Empathising, Empaths and Empathy Goggles

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When searching ‘high sensitivity’ online, you can’t miss the term Empath. However, it often seems misunderstood and at the more F end of the spectrum, accompanying esoteric terms like ‘psychic’, ‘light workers’ and ‘ESP’. As a T, this can be confusing. The fluidity of the definitions and the tendency to lump together traits, leading to wild speculations that “all HSPs are xyz” or creating an HSP hierarchy is both inaccurate and incredibly frustrating.

There’s also this underlying thought that being ‘empathic’ and ‘empathising’ isn’t as valid unless it’s accompanied by the Empath label. Yet HSPs can empathise as wholeheartedly and as deeply as Empaths. The only difference is that an Empath picks up on, and feels emotions from everyone, all the time. As a result, Empaths often know and understand their situation, and have put in place emotional checks and balances to deal with their talent, whereas empathic HSPs can get stuck in over-empathising quicksand.

Empathising, is far more than using your imagination. For example if you are talking with someone who is suffering from heartbreak, you can feel their pain because as well as putting yourself in their shoes, you are also picking up cues from heightened emotions, using your intuition, applying additional knowledge that you may know about the situation, body language, as well as using your own experiences and emotions. You don’t have to know someone to powerfully empathise with them – they don’t even need to be human! You can emotionally and physically feel someone else’s pain as if it’s your own – yet that doesn’t make you an Empath.

There are countless Buzzfeed style tests available to tell you if you’re an Empath, but when you look at the traits, a lot of them coincide with the HSP traits on the Elaine Aron checklist. For example, being overwhelmed when you are around a lot of people, preferring to be in natural surroundings, have a physical or emotional reaction from situations or people, and unable to watch violent films. Other Empath traits are more common in introverts, for example preferring the company of animals, creative, strives for truth, a good listener, hyper aware of your environment, finds solitude refreshing, as well as being aloof and cautious. Having taken several of these, I came out as an Empath, yet as someone who doesn’t pick up emotions from others all the time – this isn’t true. I’m really just an introverted HSP – but it shows how the meaning of the term has become so fuzzy.

As HSPs are naturally deeply empathic, it’s easy to slip into over-empathising; even resulting in a strong physical reaction. Imagine you are listening to a tragic story. While we are picking up on all the silent cues and information that I mentioned earlier, we are also thinking ‘what would I do?’, ‘how would I feel?’, ‘could I cope?’. In my last post I talked about how important it is for us to empathise with other people, but sometimes we get locked in our own brains in a cycle of over-empathising.

This is where things go awry. We may be walking in their shoes, but we aren’t living in their brains. We are still in ours; applying our experiences, knowledge, intelligence, views and opinions on the situation. Our over-empathising results in us creating scenarios that differ wildly from the original situation. Even though you are feeling this person’s circumstances, you are far from their reality
That is when you are wearing the Empathy Goggles.

As an INTJ we frequently find ourselves in this trap because we are far more comfortable dealing with situations in our head, but it’s common with HSPs too. NFs in particular, get wrapped up with the people and emotions involved, taking the pain upon themselves, especially when over-empathising. We end up reacting to both the situation and people, using knowledge that is wildly different from how it is in reality. So as well as confusion, we feel lost and disappointed – or even worse, betrayed by people who we thought we had a common bond with. I think that it’s part of the reason why HSPs tend to get targeted by narcissists and less than pleasant characters

Like all things, it’s once you realise the tendency to don the Empathy Goggles, you can recognise the triggers and make the choice to step back. You can still be empathic, and wholeheartedly so, but also making sure that you are protecting yourself from getting drawn into an unrealistic situation.

It’s important to remember that Empathy Goggles aren’t all bad, it’s what allows us to feel and participate in life. It’s also the reason why HSPs can create amazing works of art, films and books, because we not only create worlds, but can live in them too. It’s probably why there are so many HSP actors, authors, songwriters and performers.

What it boils down to, is that empathising is a choice. By empathising you are actively choosing to feel that person’s pain – even if it feels like you are being overwhelmed by it. Whereas Empaths are continually reacting to the barrage of emotions they are subjected to, with no choice in the matter.
Whether it’s a relative or friend, stranger, animal or character on TV or in a book – as Brene Brown said, empathy is the source of connection. It doesn’t matter if you are actively empathising or reacting as an Empath, it’s what you do with that connection that matters.

