In my last post I admitted to the world that I am an emotionally sensitive person. I can hear my friends and family now: “well, duh…” No great revelation there! If you want to see a grown man cry just sit with me when the right kind of movie is on. And the “right kind of movie” is not a short list. It even includes “Rocky,” believe it or not. Hey, that final scene after the titanic battle with Apollo Creed is over, and Adrian runs into the ring and says “I love you,” and Rocky responds in kind, if that doesn’t reduce you to tears what will? OK, I admit it, this is not exactly “Romeo and Juliet,” but you have to admit that it’s a great happy ending.
I’ve often wondered what it is that makes someone “more emotionally sensitive.” Is it that we’re less resilient to the effects of emotions? Is it that our emotional neurobiology is just more highly strung than that of other people? I’m not sure, but I know that the feeling of emotion permeates my entire body when something that is emotion-provoking happens. I feel it everywhere, and I feel it strongly, too strongly to ignore. Over the years I’ve found that it’s so easy (and sometimes tempting) to simply surf on the surge of feelings, seeing the world through an emotional lens that shades events in less than rational ways. This can be a source of great unhappiness if it isn’t managed.
In my experience I have found a few helpful ways to manage my emotions so that they do not become a source of suffering. I’d like to list them here, with the caveat that this is what has worked for me; it may not work for you. Each one of us has to discover our own path. But I’ve also found that the paths that others have chosen frequently help me to discover my own, sometimes by following those other paths and sometimes by avoiding them. However you wish to take it, here’s my path, at least the one I’ve come to use for now.
- Things got much better for me, emotionally speaking, when I stopped judging myself for being so emotional in the first place. When I was a teenager one of my parents criticized me harshly for “having a tendency to be so emotional,” and for years I believed that my emotional sensitivity was a pathology. It’s not; it’s just how I’ve been formed. When I accepted this part of myself it became much easier to live with.
- With acceptance came relief, but I still found the strength of my emotions to be difficult to manage. I realized that I had to understand my feelings as if they were a part of me, not the whole of me. I found it helpful to think of my emotions as a part of me with which I could have a relationship, a friendly relationship, but a relationship with boundaries. I learned to greet the onslaught of strong feelings as I would greet a friend: warmly embracing, but wanting to hear what news he had for me before deciding if this was a good time to hang out with him.
- So, accepting my sensitive self, and seeing that sensitive self as a “part” rather than the “whole” of me, I found myself becoming aware of my strong feelings as they arose. It was around this same time that I began the practice of mindfulness meditation. I found that my meditation practice strengthened my ability to be aware of, but not attached to, the experiences of body/mind phenomena. So thoughts, perceptions, and feelings could be observed and understood as a process with a period of arising, then abiding, and then a fading away. Turns out nothing is permanent!
- Several years ago this observational quality led to a cathartic insight: these emotions are simple yet powerful instruments, much like the instruments we use to understand and predict the weather. Like a barometer, my feelings indicated atmospheric changes, but in my internal (and usually relational) climate rather than the external climate. My anger tells me the temperature; my fear is an anemometer, telling me which way the emotional winds are blowing. My shame is like a hygrometer, telling me the humidity in the air. My sadness is a rain gauge, letting me know how damp and dreary things have become. In this moment of insight these strong emotions became my best friends, because they were my spiritual compass, helping me to set direction and course with the wisdom of the informational body!
- Having this vital information at my fingertips, I could now use my sensitive feelings as a guide to let me know how best to respond in the moment to whatever was happening between myself and another person. No longer bound by my feelings, I could welcome them and let them guide, but not control, my ways of being and intervening in the world. My strong feelings were now a source of comfort and celebration, not events to be feared.
- And, finally, I learned to stop saying “he/she/it made me feel this way,” and learned to say “when he/she/it does “this”, my body usually feels “this way”, and that’s OK.” Now I’m free to say “OK, if my body feels “this way”, what’s the next best thing to do?” And for me, that equates to one very important quality: FREEDOM. I am free to choose my response, no longer a slave to my feelings. And this feels good!
That’s it. Probably doesn’t seem like much, but for me it was life saving. I found I wasn’t liking myself when I would get carried away by my feelings. It’s much easier now that I’m able to regard my feelings mindfully and embrace them, but not become attached.
I hope this is helpful for you. Please, don’t try to be me; find your own way of managing your emotions. Maybe some of what I’ve done can help you, but don’t believe for a second that it’s the only way. You have to learn for yourself as I learned for myself, and continue to learn. I don’t think these six steps are the end of the story for me. I’m certain that I’ll be learning from life and refining my ways for as long as I live.