reactions of sensitivity and empathy.

Previously, not only did my activity require me to meet with clients almost daily, but above all I led a team of more than 70 people. I was constantly exhausted, panicked before seeing clients, and drained after meetings or constant interactions with my colleagues. I thought about my clients and my team almost all the time. I would schedule sessions even late at night instead of sleeping. I was convinced that I absolutely had to be emotionally connected to my clients, and those around me in my life, to succeed.

During meetings or appointments, my anxiety would increase when the emotions in the room intensified. As the business grew, I began to become more accepting of my persistently high stress levels, and I just got used to living at this debilitating level of exhaustion and anxiety.

I didn't realize that my own ability to regulate myself emotionally was beginning to decline. I could no longer control my anxiety, panic attacks had become my daily life, and my sleep and health were suffering. I was tired all the time, to the point of burnout, the shattering of my relationship, the death of my father which made everything worse, so one day, I collapsed. But this situation triggered something else... something I hadn't anticipated... spiritual awakening! Everything I had experienced before was nothing... now it was the flood.

Lesson learned!

Finally, immersed in torpor, turmoil and confusion, I spent a lot of time learning about spiritual awakening. I read for whole days, listened to podcasts to try to understand what was happening to me, find my way and get back on track. That’s when I discovered hypersensitivity and empathy. And in that moment, my whole past made sense. I realized how much the emotions of my clients and my team influenced me, even though I thought I was perfectly fine. It wasn't until I stopped (no choice), rested, and started taking care of myself that I realized how deep my exhaustion was.

I also realized, then, that this “problem” of information and emotions’ transfusion had repercussions well beyond my relationship with my friends, my clients or my family. It also reflected with the baker or my neighbor, for example. But it went even further. I was always feeling unwell in urban areas, in general. When I looked at a stranger on the subway, I felt a sudden uneasiness. Worse,, when a tragic event took place somewhere in the world that I had not yet known about, I felt intense sadness for no apparent reason. I, who never looked at the small screen, could know that something terrible had happened before learning about it from a third person. Highly sensitive people, and even more empaths, know when something is wrong with a person, in a group or even in the collective: it's a sixth sense.

But this “sixth” sense can bring us setbacks with heartbreaking repercussions. So it’s up to us to sort things out, filter them and analyze them. We have no real obligation other than to behave humanly, full of compassion and understanding. Just because we feel someone needs help doesn’t mean we should deny our right to take care of ourselves. How could we serve others if our glass is empty? For me, taking care of myself means giving myself an hour of silence a day, as well as a moment of meditation and journaling (even a few words), and putting my phone on “do not disturb” mode at night, of course, but as many times as I need during the day too. It’s also allowing myself to ask for help when needed.

Asking for help can be especially difficult for highly sensitive people, because we don't want to burden others. But just as we help others, we should be able to ask for help for ourselves. After all, we can't effectively help others if our own emotional baggage is too heavy. This is the correlation with the empty glass.

If you are highly sensitive, remember: you have the right to be heard, the right to moments of calm and rest, and the right (duty) to take care of yourself.


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