Empathy and Sympathy

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I’ve been thinking about the differences between empathy and sympathy for a while after the topic came up in some INTJ groups last year. Then I saw this lovely TED short by Brene Brown, which is of course both thought provoking and informative.

INTJs have a great capacity for empathy. Sure, I know it goes against all of those loner/socially unaware/unfeeling stereotypes, but bear with me. Thanks to our Fi (introverted feeling) we are able to easily put ourselves into someone’s shoes. Using our imagination, soon we are caught up with ‘what would I do in that situation’, which can happen one on one, but also with things we’ve read, heard, and seen. As an HSP, this is often amplified, and you end up being haunted by those thoughts, unable to stop them.

In the video, it talks about how important it is when feeling empathy, to be non-judgemental, and communicate back to the person suffering that you understand their pain and are there for them.  However, unless it is someone who we are happy being open and vulnerable with, this is a stumbling block for INTJs. We quickly find ourselves feeling totally overwhelmed with empathy for that person, and instead of reflecting that back to them, we keep it to ourselves, putting up our stone walls (often trapping those thoughts inside with us too).  It’s usually then that we pipe up saying “I’ve got an idea!” or “Here’s a solution!”

And then we get told we are totally unsympathetic, and in a way we are.  Our tendency to barrel along, already thinking two steps ahead of everyone makes it seem like we don’t care. In fact, we do care, we just want to *solve* the problem right now and not talk about it…again.

Sympathy for INTJs often seems to be the next step up from small talk.  It’s expected of you, but it feels totally empty.  We’ve all heard people who coo “Aw Bless” as a catch all sympathetic phrase, but that’s just as meaningful as the obligatory “Hi, HowAreYou”, when someone meets you. It doesn’t mean anything. When I am in a lot of pain, I don’t really want someone to pop up with “Aw bless, at least you don’t have xyz”, I prefer it when they go “It really sucks when that happens, hope it settles down soon”. It’s a subtle difference, but one that is important to recognise. By acknowledging the pain, you aren’t downplaying it, and you are creating a connection instead of a throwaway comment.

Our lack of sympathy is probably how some of the stereotypes come about. It seems that INTJ women tend to have a limited amount of sympathy and we get to the ‘let’s sort this out’ or ‘stfu’ stage a lot faster than other people, which is even more noticeable because we are women. By our very gender, we are expected to see discussing and airing of feelings as a natural bonding activity.  In fact, men are often told in those helpful ‘how to understand women’ articles, ‘let a woman express her feelings, you don’t need to offer a solution, let her talk’. No wonder we are in a no win situation!

So what can we do?
I don’t see our lack of sympathy as a problem.  Sure, just like small talk, we need to be sympathetic at times, but it’s more important to know what to do with our empathy as it’s a far more authentic way of communicating.
At the moment, feeling empathy comes quite naturally, what we need is to know what to do with it.  Going back to Brene’s video, she says “Empathy fuels connection, Sympathy drives disconnection”, and that part of being empathetic is to take their perspective, don’t judge, and recognise what you are both feeling.

The most important piece of advice is at the end of the video.  “Empathy is feeling *with* people”. So as INTJs, we need to open up and make that connection. Only then we can go into Problem Solver mode.

Finally, as HSPs we also need to practice letting go.  It’s so easy when we are empathising to not let go of those feelings. Often simply recognising what you are doing is enough, making a mental effort to put it aside.  I find that it helps to write it down and put a thick line under it.  It doesn’t mean you are unfeeling, you just need to distance yourself for the sake of your own sanity.

Next Time – HSPs, Empaths and Empathy Goggles

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

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Do a Google Image search for Highly Sensitive Person and you get a selection of people who look like they are in pain, crying, wan, slightly constipated or gazing off with the fairies.  This stereotype is of course totally inaccurate, but it is a preconception that is firmly entrenched when you think of an HSP.

The term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ was established by Dr Elaine Aron and is an effective ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of description. However, you do need to put aside the preconceptions of what “sensitive” means.  Society and media frequently associates ‘sensitive’ with weakness, pain, suffering or irritation – just see how often it’s mentioned in adverts; so we need to get back to basics to truly understand the term.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of sensitive is:
Quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences
Having or displaying a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings

So a Highly Sensitive Person is someone who is quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences, whether within themselves, other people or environmentally.
Which is a far cry from what is often depicted, and probably makes a lot more sense.

