How to cope and regulate your emotions as a highly sensitive person

I have always been a highly sensitive person.

But I didn’t always feel free to embrace my sensitivity. In fact, for a lot of my life I tried to shut it down. I tried to shove all of the emotions away into a corner of my body somewhere never to be seen again…

…or at least that was the plan.

Many highly sensitive people have been told they’re “too sensitive” or make others uncomfortable with their emotions. I’ve been there. I can’t even count the times that someone told me I was “too sensitive” growing up. It happened a lot.

So I started training myself not to express what I was feeling inside. I didn’t want to make other people upset or feel uncomfortable, so if I felt an emotion starting to bubble up, I would shove it back down.

Sure, this seemed like a good idea at the time.

Looking back, I can see how this idea to numb myself for the comfort of others led to some pretty toxic relationships and friendships.

I wasn’t allowing myself to feel anything. This means I also missed the warning signs that something was off or that someone was using me. I thought I was happy, but turns out I was just making them happy. 

Hindsight’s a jerk..

They weren’t at fault. They just worked with what I was giving them (which was anything they wanted) because my Inner People Pleaser continued to drive the bus, so to speak.

It was just so frustrated sometimes, though, because I would be in complete control of my emotions. They’d be calm, numbed out, and I wouldn’t get upset at anything. And then all of a sudden the emotions would explode out of me, I’d cry, the person I was interacting with would wonder where this came from as the reaction far outweighed the situation.

But I couldn’t halt the flood of emotions until it subsided on its own.

Why I don’t like the boiling pot analogy

Many people describe this cycle as attempting to keep the lid on a boiling pot of water. The more you hide your emotions, the hotter the water gets until there’s enough steam that it lifts the lid to let some out and that’s why it feels like these overwhelming emotions come out in little bursts.

However, this analogy doesn’t resonate with me. It portrays only negative emotions, disregarding the complexity of emotions. This analogy sounds like you’re trying to contain rage, hurt, anger, and other upsetting feelings and then they bubble out often at some really inopportune times.

But, in my mind, this implies preventing it by reducing emotional sensitivity. That way your pot won’t have as much water to boil and will be less likely to boil over.

Instead of the boiling pot of water, consider carrying too many apples

Asking a highly sensitive person not to feel as much is like asking someone to stop breathing. It’s just how we’re wired and I can’t get rid of it anymore than someone else can stop their need for oxygen.

So instead of thinking of it like a boiling pot of water, I like to think of us managing our emotions as if we were carrying a bunch of apples. 

When we don’t allow ourselves time to process, we carry the emotional ‘apple’ in our arms.

Over time, as we bury our emotional experiences, we accumulate more and more apples. Eventually we get to the point where our arms are full, and we’re struggling to balance all of them. But then life, as it always does, throws us one more emotional “apple” to hold.

Some of the apples fall off the pile, hitting the ground and rolling around uncontrollably.

In this scenario, it’s all emotions we don’t allow ourselves to feel that contribute to the apples we’re trying to balance in our arms. When we don’t allow ourselves to be moved to tears by something stunningly beautiful, or when we minimize our excitement for something because we don’t want to appear “overly emotional” – this contributes apples to the pile as well. 

So what’s the balance, then? How do we not hold onto all of these apples, but also not set ourselves up for hurt and judgement as a highly sensitive person?

Emotional regulation.

Everyone, not just highly sensitive individuals, must practice emotional regulation. You won’t always find it appropriate to experience your emotional reaction immediately in every situation. Sometimes, you’ll hold onto some apples to stay calm and fully present.

In the ICU, I often had to hold onto my own sadness and grief to support patients or their families who needed strength from me. So I held onto those apples until the end of my shift…or sometimes just until I got a break and could go cry a bit in the staff room.

But then it’s equally as vital to make time to eat those apples, aka process your emotions.

It’s important to take time to recognize what brought that particular emotion on, what you want to remember from that experience, and if you felt the emotional reaction was actually yours and not a conditioned or trauma induced response. This way, you’re still feeling those emotions and honouring what they had to tell you while also keeping your arms free of carrying too many apples at once.

How to Process emotions

You can process these emotions, or eat those apples, in various ways. Some of my emotions I process during yoga. Sometimes I process with meditation, sometimes I process on my walk with my dog. Some things need to be processed by journaling, and some I need to process out loud by talking to someone I trust or getting coaching or therapy. 

Sometimes I just need to cry it out, which is why my partner and I have an emotional safe-word so that he knows it’s just emotional processing and nothing to worry about. I call them “onderdonk tears” – don’t ask me why. Maybe because it’s silly.

It’s important to have many different processing strategies, because not all situations and not all emotions need the same method of eating that apple (which is why we have so many different methodologies and strategies in the Creating Calm app).

It’s important to make time to eat the apple.

Many highly sensitive people, including myself, find this to be the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s not about feeling your big emotions all the time, or always shutting them down and numbing out. Like so many things in life, it’s about finding the balance, choosing your moment, and working with your true nature, rather than have it work against you.

My question to you is, how many apples are you carrying right now and which ones are you ready to process and let go of?

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I'm Sensitive - Jewel