A friend recently sought help in understanding her son. He had reportedly been having difficulty at school, would come home very emotional, and withdraw to his room. She described him as moody, dramatic, and emotionally sensitive.
My friend, the boy’s mother, is a brilliant person with a sharp intellect and strong awareness of others. She loves her son and wants to see him thrive in life. But she finds it hard to access her own feelings. For her, the world of emotions is a foreign landscape that is difficult to navigate. In this case, mother and son are approaching life with two different maps. In many ways, it feels like they are living in separate worlds.
I grew up as the eldest of four children. I was quieter than most of my siblings, often very sensitive, and could be easily triggered by little things my brother would do in jest. In some ways, it was a natural response to having little personal space or time.
My sensitivity became more heightened in my teenage years, especially at home. Every emotion was more pronounced and I became incredibly sensitive to noise. At the time it was largely put down to it being a “teenage growth” thing — you know, hormones and all that. But in hindsight, other factors were involved.
I have a dear friend who is often seen and described as dramatic. To her, why have emotion and downplay it? She knows the world via her feelings. It was harder for her to be understood and have her experiences and feelings seen as real or valid. It was easy for her to be seen as exaggerating things. Such is a problem for people who express their emotional selves freely.
Starting with the self
This article isn’t meant as a prescriptive guide to every aspect of being emotionally sensitive. It is guided by my own experiences in life and over twenty years of working with children and adults.
One of the most important lessons I have learned is to recognise at any moment that I am seeing life through the lens of my own reactivity. What we think we are observing in the other as objective, is actually not objective at all.
The ideas in this article should not be used as a way to diagnose children or others, although hopefully, this article will help bring more understanding and compassion for you and your friends.
Being aware of language
Over the years I have heard all kinds of words to describe emotionally sensitive people—dramatic, fragile, precious (often said with sarcasm), delicate, and uptight. And I’ve noticed that in using these words, they do well to create a disconnect from the person who is being judged.
Even the term “emotionally sensitive” can be problematic. I know many people who, upon discovering information about emotional sensitivity, relish the descriptions. Sometimes labels like this can help explain things we’ve experienced and felt for a long time. A label like this can feel validating and help one arrive at more self-compassion.
I like (or even prefer) the term emotionally connected as to me it feels more empowering. It helps to recognise that while emotional sensitivity may show up as a hindrance in one context, that connectedness can also be a tremendous blessing and gift.
What do I mean by emotionally connected?
Someone who is strongly connected with their emotions experiences a full range of feelings. And it can also mean feeling the feelings of others without knowing it.
I once attended a party with a friend with whom I’d been hanging out all day. When we arrived at the party, Tom was upbeat and feeling good after our time together. Tom loves people and they love him. He is warm, caring, and loves to engage in conversation. But within an hour, Tom was noticeably exhausted. He ended up leaving the party early.
When I saw him the next day, Tom couldn’t shake this heavy feeling. When I asked him about it he shared that he got into a conversation with someone the night before and was still carrying this feeling. The friend had been going through a particularly challenging time, and Tom could feel everything they were feeling.
He then went to tell me about a couple of other conversations where he’d picked up their feelings too. Now Tom was carrying around these feelings as if they were his own. And to make it harder for him, it was starting to cloud his mood and the way he saw situations in his own life.
projection. noun. attribution of one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people or to objects especially : the externalisation of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defence against anxiety — Merriam-Webster
A commonly understood defence pattern amongst adults is that of projection. Projection is when we see others through the lens of our own feelings and thoughts, projecting our own issues onto them.
Introjection is the opposite of projection. For someone who introjects, they can take on the attitudes, values, feelings, and energies of others as if they are their own.
introjection. noun. a process in which an individual unconsciously incorporates aspects of external reality into the self, particularly the attitudes, values, and qualities of another person or a part of another person’s personality. — APA Dictionary of Psychology
This is the case with Tom — he was unconsciously taking on other people’s feelings and experiences as if they were his own. Empathy is a highly valued quality in society, but introjection is another level on that. One can be empathic and understand another’s feelings without taking them on.
