Sunday, January 29, 2012


Sometimes people who are emotionally sensitive are angry with themselves: angry because they feel different than other people, because they are easily hurt, and sometimes because they feel broken.
Perhaps they've heard that they are too sensitive or overreacting so often that they are angry with their sensitivity. Some emotionally sensitive individuals feel ashamed, like they are less than other people. Some are frustrated that their emotional reactions have gotten in the way of achieving their goals or have hurt relationships they valued. Sometimes there is a feeling of hopelessness and they have retreated from the world, seeing it as too painful.
The anger and shame that people sometimes feel about being emotionally sensitive adds to their suffering and their emotional pain. In addition, fearing being alone, left out or abandoned blocks the joy and pleasant experiences that might otherwise be available.

Our culture's focus on self-esteem, on being the best and/or  gaining the approval of others, may add to the suffering of emotionally sensitive people. This focus encourages continual self-judgments and judgments of others. The emotionally sensitive may be particularly severe  in their judgments of themselves.

People judge themselves harshly for various reasons.  Some have learned from critical people in their lives, internalizing the messages they received so they now say the same negative statements to themselves. They have accepted the judgments of others as the truth. Some individuals may criticize themselves because they believe it will motivate them to do better, though in fact it tends to do the opposite. Others may berate themselves as a form of protection. Maybe if they judge themselves harshly, they can avoid the condemnation of others.
Neff suggests that we stop judging and evaluating ourselves as either good or bad and treat ourselves as kindly as we would a best friend. She encourages people to stop floccinaucinihilipilification, a very long word that means the habit of estimating something as worthless.

Neff asserts that our culture's emphasis on self-esteem is part of the problem of not liking one's self. Self-esteem  is all about judging, an evaluation of  our worthiness, derived from being good (or not) at  doing things we value. For example, self-esteem could be based on being a good cook or an athlete or a scholar.

Self-esteem can also be based on what we perceive as the view others have of us. For emotionally sensitive people in particular, this can be a trap. Given the value our culture has placed on logical thinking, many emotional sensitive people may have a history of being judged negatively for their emotional reactions. This past experience can lead them to anticipate rejection by others and perhaps even believe  been judged when they haven't.

A focus on self-esteem can foster the belief that your value as a person depends on your experiences at any given moment. Are you successful in what you are doing right now? Are others faster than you at running? Did you get an A on your last test?  Are you more or less successful than the person sitting next to you?  At this moment do you sense approval by those around you? Or is a friend angry with you?

Basing your self-worth on the approval or disapproval of others or on your success or failure in the moment leads to constant ups and downs in your view of yourself. With this focus, establishing a solid identity, knowing who you are as a person, would be difficult. In addition, the joy of doing what you love could be lost. Instead of focusing on the enjoyment of running, each race would be about your value as a person. So would evenings out with friends.
When focused on your value as a person, everyday situations become tests of your worth. For example, when going out with friends,you may find yourself promising to not react emotionally, because others judge you negatively for that. Then you use every ounce of self-control you have to push down your emotions until you are safe at home.  Even when you succeed, you might later go over the evening in your head, criticizing yourself for each perceived failure. Or focusing on how your friends acted or what they said, fearful they were judging you.

Neff proposes that self-compassion offers an alternative to the focus on self-esteem. Self-compassion is a form of self-acceptance and would fit in the radical acceptance choice of the four options for what you can do when you face a problem (see previous post, No Matter What the Problem, There's Only Four Things You Can Do). We'll talk more about self-compassion in upcoming posts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: vvonstruen 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Masking Emotions

The world can be a bruising place for emotionally sensitive people. A regular day can feel like being covered in biting, Texas-sized fire ants. A natural response is to do whatever works to avoid the pain of believing others have judged, rejected or left you out. Feeling powerless to stop injustice adds to the hurt. One option is to wear a mask and hide who you really are--anAvoidance Mask.  You know, avoid all the pain and protect your authentic self as well.

