“Your emotions are meant to fluctuate, just like your blood pressure is meant to fluctuate. It’s a system that’s supposed to move back and forth, between happy and unhappy. That’s how the system guides you through the world.” ~Daniel Gilbert
As a highly sensitive person I experience emotions very deeply, though it’s not usually obvious to others that I’m having such strong internal reactions.
For those not familiar with this trait, high sensitivity is not a defect or a personality flaw; it simply means that you experience sensory and emotional input more strongly than non-sensitive people.
Of course, this is not to say that humans are really that bipolar in terms of their emotional and physical experiences; sensitivity is a spectrum, and I’ve found myself leaning to the more sensitive side.
High sensitivity has wonderful benefits: it facilitates deep insightfulness, fosters a drive for authenticity and creative expression, and enriches the sensory experiences of life. It’s a double-edged sword, however, because just as the positive aspects are magnified, so too are the negative aspects.
Just like with most aspects of life, this is a delicate balancing act, because it can be difficult not to become overwhelmed by emotion, whether positive or negative.
Embodying this trait throughout my life has been a challenge: I’m always super aware of my environment (both external and internal), and processing that information on a deep level pretty much all the time.
This causes me to have a preference for quiet environments (yet I live in New York City!), and also to need lots of alone time to recharge. This is not to say I’m a hermit or that I hate people; quite the contrary: I crave authentic connection and love engaging deeply with others.
It’s been crucial to learn to accept this trait, to pinpoint my needs without feeling guilty for them, and to have the courage to express those needs to my loved ones.
One of the most beneficial things I’ve been learning is the importance of non-judgment. For every high there is a low, and the only thing making a low “bad” is that we judge it as so.
Everyone experiences a full range of emotions, and a highly sensitive person will feel it even more intensely. However, fluctuating emotions are part of life. They’re not something to be avoided at all costs, as I believed I should be able to do in order to achieve an imagined and unattainable level of perfection, which didn’t include messy emotions that only get in the way.
When I feel “negative” emotions such as anxiety, anger, and sadness, I berate myself for succumbing to such “bad” feelings and feel the need to make them go away as soon as possible. Needless to say, this reaction does little to alleviate the distress caused by these emotions, and usually only exacerbates them.
What I've realized is that it isn’t the emotions themselves causing me to suffer—it’s my judgment of those emotions and my desire to rid myself of them.
When I am unable to make the feelings go away, it feeds my anxiety and I retreat even deeper into myself instead of allowing the emotional wave to pass and expressing my feelings to others.
Judgments are thoughts about emotions. Emotions are simply fleeting currents that come and go and provide a compass for us to fully feel and address whatever issues may be under the surface.
Though thoughts and emotions are related, they’re different things, and we can learn to manage both of those experiences.
In order to do this, I practice mindfulness exercises in which I simply allow my thoughts to stream and recognize that these thoughts don’t define me unless I give them that power; I’m the one in control of my experiences.
I also allow myself to fully feel my emotion, without judgment, sometimes naming them as they pop up if that helps.
Self-understanding and a connection with our intuition are essential for strengthening our emotional intelligence, and this is an instance in which high sensitivity is a major benefit, because it's highly conducive to deep introspection.
I continually practice being mindful of my thoughts and how they cause emotions so that I can catch any spirals before they snowball.
This act alone has had tremendous benefits for my overall well-being, as well as my ability to manage, and most importantly, accept, all the emotions that come with being human.
A recent experience of unrequited love has demonstrated to me how far I’ve come in terms of riding the emotional waves without added layers of judgment and criticism.
At my gym, I met a very attractive man with beautiful chin-length blond hair, deep expressive blue eyes, and a sweet disposition.
I developed a little crush and tried my hardest to be more open, but also to accept that I do get shy and I’m slow to warm up to new people.
I didn’t judge myself negatively for it, but rather was proud of myself for my efforts to maintain eye contact, smile, and initiate conversation.
Unfortunately, as I was beginning to think the feeling might be mutual and trying to work up the courage to ask for a date, I saw him with another girl who frequents the same gym. It was obvious they had something going on.
Although it felt like I had been punched hard in the gut to see them together, in the past a situation like this would have also made me spiral into a deep hole of self-hatred. I would have criticized myself for being too shy, for failing, for missing an opportunity, and for allowing another woman to snatch up my crush.
These thoughts would then fuel intense regret, anxiety, fear, despair, and anger—which are emotions in response to thoughts, not in response to the actual situation. Then I’d criticize myself for allowing these feelings to get so out of control, and the vicious cycle would progress ad infinitum.
But that isn’t what happened this time.
Instead, I allowed myself to completely feel every emotion that came with this experience, not with thoughts about the experience.
A twinge of sadness, a pang of despair, loneliness, frustration, jealousy, defeat, embarrassment, desire, anxiety, lust, and anger all passed through me in waves every time I saw them together or felt how much I still liked him and wished I could have had a chance with him.
Without the layer of judgmental thoughts, these feelings became manageable. I’ve also developed a sense of gratitude for all the things I feel, because this is what it means to be human, and vulnerability is a beautiful thing that can connect us directly with our inner selves.
We hurt because we love, so hurt is a sign that you’ve let love in.
I’ve used this experience to learn more about myself, and I’m thankful that it can help facilitate my continued emotional intelligence training.
As I began to praise myself for my efforts rather than only criticizing myself for failing and letting my emotions consume me, I began to cultivate self-love as well. Since love for others stems from love for self, I found that this not only diminished anger toward myself, but naturally flows outward to others.
Compassion for others begins with compassion for ourselves, and high sensitivity facilitates this process.
I’ve also learned that how we react to events is far more important than what actually happens to us.
Unrequited love is usually seen as a negative thing, and it truly does hurt, but it’s also a window to deeper understanding and compassion. For that reason, I’m grateful to have had this experience, even though it's painful.
Pain has a purpose. It shines light on the most important issues we must face, as well as our biggest opportunities for growth and learning. True, my crush doesn’t reciprocate my feelings, but I still have a loving family, I still love myself, and I love being alive to have all these experiences.
When I think about it like this, I’m grateful, and I’ve learned to love myself throughout all the fleeting emotional experiences that ultimately don’t define me anyway.
We just have to ride the waves and recognize that our thoughts are not always an accurate depiction of reality, our emotions are fleeting, and it’s completely okay to feel the entire spectrum of them.
We are human, and as the perfectly imperfect beings that we are, feeling the spectrum is what we are here to do.