The Highly Sensitive Person

More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters


Back to Comfort ZoneFebruary 2006: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Sensitive Emotion:
HSPs and the Problem of Bearing an Unbearable Emotion

NOTE: For the purpose of this article, I am going to limit myself to unbearable pain caused by some event, something happening outside. If you have unbearable emotional pain and do not know the cause, you must seek professional help.

I have written a great deal about emotions in these newsletters (in the paper issues, Coping with Change and Loss, Vol. 2, Issue 4; Grief, Vol. 3, Issue 2; Handling Emotional Pain, Vol. 5, Issue 4; C. S. Lewis on Human Pain, Vol. 6, Issue 3; Emotional Regulation, Vol 6, Issue 4; Handling Fears, Vol 8, Issue 2; and a three part series on emotions: Vol 8, Issues 2, 3, and 4; and also in the online issues, HSPs Have Stronger Emotional Reactions, August 2004, Handling Fears, Nov./Dec. 2004).

Why have I devoted so much space to emotion? Because it's so true that "HSPs Have Stronger Reactions," the title of an article you can read by clicking under the August 2004 issue. But I have skirted the subject of "unbearable" emotions. That level of emotion, by definition, makes you want to escape consciousness entirely. Life feels like a trap--you can't live in it, even though you can't kill yourself. Don't believe in that. I hope. Or maybe you even do consider it.

At any rate, in this state, nothing brings comfort. You also feel terrible about yourself for being so weak. You wonder how people do it, live at all, given the possibility of such pain. How do they carry on? How will you carry on? Will you just end up homeless or hospitalized? How can you be thrown into such despair and survive?

I don't know how common it is for HSPs to have a reaction of unbearable emotional pain. I hope it's rare. Maybe for some never. If you don't know what I'm describing, I suggest you not read farther, because I realize this is a rather dark subject. But I know some of you will still be reading. A child of yours has died, you've failed at something that meant everything to you, a partner left you for someone else, you were a victim of crime, you lost everything in a disaster, you've been humiliated at work so that you can't go back yet and can't find another job.

Here are a few examples of my own such moments:
* Having a house we were living in burn down. We lost everything.
* Learning that the second volume of what was to be a three-part novel based on The Mahabharata was not going to be published. (Samraj, available in the HSP Store, was the first volume.)
* Receiving a letter that I had failed my comprehensive written exam for my doctorate (it was a mistake not corrected for 36 hours).
* Receiving a rejection letter from an organization I'd been working towards joining for most of my life.
* Learning my dog had been killed.
And there have been others.

A Wide Range Of Emotional Tsunamis

Grief, hopelessness, panic, longing, and shame are some of the potentially unbearable emotions, along with rage, guilt, jealousy, and others I'm sure I'm not thinking of. The pain comes in waves, the first being the largest of course, but as we process and feel all the implications, it roars in over and over. Only times settles it down, although the waves of feeling can so wear us down that secondary depression, anxiety, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may set in (and perhaps need to be treated).

What about unbearable pleasure, closeness, or relief? These happen too. After such an experience, I had a dream of honey pouring out of something and I had only a small container to catch it in, so that it was overflowing everywhere. I knew it referred to an "unbearably" sweet kindness directed towards me by someone I respected. Other examples for me are the perfectness of a moment or scene while traveling or out in nature, or during a truly fantastic performance of music or dance, or while having a fresh realization of how much I love my husband or son. That standing ovation from a thousand people at the Congress of HSPs in Holland was certainly one of those.

I often feel frustrated at such moments that I am unable to feel them enough. Maybe I'm distracted by the stimulation of the details of the situation, or it's too brief, or I'm too defended against it for some reason, but often it seems as though my nervous system is simply not "big" enough for the goodness it is taking in. The memory is going to be more enjoyable, but bittersweet, in that the moment itself has passed and will never come again. The only exception to this, I find, is the "bliss" of meditation. That I feel I can return to again and again, and while it's source seems unlimited, I feel equal to it in some sense.