An Avoidance Mask is different from a Functional Mask. A Functional Mask is one everyone needs.  That's the one you wear at work when you need to look like you're in charge even though your daughter just eloped with a guy in a rock band.

A Functional Mask is put on for those necessary times, like when famous people don't want to show how sad they are so the tabloids won't figure out they're devastated that they were fired as the star of a movie or television show. With a Functional Mask you feel your feelings and are only temporarily sheilding them from others. Having a functional mask is helpful but often difficult for emotinally sensitive people.  So sometimes they choose more permanent masks in an effort to protect themselves emotionally.

People Pleaser Mask.  The People Pleaser Mask means doing whatever it takes to make other people happy so they'll accept you and be less likely to emotionally attack you. When you have thoughts or feelings or preferences that are different than those of your companions, you shove them down or push them away.
When someone says your friend is a two-faced neanderthal who doesn't know how to dress and belongs to the wrong church, you nod or don't say anything out of fear, terrifying fear, even though you don't agree. Then you feel angry at yourself because you were afraid. You can do this so often that you lose yourself and don't know what your own thoughts and ideas are anymore.

Mask of Anger:  Anger can keep people away from you and protect you from feeling vulnerable. Anger feels more powerful than hurt, fear or sadness and can be used to avoid those painful feelings. Angry people cover up their sensitivity in a way that few people guess that they are sheep dressed in porcupine quills.  Emotionally sensitive people who use the mask of anger are often lonely and feel worthless on the inside.

Happy Mask:  Another way of protecting yourself is to behave as if you're happy all the time. No one ever knows when your feelings are hurt and to the outside world nothing gets you down. Happiness covers your real feelings. You joke and smile even when the lady next to you volunteers you to host the next sit down dinner for the neighborhood right at the time you are expecting six guests from out of town.
Almost any emotion/behavior can be used as a mask.  Maybe you mask insecurity by disliking others or mask sadness by being the life of the party or mask fear by being perfectionistic. Putting on a mask is a way of disappearing--being invisible.
Masks provide some emotional protection in the short run.  But the costs of wearing masks are high. When you wear a mask, you don't really feel the warmth of belonging because others don't really know you. One of the most basic needs people have is to feel connected to other people and that can't happen when you are hidden.
Not only that, but you may wear masks so long you don't really know yourself or what you are feeling. Not knowing yourself creates a lot of anxiety because you can't make decisions and who you are is defined by others or how the day went. Avoiding feelings means you lose part of who you are and increases the liklihood that you'll be depressed or anxious. Plus it's exhausting to wear masks.

Dropping the Mask and Reclaiming Your Identity
1. Make the Decision:  The first step is to decide you want to drop the Avoidance Mask. This means you are committed to taking action even though it may be painful in the beginning. If you aren't sure, make a list of pros and cons--pros and cons of dropping the mask and pros and cons of keeping the mask.
Dropping the mask will not be easy and recognizing the difficulty of this task will help you succeed. Remember taking one step at a time may work best. For example, speaking up about which restaurant you'd prefer for dinner might be one initial step.
2. Focus on Awareness:  If you've lost touch with your own preferences and feelings, spend some time asking yourself what you really think and feel.  Keep asking and keep experimenting--it will come back to you. Consider keeping a journal, writing down what you liked and didn't like each day. Accept your feelings and trust that they will pass.
3.  Be Visible:  Notice if you have the posture of someone who is trying to hide. If you do, stand up straight and let yourself be visible. Begin to express your opinion and thoughts gently, with kindness.
4. Develop New Coping Skills:  Before you drop the mask, it's important to have alternative, more effective  ways to cope with emotional pain.  More about that in future posts.
5.  Face Whatever You've Been Avoiding:  Whatever your thoughts and feelings, they are your thoughts and feelings. Everyone has their own internal experience and yours is likely different from that of your friends'.
Accepting your internal experience instead of avoiding it will allow you to check to see if your feelings have any base in external reality and to choose healthier, more effective ways of coping. Facing the external fears will help you overcome those as well. Being rejected or criticized by others is not pleasant, but you will find out you can survive it. Take small steps, have support, and use alternative coping skills.

