Last year, just a few months into the COVID-19 shutdown, one of my dear friends reached out to me on Face Time. She started the conversation by saying, “I heard someone share in a work seminar that if you have any extroverted friends, you should check on them because they probably aren’t all right – and I immediately thought of you. How are you doing?” My friend, who is more of an introvert than an extrovert by nature, called me at the perfect time. I needed to hear from her; to connect with her. Anyone who knows me well, knows I am an extrovert in every sense of the word. And then some. I was struggling with the lack of connection defined by the world on lockdown. Like many, I was also given a work from home directive, and I was feeling the isolation and disconnection from people in a deep way. I mean, literally feeling it; I noticed I was feeling a bit depressed being so cut off from others.
Now 18 months into an unrelenting pandemic, those of us who are generally energized by being around others, are likely struggling with some deep feelings of sadness from the disconnection we feel. In the world of psychology, people like me are known as “super-feelers”. Add to the amplified relational disconnect due to extended pandemic protocols, the nagging uncertainty of exactly why they feel as affected as they do, and super-feelers around the globe just may be struggling on a whole new level. The pandemic has catapulted intense feelers into unchartered waters of isolation and loneliness.
Until I went to graduate school in my mid-thirties, I never understood that my emotional depth was a gift, not a curse. By then, I had spent most of my life attempting to hide my full range and depth of emotions, especially my tears, because my emotionality just wasn’t accepted by most of my family and friends. At that time, my mother was one of the few people I felt truly understood me – I didn’t know it at the time, but she was a super-feeler too. A large part of being a super-feeler is genetic so if one parent is wired as a super-feeler, chances are you will have at least one super-feeler child. For those who aren’t super-feelers, knowing how to relate to one isn’t always easy. While I don’t believe it was intentional, I was usually shamed for expressing deep emotions by those closest to me. Not because they were cruel, but because they didn’t understand what being a super-feeler meant. Nor did I. Statements such as, “don’t take it personally; you’re too sensitive; you’ll get over it; and my personal favorite, “you care too much”, are common statements made to super-feelers by the well-meaning, but uninformed people who love us.
The therapeutic modality of Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) provides a great lens by which to understand super-feelers. According to EFFT, there are a few things that make us unique. Super-feelers:
o Have a keen sense for emotions in their environment
o Experience emotions very intensely – their own and those of others
o Can pick up on others’ stress and emotions very easily
o Can be more sensitive to perceived threat in the environment (this is why super-feelers become more upset when a parent raises their voice)
o Are often motivated to “rescue” others to protect themselves from feeling their pain (and in doing so – they often deny their own needs).
o Can feel alone in the world since some people will struggle to understand what it’s like
o Can hide that they are a super-feeler very well – mostly to protect others or relationships
If this sounds like you, or someone you know, then chances are that either you are, or you know, a super-feeler. As I began to study this particular psychology of human emotion and behavior in grad school, a dark cloud of shame lifted from my life. Education really is the key to understanding. Understanding then makes room for acceptance. Acceptance is the key to both self-love and then love for others who are different than us. You can’t love others if you don’t love yourself.
Hope whispers, feelings aren’t right or wrong; they just are.
If you identify as a super-feeler, you may have wrestled with acceptance of your deep emotions, and even tried to deny them. Perhaps someone told you the way you felt was “wrong”, but here’s the thing; feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Feelings are amoral. And if you try to shove them down, they just leak out later – or explode – either way, your emotions will eventually make it to the surface if you suppress them. Understanding yourself is an important first step in self-acceptance because it’s difficult to help others understand and accept you if you don’t understand and accept yourself. For me, it was acknowledging that God created me to be a deep feeler. I’m just wired that way. I can choose to view it as a curse or a gift. I choose to see it as a gift.
Research suggests that many super-feelers are highly likely to succeed in the caring professions (e.g. as social workers, doctors, nurses, psychologists), and typically perform unusually well in these professions once they learn to manage the emotions they sense and feel. My mother, as I mentioned was a super-feeler, and she was a fabulous nurse. She just had to learn how to regulate the intensity of emotions she felt around her patients. That brings us to the next step in the journey of acceptance as a super-feeler.
The second step is learning how to identify and then regulate those deep emotions you experience. Not all emotions need to be expressed as deeply as they are felt; emotional regulation is an important skill for a super-feeler to learn and practice so that logic doesn’t get lost in emotion. There is a balance. I am very aware that I feel things before I think about them. Once I feel something, I have to take a step back from my emotions and access the logical part of my brain, in order to balance emotion and reason. This is a technique in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) known as accessing your “wise mind”. When compassion and competence is balanced, we are in our wise minds, and the decisions we make will be more centered and grounded.
I often joke to those who know me best when I’m feeling deeply about something that is painful and I don’t necessarily want to feel it, that I can’t find my “I don’t care button”. I can’t find it because I don’t have one. Although at times, it feels like my emotions can turn on with the flip of a switch, I don’t have an “I don’t care” switch. If you are a super-feeler, you know exactly what I’m talking about. To ask us not to care is like asking us not to breathe. I used to think caring so much was a curse; now I see it as a blessing. Caring at a deep level serves me well as a therapist because I am able to connect with my clients. It can as times, be emotionally exhausting as well so I have to exercise good boundaries and self-care in order not to take on the emotions of others around me. This has taken me years of practice, and the result has been a developing emotional resilience. Resilience comes in handy when experiencing difficult situations and emotions.
While being a super-feeler can get emotionally taxing at times, now that I’ve learned to accept myself and practice boundaries when I need to, I would never want to be any other way. Because here’s the real silver lining; as deeply as I feel pain and sorrow, I also feel deep joy and love. I am an eternal optimist; a hopeless romantic; a relentless advocate for the underdog; and a happy adventurer. I find joy in the smallest things, and I am genuinely happy with who I am. So go ahead and put “she cared too much” on my tombstone; I’m okay with that. The world needs super-feelers. They remind us what it means to be human – the good, the bad, and the glorious mess of being connected to one another in relationship. Relationships are the only real lasting investment this side of heaven. You can’t take anything else with you when you go; only the love in your spirit that grew out of relationships.
If you are the parent, partner, or friend of a super-feeler, might I suggest you reach out to that person today, like my friend did with me when the pandemic was first unleashed, and just say, “how are you feeling?” While you may not mind it, I guarantee we aren’t enjoying the social distancing. Your small act of inquiring how the super-feeler in your life is doing, is a big show of compassion. And if you are a super-feeler like me, I hope you’ll join me in the journey to understand and appreciate yourself more. Hold your heart high! Don’t hold back those tears! Laugh loudly! Love deeply and unapologetically! Our disconnected world needs you now more than ever because the things that will change the world in an even more powerful way than the pandemic has, will be those things produced from the connection of love and kindness. The greatest of these is love. Let’s all work on feeling that.