The unbearable negative emotions, however, are clearly the main problem for us.

A Little Course In Trauma

Another term for unbearable emotion is emotional trauma, which seems like an overused word, but perhaps is not--unbearable emotions are more common that one thinks, just because of how hard it can be to remember them due to protective forgetting. But I do not wish to employ "trauma" or "traumatic" just for effect--they deserve a specific definition.

All negative emotions are a response to a sense of threat to one's physical or psychological "integrity" or wholeness (from which comes the word "health"). Broken bodies and dissociated, numb, or psychotic minds have lost their integrity. We are strongly motivated to avoid such a breaking up. Stress is anything that might be leading to that disaster. Trauma results when the integrity is actually lost.

We all understand physical trauma, but trauma due to the falling apart of a mind may be harder to grasp unless you have experienced it. It might be described as "the end of the world," "falling apart," "falling endlessly," or being "pulled apart." The heart "breaking." Having a nervous "breakdown." The effect on thinking is that we can't. Or we can't think of anything else. We may not even be able to respond--we simply freeze. But soon, during or after, our defenses arise and attempt to isolate the experience, as if cordoning off the scene with yellow police tape. For example, during traumas people often describe watching themselves from outside their bodies, like an observer--this further protects them from the pain. And sometimes the shift from being in the body to being an observe takes place later, still as a defense. Think of any trauma you may have experienced. Do you relive it from inside or outside of your body? My hunch is that HSPs more often become observers.

Defenses are always about some kind of separation from or isolation of the experience--a breaking up of the integrity to prevent the breaking up from spreading, like fighting fire with fire. There may be little or no memory of the trauma itself, the circumstances of the traumatic event, the emotions associated with the trauma, their actual intensity, or their relationship to the traumatic event. (Sometimes, however, this lack of is due to our minds not being able to process the experience from short-term to long-term memory, so that it is not a forgotten experience--it's a lost one. Still, there's some memory, we think, at least of being overwhelmed, that is stored in the brain but no available to conscious thought.)

Some psychologists theorize that consciousness itself is simply the product of having to split off our awareness of death and loss. That is, when something's pushed into the unconscious, there has to be something left to go on, and that's consciousness. An entire theory called "terror management theory" argues that avoiding unbearable emotions about death and loss are a primary, necessarily unconscious human motivation.

Interestingly, as much as we don't want to know about these split off terrors, at least some of us act as if want to heal and reconnect with these lost parts if the circumstances are right. Often time alone will do it. You could also say that psychotherapy is all about such reconnecting, and the reconnecting with others when the trauma was due to other people. But for awhile, and sometimes for always, the mind's best defense is to bury the whole thing as deeply as possible, with a certain amount of leaking out into consciousness or the body but in ways that do not threaten the integrity of the conscious mind.

"Coping" With Unbearable Emotion

Okay, I have put the central task off long enough. I've written a great deal about coping with strong emotions, and I could go on and on about this again--how to prevent, manage, and recover from them. The usual list (abbreviated from the paper newsletter Vol 5, Issue 4): Time will help. Distract yourself by reading, watching a movie. Meditate. Remember that emotions shift with a change in the body or the environment, so go into nature, exercise, eat something nutritious, get some sleep. Learn from your dreams. Turn to others you can trust. Be with animals. Express your feelings through art. Cry often.

But as I began to write in this vein, I realized that I was being way to facile about something that is by definition overwhelming. It's easy for me to give advice even to myself when I'm not in the experience, but when I'm there, I can't follow the advice, so why should I expect you to? I would hate to leave the impression that people are flawed in some way if they can't cope with unbearable emotions! I'll just say a little from my own experience, beyond the list in the paragraph above.