photo credit: pietro_CCreative Commons License

Monday, January 9, 2012

Learning Acceptance and Finding Peace

In January people evaluate their progress toward goals they made for the past year. Emotionally sensitive people evaluate themselves and wish they were different than they are regardless of what the calendar says. Change can be positive, but sometimes it's learning acceptance that's really needed--acceptance of who you are instead of judging yourself as unworthy and living in fear of being rejected.
Some societies don't understand the concept of judging oneself as unworthy. Our culture tends to be competitive, based on the idea that we have to be "good enough" to succeed, to belong to certain groups, to not be rejected. Many, many years ago being part of a group was necessary for survival. Belonging is still a basic need for everyone.
Mother Teresa once said that the greatest disease of our time was the feeling of not belonging. In a misguided effort to gain acceptance from others, some emotionally sensitive individuals repeatedly criticize and berate themselves. But criticism isn't a good motivator for change and often leads to the person feeling alienated from him or herself in addition to feeling "less than" others.  That adds more suffering.
Acceptance is accepting life on life's terms. Acceptance is also the idea of accepting yourself, with all your human imperfections. That means that instead of fighting your imperfections and your flaws,  you accept them. What's the good in that? Well suffering consists of the pain in life that you have no control over, plus the upset and resistance you have about that pain, which you do have control over. If you stop resisting or avoiding the pain, then you lower your level of suffering.
Emotions build on each other.  So if you feel worried and then you are angry that you are worried, the two emotions combine. Your upset is multiplied. If you feel worried and accept that you are worried, then you only have the original feeling without adding additional emotion to it.
Acceptance doesn't mean giving in to or agreeing with or being passive. Acceptance is the acknowledgement of what is happening within us, acknowledgement of our emotions, that they exist. Acceptance is letting yourself see reality without judging it.  Sometimes acceptance allows you to move forward. Sometimes acceptance leads to change.  Sometimes it doesn't. But acceptance decreases your suffering. When your suffering is lower, you are able to have a more open mind and a broader view of yourself and others. Options may be more clear.
How do you get to acceptance?  In his book, The Mindful Path to Self Compassion,Christopher Germer outlines the steps for acceptance:  aversion, curiosity, tolerance, allowing, and friendship.
Aversion is usually the first step.  This is our resistance to an uncomfortable feeling, our wish to avoid it, even when it's a minor unhappiness. We all have our avoidance behaviors, perhaps drinking too much or overeating or gambling or overworking. We may start to avoid at the first physical sensation of an unwelcome feeling, before we're even aware of what we are feeling.
Sticking with the feeling rather than avoiding is the path to acceptance. Mindfulness is what allows you to stay with the feeling, to create a pause so that you don't push the feeling away without even knowing you are doing it.
Curiosity is wondering about the mood,  trying to figure out what caused it, hoping that we can change it. Sometimes even knowing what the source is doesn't help you change the feeling.
Tolerance means that you endure the mood but wait for it to change, wish it was gone, resist it, perhaps even trying to force cheerfulness. Curiosity and Tolerance require energy and involve discontent in addition to sadness, fear, anger or whatever the original uncomfortable feeling. Keep in mind that for some, happiness can be uncomfortable.
Allowing means letting feelings be, come and go as they will without resistance, judgement, or making building them bigger. This stage brings peacefulness.  This is saying, "It is what it is."  Feelings will pass, though often not immediately.
Friendship is being able to see the value in uncomfortable emotions, perhaps the lesson that you learn from them. For example, sadness about a friend is part of our caring for them, being able to feel connected to others. In this stage you may even be grateful for the uncomfortable feeling.
Accepting  less desirable  feelings takes practice. Being mindful of the here and now,  trusting that you are safe, knowing that emotions come and go, and not engaging in avoidance behavior will gradually bring more peace to your life.

photo credit: ZedZCreative Commons Licenseap