When Bad Things Happen to Sensitive People
The IRS calls and you’re being audited and your dog just chewed up all your receipts. Your husband forgets your anniversary. Your son fails a class. Your best friend talks behind your back. When even everyday kind of bad things happen, emotionally sensitive people feel more fear than others do and often their threat alert system is activated in some way every day. When on threat alert, the brain’s defense system is activated to flight or fight. Sometimes people feel paralyzed. Living in paralysis or in fight/flight is exhausting.
Germer, in his book The Mindful Path to Self -Compassion puts these responses in three categories: self-criticism, self avoidance/isolation, and self-absorption (Germer, 2009).
Fight Responses: The fight response is usually against themselves. Emotionally sensitive people may blame themselves for not trying harder or doing better. They may see the negative event as being what they deserve. They hate that they seem to always make mistakes or that they cannot seem to manage routine life events. Emotionally sensitive people can be quite hard on themselves. Shame may be a part of this response if the person believes they are somehow flawed or broken and thus they will never be able to do anything right or be accepted by others in any way.
Some emotionally sensitive people may feel let down by someone else, someone that they feel should be protecting them, like a spouse. Many times they feel misunderstood.
Flight Responses: Escaping the fear and the anxiety is an automatic for some individuals. They may go to bed to hide from the world until they feel less afraid. They may try to ignore their suffering and push it aside through working excessively, overeating, over-exercising, or any activity that numbs the fear.
They may have difficulty taking action even when doing so is critical. For example, an emotionally sensitive person who cannot make it to work may have difficulty making the phone call to their boss to inform him even when she knows if she doesn’t call the situation will be worse. Another example would be avoiding medical tests or not showing up for an exam for fear of the results.
Self-Absorption: Sometimes the emotionally sensitive ruminate over what happened, being paralyzed by their fear. They are unable to think of how others feel because they are paralyzed by their own emotions. In this state, the emotionally sensitive person may be seen as selfish and self-centered. Actually they are overwhelmed with their fear and unable to think clearly.
Sometimes it’s difficult to ask for support from others. Even close friends and family may not understand the intensity of fear and how overwhelming it can be and may respond in critical ways. Or maybe asking for help creates vulnerability and adds to the fear. Unfortunately lack of support or isolation, plus avoidance, is the perfect environment for fear to grow stronger.
Initial Steps to Take
1. First work on calming the physical sensations of fear. Different techniques work for different people. One strategy is to consciously slow your breathing. Breathe in, then slowly breathe out, counting to seven or saying the word calm in a drawn out way. Guided imagery or progressive relaxation may be helpful as well.
2. Challenge any shame thoughts you may have. Shame is the idea that a person is broken, worthless, and unacceptable. When someone feels shame for who they are, most interactions with others will create fear and trigger the fight/flight system. Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me is a good resource for understanding shame.
3. Self-validate. Judging your internal experience, your thoughts and your feelings, as wrong will add to the problem. In fact, your internal experience is just your internal experience and it isn’t wrong–it just is. The way you act on it may be effective or ineffective, but a thought or a feeling is just a thought or a feeling. You may not even believe or agree with the thoughts and feelings that you experience. Books on mindfulness such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are may be helpful to look at how to stop judging yourself.
4. Self-compassion. Self-compassion is responding to your internal experience as you would to a good friend. Kristin Neff says self-compassion involves being kind to yourself, recognizing that our experiences are part of being human, and mindfulness or accepting without judgment what is happening in the moment.
5. Get Support. Find people who will encourage you and accept you, who you can be honest with about your feelings and thoughts. This might be a support group, a minister/rabbi or other spiritual leader, a therapist, or a close friend. Connection is a basic need and it requires courage and vulnerability. Consider Brene Brown’s talk on vulnerability at http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html#.TwNN2ib7BJE.email for more information.
5. Opposite Action. Overcoming the fear means facing the fear, not fighting or fleeing.
In future posts, we’ll look at most of these steps in more detail.
Hall, K. (2012). When Bad Things Happen to Sensitive People. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/01/when-bad-things-happen-to-sensitive-people/