A reader asks:
I over-identify and hurt for way longer than I think is normal. For example, if I see a movie or news story about something painful that happens to someone and the person reminds me of another person I love, I feel it nearly as strongly as if it had happened to me. There's a terrible ache and sorrow with how they must feel. That can't be normal, right? It's not that I want to be callous when I witness hurt. It's just that this reaction seems over the top, I end up carrying a heavy sadness inside much of the time. How do I put these kinds of things into maybe a set of bottles and set them on a shelf so that I can simply know they are there but not be so overwhelmed by them? At present, it's like they have no containers, no boundaries; they leak on everything and without warning. My heart feels broken about 90% of the time.
Thoughts cause emotions.
- The more you ruminate on something sad, the more sad you will feel.
- The more you worry about something scary, the more anxious you will feel.
- The more you criticize yourself, the more ashamed you will feel.
When I worked a therapist, I used to hear from people all the time who would tell me they had a “highly sensitive personality,” which to them meant they were just "wired" to feel emotions more frequently and more intensely.
And while there’s some truth to that idea, it’s not quite what people think….
Highly sensitive people aren’t biologically predetermined to feel more intensely; rather, through a complex mixture of temperament, personality, early learning, and present-day habits, they tend to mentally elaborate more frequently and intensely on painful or difficult things—and as a result, feel more intensely.
It’s a subtle but important distinction because it suggests that you aren’t just doomed to “over-feeling.” It’s actually something you can change to a considerable degree.
But it requires learning to become more aware of the mental habits and thought patterns that preceded difficult emotions and then changing your relationship to them.
- If you read a sad story in the news, do you immediately start comparing the person in the story to someone they resemble in your life? If so, that’s a mental behavior that you can—with practice—learn to stop.
- If you witness a coworker being rude to another coworker, do you start recalling a time in your life when someone was rude to you? If so, that’s a mental behavior you can learn to stop.
You can’t control your emotions directly. But you can always control your attention—what you choose to focus on and think about or not.