Living a values-based life is not an easy goal. You get up in the morning, you’ve got tasks to do. Sometimes you just do tasks without considering how you are allocating your time. Sometimes you just keep going all day until you are done, then fall into bed exhausted. Often it seems there isn’t enough time to think about living your life with meaning or putting your energy into what you believe in.
You may believe in family, contributing to those less fortunate, friendships or making positive difference in your community. Many times though, people don’t put their values into action. They don’t live their beliefs.
Paying Attention to Who You Are
Your values are an important part of your identity. What are your top five values? How much of your life do you spend consistent with those values?
Understanding emotions, being able to observe them in ourselves, and knowing the information they give us is an important part of living effectively. For example, fear tells us to take action or freeze to protect ourselves. When fear is based on true facts versus imagined or misinterpreted information, that message to self-protect can be lifesaving. That message is perfectly clear — you are in danger.
Sometimes, though, the message our emotions are giving us is more difficult to understand. That’s true of shame.
Webster defines shame as the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, and ridiculous done by oneself or another. It is a kind of injury to one’s pride or self-respect.
Do you ever feel like you simply can’t listen to another word about a difficult experience or loss? You may be experiencing compassion fatigue.
Therapists, nurses, doctors, nannies, childcare workers, nursing home caregivers and other people who focus on helping on a regular basis often experience compassion fatigue. Listening to heartbreak and caring about the troubles of others can be stressful and emotionally tiring.
The emotionally sensitive, who are keenly aware of the emotions of others, are at risk for compassion fatigue even if they aren’t in a care-taking situation. Driving past an animal shelter or seeing a homeless person on the street can bring about overwhelming compassion and over time result in compassion fatigue.
Caring deeply day after day can be emotionally exhausting.
The emotionally sensitive experience emotions quicker, more intensely, and for a longer period of time than those who are not emotionally sensitive. Emotional Sensitivity ranges on a continuum from being somewhat more sensitive than others to be being so sensitive that emotions make it difficult for the person to function.
Research on the full range of emotional sensitivity has not been done. An emotionally sensitive person might or might not be a highly sensitive person (For a discussion of highly sensitive people, see Elaine Aron’s work.)
We often talk about the challenges of being emotionally sensitive but we don’t focus as frequently on the gifts. Being emotionally sensitive also has its positive side.
Remember the last time you were upset or depressed? Try to remember what that time was like for you. What thoughts did you have? Maybe you believed life was miserable, or that you were beyond hope.
Now think of a time when you were happy or content. Perhaps that would be now. According to Siegel in “The Mindfulness Solution,” your thoughts are likely to be more positive.
We probably all know that our thoughts are dark when we are depressed and more positive when we are content. While we know this, we don’t pay attention to the effect it has on us.
Emotionally sensitive people love intensely and fiercely, just as they experience most emotions. They can be wonderful in relationships, the most exciting and loving people you could imagine.
When emotionally sensitive people find someone to love, they are often fearful of losing that person in some way. They fear the one they love changing and not loving them back, or maybe that once the person they love realizes who they really are, they will leave.
Losing someone they love is terrifying, an experience that is so painful that they may wonder if they can survive it.
To protect themselves, the emotionally sensitive may form relationships in ways that may hurt the relationship in the long run.
Intuitive thinking is defined as the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning. The root of the word means to guard or protect. Emotionally Sensitive people are generally believed to be more intuitive than most.
That is true in my experience, though I do not know of research that addresses this possibility.
Acting for Reasons We Can’t Explain
Part of intuition is that we are able to learn and act on rules and information without conscious awareness of that information. A study done by Bechara and Damasio (Damasio, 2005) illustrates that ability.
The participants in their study played a gambling game with four decks of cards. Over the course of the game, Decks A and B produced net losses if participants continued using them. Continued use of Decks C and D rewarded participants with net gains.
Most people have experienced “knowing” that they are in danger, that someone is lying, that someone they’ve met will be the love of their life, or that they should turn left at the next stop light to get to where they are going.
They also “know” a situation will work out okay or that they shouldn’t accept a proposal. All without being able to explain the logic of their decision or the reasons they “know.”
You “know” things. You don’t even know how you know them. Yet you have a sense of certainty. Intuitive thinking, which used to be discounted as hocus pocus, is now recognized by scientists as the mind working in ways we aren’t aware of and often don’t understand.
Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, includes intuitive thinking as part of “wise mind.” Emotionally sensitive people are believed to be more aware of their intuition than those who are not emotionally sensitive.
In his book “The Mindfulness Solution,” Ronald Siegel, PsyD, defines mindfulness as awareness of present experience with acceptance. He also says mindfulness is a particular attitude toward experience or way of relating to life that holds the promise of both alleviating our suffering and making our lives rich and meaningful.
Practicing mindfulness does this through focusing on our moment-to-moment experience, and giving direct insight into how our minds create unnecessary anguish.
The Pursuit of Pleasure
Siegel points out that one of the areas of suffering for us all is our fear of losing pleasurable experiences. We all want to escape discomfort, and in our effort to feel good most of the time, we even begin to avoid situations that could result in discomfort.
This is especially true for the emotionally sensitive. They dread going to work because there might be problems to solve or the boss might criticize them. They don’t want to go to a party because they might compare themselves to others in an unfavorable way. They don’t want to join friends for dinner because they won’t know what to say.
We create suffering by worrying about discomforts we might experience. The constant pursuit of pleasure makes it difficult for us to just be.