Earlier I shared about my friend and her son coming home from school feeling emotional. Can you imagine the experience of someone with high emotional connection or sensitivity spending an entire day in a classroom with twenty-six other children all feeling different things at the same time? That can be a very difficult situation for some people.
Changing your expectations
Before changing expectations, it is important to become aware of them. It is a very human trait to view others through the lens of our own expectations of life and ourselves. What might work for us won’t always work for others.
Layered on top of that are all kinds of social expectations that can be influenced by the media, gender stereotypes, and as children move into adolescence, the dynamic complications of technology.
A key expectation to let go of is an expectation for children to behave like other children. It seems fairly self-evident, but harder done in practice. A colleague recently reminded me that all “dysfunctional” behavior is in fact functional. I put dysfunctional in quote marks because the label itself is highly subjective.
What you or I may perceive as not functional was actually developed as a coping mechanism out of something the person felt would work for them to survive in the world. Meeting someone in this recognition is important before being able to help support them to try on other skills and behaviours.
For example, if someone naturally withdraws to their room, that may have developed as a coping strategy. In the same way, someone who emotively dramatises a story for effect may have developed that as a way of coping.
Learning to distinguish between feelings
Like most children, I grew up knowing how to distinguish between happy, sad, and mad. It’s not that these were the limit of my feelings. They were simply the only labels I had.
In my adult life, I have made a concerted effort to expand my emotional vocabulary. For example, I learned that anger can express itself as an annoyance, irritation, frustration, resentment, and rage to name a few. Just as happiness can express itself as gratitude, contentment, joy, and elation amongst others.
Having the language to put to feelings can help to be more precise in how we speak about things. And helping children to develop and expand their emotional vocabulary is important too.
The great news is that children respond very well to learning about emotions. Giving them tools to describe what is happening inside them can be incredibly powerful. [If interested in finding resources, search online for “emotion and feeling wheel” as one tool that I have used.]
Technology and social media
We are in the twenty-fifth year of the internet age. Digital technology and social media have drastically changed many aspects of our lives. And while the human brain has immense adaptive abilities, this massive societal change has happened within a blip of the timespan humans have been on the planet.
There is a huge expectation for children to be able to utilise this technology in a discerning way. And especially with many of their parents and teachers not having grown up with this technology in their own childhoods, let alone mastered it in their adult years.
I know many people who identify as emotionally sensitive who struggle with how to use social media in a balanced way. There is still a long way to go in how to teach discipline and discernment in the use of technology.
As a starting point, it can be useful to help young people become aware of the connection between social-media use and their emotions. I do this by simply asking questions like, what are you noticing about the connection between social media and how you are feeling right now? Most often young people are already highly attuned to this.
I grew up in the 1980s when there was little understanding of the relationship between diet and mental health. At the time, there was a campaign against red food coloring as a trigger for hyperactivity. In my own life, I have discovered that food greatly affects my moods and thinking.
I’m not going to get all prescriptive here in telling you what foods, as it could likely be different for everyone. I am a big fan of conscious eating and food elimination as a way of discovering causes. [Although I’m looking at you sugar and chocolate.] Nutritionists can be a great source of insight as well.
Some of us have a bigger need for alone time than others. Until I was fourteen I shared a room with my brother. I found nature or being outside to be a better place for me to achieve that. Finding and creating environments that are conducive for a child is important. For me, part of this is having places with limited stimulation.
My friend’s child in the first story was one of four children. When he came home from school there was an expectation to go outside and play with others. And yet, for him, taking time alone in his room for an hour to read helped him reset at the end of the day.
Reading and Writing
Some children are naturally drawn to books and reading. For some, it can be a way to escape and lose oneself in the imagination and experiences of others. Books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Harry Potter Series are examples of books that explore different spectrums of emotion.
Children who are emotionally connected can also be good story makers and poets. Encouraging them to write down their stories and tell them out loud can be a great therapeutic process for dealing with their experiences.
I hope this was helpful in creating more understanding around emotionally sensitive people in your life. It can be a tricky journey for parents who may not be built the same way as their children. Having a listening ear to understand that you are doing okay and so is your child can help.
I am particularly passionate and experienced with this, so if you want to connect for coaching around this topic, please reach out.