So first, I find it helps to know I'm not alone. A friend has been there. Other HSPs have been there. Now you know I've been there. It can be good to read books about people who have been overwhelmed by grief (e.g., A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis) or lived with terror (e.g., An Interrupted Life by Ellis Hillesum). However, I find that thinking about the suffering of others in general--refugees from disasters or those starving somewhere--often makes me feel worse: I realize that if I find this unbearable, I would find those situations totally beyond me, and this increases my despair.

Sometimes I can go on working, and in that case I can lose myself there. My work connects me with others, keeps me on a schedule, and engages my mind. Of course time in nature is even more important, but less distracting. Listening to intense music can also be cathartic.

And if I am losing sleep night after night, sometimes a sedative is reasonable. This is especially true if you were already exhausted when you got the news, or the emotion comes in waves, intensifying when you're tired, or is bound to last weeks or months. Sometimes you simply need a break. But not often. You must be very careful about physical dependency on sedatives, of course, but also they can have a depressing effect if taken several days in a row. The unbearable emotion will be waiting for you when you come out from under, and meeting up with it again, especially after being sedated, can be worse. Often doctors prescribe anti-depressants instead when people are not recovering from an emotional blow. If you feel like you are getting worse, not better, with time, that may be a reasonable suggestion.

The Special Role of Meditation

Finally, I have to repeat that meditating has always helped me. I had just begun meditating when my house burned down. My meditation teacher at the time told me to meditate as soon as there was nothing more I could do. So I meditated even while the embers were still glowing. It was the last thing I wanted to do, and it was awful. But then I came out and calmly told my waiting neighbors how they could help. They were amazed. I was instructed to meditate again after three hours. I dreaded it. I cried and cried. "This is not meditation," I thought. But I sat down with that intention, and I finished feeling "cleansed."

From this awful experience I learned to think of meditation as being like taking a shower. The main purpose is not feeling the water on you, but getting clean (or in the case of meditating, cleansing the body of the effects of stress), and it has to be repeated over and over because we don't stay clean. When you really need to get clean after falling into a swamp in some remote place, even a "bad" shower with slow dripping cold water is better than none at all. Indeed, it may be one of the precious showers you will ever have. So don't say, "I couldn't meditate because I was too upset and could not concentrate." Meditation is not for the lovely experience, or even for the development of a skill, or even for enlightenment, in my opinion. It is improving life through a rebalancing of the emotions. (If you really can do that, consistently, well, that's enlightenment, isn't it?) The emotions need to come, and if we are having an unbearable emotion, it will feel horrible. But with each meditation the body will settle down and start to heal, to find ways of coping.

The Fear of Unbearable Emotions

Ironically, not only do we learn all kinds of fears and develop all sorts of weird defenses to avoid situations similar to ones that were traumatic, but we also find very intense emotions in themselves traumatic and want to avoid them. For example, people who have panic attacks are often agoraphobic, afraid to leave their homes because they might have another panic attack. They have panic about panic. People who have been deeply depressed and then return to blessed normalcy, by taking medications or other means, are often afraid of ever going to that black hole again. For HSPs who have known unbearable emotions, it means being even more cautious about every aspect of life. But alas, strategies to avoid unbearable emotions can truly limit life.

Some people, by the way, fear unbearable emotions without knowing why. Maybe they have fears of losing their mind, even though they seem like the last ones who would. In this case it's so true what therapists say: "We fear what has already happened to us." That is, fears are learned. But sometimes we don't remember having had an unbearable emotion so we don't know we learned this fear. I think most often unbearable emotions happen in infancy, when we certainly don't remember them. If you are around babies, you may see one in unbearable emotional pain (although I hope not). It does happen. Mostly it comes as a reaction to separation from their care giver-for example, being shut alone in a dark room to "cry it out." It's fine if they have a sense that someone's near by. But infants can lose that sense of others, and then lose their very sense of self. Kind of go crazy. Intense emotions at being left are good evolutionary strategy, since screaming babies are less often forgotten and left behind. But it's at a high cost to the new nervous system and it's something the body never forgets.

