According to psychologist Susan Meindl, empathy is the earliest form of communication:
“Human beings communicate through empathic connection from birth. Mothers and infants accurately read each other’s emotional communications. This skill is never lost and we all use empathic understanding of other people’s feelings to round out and nuance what they say to us. We all know that the same words offered in a tender or a sarcastic tone can have vastly different implications and emotional effects.
We rarely, however, think about this subliminal communication and we are usually not aware of how we do it.”[i]
But empathy is a double edge sword. In a peaceful space, it is humbling, but in a stressful environment, it can become torture. It can drive me to deep levels of depression if I do not stop the input. This is what M Dionne refers to as emotional personal stress:
“Emotional personal stress is most often self-imposed by negative thought patterns and discontent. Negative relationships, loud neighbors, hyperactive children (and adults), argumentative personalities, and negative attitudes in general can also quickly exhaust your energy reserves.”(Dionne, 2013)[ii]
Children naturally pick up everything we believe we are good at hiding, and they react particularly strongly to our negativity. Let it be criticism, anger, frustration, anxiety or worry, highly sensitive children pick up on these negative thoughts and internalize them as their own. A parent once said to me, I know how we are feeling by looking at the kids. Indeed, the children mirror what we are releasing unconsciously via our body, chemical languages and energy. This has been a very hard lesson and one that has made me learn to change my mental ways.
Susan Meindl makes it clear that Anxiety and anger are the most “catching” of out emotions:
“While all emotions can be empathically transmitted between people, the most problematic feelings are those of anxiety and anger.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this.
All higher animals are sensitive to signals of environmental danger from others around them. An alarm signal prepares the individual for self-protective action, be it fight or flight. Preparedness for action includes vascular, muscular respiratory and endocrinal responses which we then experience as the physical feelings of anxiety and tension.
Interpersonal signal reading – Visual and vocal changes communicate anxiety.
As early as 1949, psychological researchers such as Jurgen Reusch observed that in human beings, transmission of danger signals can be visible: sweating, strained postures, shallow breathing, blushing, general restlessness.
There are also audible cues: voices may become loud or shrill, the pitch of the voice may rise or alternate arrythmically between high and low, there may be spurts or rushes of talk, lack of pauses, interruption of others, variations in speed of talk, or inappropriate laughter. The reverse picture is also indicative of anxiety: faltering speech, long pauses, and the introduction non-words such as “ah” or “uh”.”[iii]
It is as if sensory processing sensitivities have stronger mirror neurons than most. While most people are completely unaware of how their energies affect others, the sensory gifted feel others as if they are part of their body. For instance, I can sense the energy of my family. I can distinguish each signature, as we all seem to have a unique pattern. When my children are having negative feelings, I feel the difference in their energy enter my body. It hurts. I have the same sensations at work. I can “sense” the positive or negative mood of my colleagues by their energy signature.
If you recall the discussion on quantum physics in chapter 2, this makes a lot of sense. When the energy fields of two bodies met, they affect each other. Sensory processing sensitive people actually sense the affect. To me, the stress or negative energy of someone else feels like a jolt of acid entering the body. Whereas when the energy is positive it blends with mine harmoniously. Thus, toxic people, stress and internalized negative emotions drain me like a magnet. It actually feels like a magnet is rearranging my particles. Imagine what these kinds of sensations can do to children who do not understand where these things are coming from.
This “sensed” empathy explains why highly sensitive people may seem strange to others, as it often leads to great anxieties in social situations. What adults often perceive as misbehaviors in children, frequently is their empathic sense being exposed to high levels of stress and responding physically to overwhelming invisible sensations such as someone else’s emotions. It is also a draining force that can make a person ill.
One thing that really astonishes me to this day is how much I and my kids can mirror and mimic how others perceive us. When someone believes I am stupid, I become that stupid individual, when I am surrounded by angry people I enact “angry-ness”, even if I am not angry. When my kids are around someone who thinks they are weird, they immediately become agitated, use incoherent speech. If I am stressed, the kids immediately show it.
Our inability to recognize how we impact highly sensitive children can create important stress in these children’s lives.
As Susan Meindl explains:
“Because high sensitivity (HS) is present from birth, it exists before the individual has the ability to control the environment themselves. As a result HS infants and young children are often overstimulated and neither the parent nor the infant may recognize this. The infant may on the one hand be treated as difficult or demanding, or alternatively treated as fragile and overprotected. These responses play themselves out in families during childhood and may create an internal belief in the HS child that they are “naturally difficult” or “delicate”.
- In those instances when sensitive parents recognize the needs of their infant or child and help them to develop the skills they need to avoid overstimulation, sensitive children can thrive and learn to use their sensitivity productively at a very early age.
- As sensitive children acquire more self-management skills and are permitted to influence their personal environment, they will try to choose ways to avoid overstimulation. Often they are more solitary, choosing quiet pursuits such as reading or art.
Children are rarely able to identify their problem as “high sensitivity” and experience instead a feeling of being different and out of step with those around them. These feelings are painful and may lead them to feel sad or angry.”(Meindl, 2010)[iv]
Sensory gifted or highly sensitive children learn to compensate for these emotions but also for this absorption of energy. Sometimes they do so with technology, I always have a laptop in front of me when in a meeting in order to create an energy and visual barrier between me and another. But often, they do so in negative ways, through addiction to drugs, alcohol, food or other emotional coping mechanisms to distract their senses.
As parents and adults it is crucial to realize when we are being toxic to our children. According to Judith Orloff MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, the quality of our relationships affects our health. Our relationships are governed by a give and take of energy. Some make us more electric or at ease. Yet others suck the life right out of us (2010)[v]. Any negative relationships, let it be at work or at home drains your energy – mentally, emotionally and physically.
When parents are not getting along, children sense it. When parents dislike their children, children sense it. When negative people dominate children’s lives, it hurts them mentally, emotionally, chemically and physically and they do get overwhelmed. While we do not mean for our negativity to hurt our children, it does, and in the case of sensory gifted, it traumatizes them. This invisible stress is as toxic as chemical stress. When home is a toxic emotional environment, the results can be a shutting down or acting out and if not reduced can potentially lead to mental disorders. These levels of toxicity cannot be sustained on a long-term basis without damaging a sensitive child physically, chemically, mentally and emotionally.
[v] Orloff, Judith. Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life. Harmony; Reprint edition (December 28, 2010)