There is no typical HSP. Being highly sensitive simply magnifies elements of who you are; both your talents and weaknesses – and as everyone is different, so every HSP is different too. Of course you can’t choose what it magnifies, so you may be able to write amazing music or poetry, but also have a sensitive immune system; or be able to make deep connections with different ideas and concepts, but also have anxiety.

As high sensitivity magnifies both good and bad, it tends to be a double edged sword, which is why there is often so much confusion about what it actually means to be sensitive. Bearing in mind that there is no typical HSP, when you start visiting HSP groups there are countless threads with people trying to pigeon hole what it is to be an HSP, and in turn making wild assumptions (HSPs are *all* introverts/feelers/empaths/Capricorns/aspie) and muddying the very simple fact that anyone can be an HSP and the effect that it has is equally as different. This desire to create a defined check list of HSP traits and jumping to the conclusion that “all HSPs are…” means that disinformation is actually having a negative effect on how HSPs are seen, and more importantly, it’s turning away people who may be legitimately sensitive, yet don’t feel that they fit into the metaphysical/empathy/introvert pigeon hole that is often being advocated.

It’s also important to remember that being an HSP doesn’t make you special or better than non-HSPs; nor does it mean that you are doomed for a life of suffering because of it. It’s not like asthma, you don’t get an attack of HSP.  For example, if you suffer from anxiety, being overwhelmed could trigger an anxious reaction.  That anxious tendency was always there in you, but being an HSP compounds it. The way to manage being sensitive, would in this case be to deal with the anxiety, thereby taking away the impact it has on you. You also can’t turn it on or off, neither can you grow out of it, or shake it off.  It just is and it’s up to you to accept it and find ways to manage your natural tendencies that can be triggered by your sensitivity. Fighting your HSP-ness is a bit like fighting your eyeball, a useless waste of energy that will probably leave you with a headache.

Most HSPs have simply unconsciously adapted to being sensitive, just as you would as an introvert – and maybe even making it a feature in their lives. Look at notable HSPs, such as Abraham Lincoln, Carl Jung, Jane Goodall, Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Layne Staley, Nicole Kidman, Einstein, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Emma Watson, Keanu Reeves and Zooey Deschanel. Here are a wide range of different people, with different talents, and different personalities; yet all are HSPs.

 In the last few years, I think that we are getting to a stage where, thanks to a greater understanding of introversion, issues concerning high sensitivity are slowly filtering into public consciousness. Actors talk openly about being highly sensitive, while some hard rocking musicians are described as being ‘too sensitive for this world’. This can only be a good thing, however, it’s our responsibility as HSPs to make sure that the right information is getting out there.

Naturally Elaine Aron is the best person to get information from. She has written several books and visit her site http://www.hsperson.com/and you will find a list of possible issues that can point to being Highly Sensitive. On the whole, these are vague, and that’s because they are meant to be! Remember anyone can be an HSP, and that’s OK.  I’ll be tackling some of the more in depth issues about being an HSP later on.  Until then!

The Thinking HSP…

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I’m an INTJ woman, who is also Highly Sensitive (HSP).  I was tested as an INTJ at the university careers centre, but only really started to understand what it meant 15 years ago; while 5 years ago I was told I was an HSP by my counsellor who also happens to be an HSP expert. I was in no doubt that I was both of these things, but they aren’t exactly natural bedfellows. INTJs have a reputation for being unfeeling robots, with no social skills, who are a combination of Sheldon and Dr House (we aren’t but more about that later)/ While Google HSP and you see people talking about being empaths, psychic abilities, horoscopes, crystals, and illustrated with photos of someone on their own, looking wan and pained (and not all of us are like that either).

See, there is a lot of grey area about being both an INTJ and HSP, and even with all the help of someone who knows far more than I ever could about being an HSP, I still had problems getting to grips with what it means to be sensitive. The more information I tried to find outside of my counselling sessions, the less it sounded like me.  The amount of disinformation about being an HSP is suffocating any real meaning of what the term means, and when it is discussed, the loudest voices are of those who only represent a small section of the HSP community. I know that if I went by what I read on the internet, I would have dismissed any idea of being sensitive and missed out on unravelling a key part of my life – and I know I am not on my own.

So I am going to do my best to ask some questions, shed some light on and dispel some myths, while sharing some of my understanding of what it means to be a thinking HSP.