Whatever the source, conscious or unconscious memories, fears of what were at the time unbearable emotions can truly play havoc with life. We set up defenses against such pain that we don't even know about, and they are exceedingly common. Indeed, they are absolutely bound to be there in people with very many traumatic events in their lives. But since the defense is against knowing and feeling, the only sign of it are "irrational behaviors" that are real and therefore have to have a cause somewhere in the past. For example, one of many reasons why someone might be a workaholic would be in order to avoid a forgotten humiliating failure, perhaps one as early and shaming as a toilet training mistake made in public. We may act indifferent to those who want to help or be close to us because it was depending on others during infancy that led to unbearable pain. We may love someone who is mean to us if he or she is similar in some way to a person who caused unbearable emotions but also helped us contain them. For example, a mother may hit a child, then comfort it.

It's so difficult to know what's going on behind the scenes when life is not going well. Often it requires a professional to help with the detective work, trying one way to deal with the unwanted behavior and then another, then perhaps gradually finding that nothing works because something inside does not want it to work, because one’s current suffering is actually a determined effort to avoid something far worse. Then you look for what that could have been. At this point, sometimes people will actually tell a therapist very blandly, "Well, I suppose my father leaving me when I was three could have something to do with it." Or, "I guess being date raped can interfere with enjoying sex." The memory is there but the emotion has been cut off.

This fear of unbearable emotion is a case of being caught between one form of pain and another. Naturally I favor doing whatever will eventually calm the fear of unbearable emotion, both by returning to those feelings and making them bearable. That is, connecting them up to consciousness. And connecting up them up with someone who really cares.

But a professional's reconnecting efforts have to be skilled and timely. A rather large professional industry has sprung up around debriefing victims and emergency personnel after traumatic events, in the hope of preventing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which is a set of symptoms associated with dissociation or disintegration at such times. We humans are so prone to this syndrome that agencies have desperately wanted such a method from psychologists. The idea is that talking about the experience immediately afterward creates that kind of integration. The trouble is, there is some good evidence that on the average debriefing doesn't work, and some people many even be harmed by it, perhaps because they are simply having a second experience of being overwhelmed, making them twice as afraid of their possibility of unbearable emotional pain striking any time, any place.

As a therapist, I try to follow the principle that re-experiencing a traumatic event, or encouraging even partial expression of some of the dissociated negative emotions, needs to occur when there can be a different experience this time. I need to be able to bear the emotion that the other cannot, since if there had been someone there at the time able to help bear it, it probably would not have been so traumatic.

I guess I'm saying that HSPs should be especially careful about the circumstances in which they delve into something traumatic in order to make conscious those lost unbearable feelings. You need to be with someone with real empathy, someone you've known for awhile and will see again, so that you can trust you'll not be left alone with it or misunderstood. You need someone who understands you are easily overwhelmed and responds with a full empathic response ("You should have been overwhelmed--that person would be in jail if anyone had known he did that to you"). That person needs to link the emotion up to other things they've gotten to know about you, and to the present moment. No weekend seminars where you spill your guts. No quick-fix therapy. For others, maybe. Not for most HSPs. In my opinion.

Without Unbearable Emotions, "HSP" Would Not Exist

I have to end with the point that emotionally overwhelming events are often life changing, and not always for the worse. Not having that second novel published stopped my fiction writing and turned me back towards psychology and my doctorate. Thinking I had not passed the doctoral exam taught me a real lesson about trusting my own experience (I knew I had written an excellent exam and should have known there was some mistake and begun asking questions immediately). And another instance of unbearable emotion was why I began to study this trait. Some of you have heard that story--I had been "over reacting" to a medical procedure and was sent for counseling. The therapist described me as "highly sensitive." And here we are.

February 2006 Articles:
A Letter from Elaine
Reflections on Research: Ignored No Longer: New Interest in Us, New Theories about Us
Parenting Sensitive Children: Growing Up Gifted Is Not Easy
Sensitive Emotion: HSPs and the Problem of Bearing an Unbearable Emotion

More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters