Confessions of an HSP: The Moods of Others

A Study of Grumpiness
*To my great joy, an altered version of this post was published on www.everyday-mindfulness.org.
It is the third in a series of HSP Confessions, the first one being “Confessions of an HSP: Decluttering,” the second one being “Confessions of an HSP: Being a Failure.” Today’s post deals with our high sensitivity regarding the ever-changing moods and emotional states of others — a problem that can, at least in my world, make or break entire evenings. Here’s an observation on possibilities of approaching the issue mindfully.

heart in a pond

The other day, I had to wipe away a tear because baby Bolt loved his little stuffed carrot so much. The emotions of others have a huge impact on my own. Even if it’s in movies. And yes, even if it’s a computer-generated Disney dog. As you can imagine, things get ten times worse when I am confronted with an actual human in my ordinary environment. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I break down and cry every time anything moves me. Except with a couple of chosen people, I rarely even show my deepest emotions. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and I’ve had a suspicion for a long while that somehow, I may feel more, or more deeply, than many others. I have, for instance, immense trouble keeping other people’s grumpiness from infusing my own emotional sphere. Sometimes it is close to impossible to keep the two separate — and that is, quite frankly, annoying.

Once I admitted that I might after all be a Highly Sensitive Person, things finally made sense. There you go, I thought. Now I have an explanation. I’m normal, whatever that means. At least, others experience this, too. But. Does that mean HSPs are forever doomed to be the emotionally skinless chameleons I talked about in an introductory post tracking my own discovery regarding the personality trait? Are sensitive people simply destined to be the victim of every little breeze of sadness or frustration swooshing by from outwards?

The conscientious, daily practice of mindfulness has, over the past couple of months, fundamentally changed many a self-perception of mine, one of them being the assumption of having no choice but to be highly influenced by other people’s moods. Ironically, after I had finally found an explanation for why I am this way, which would technically enable me to remain exactly as is, I started looking at it with more curious eyes.

It all came to an epiphany when, during one of my breathing meditations, my person came home and was — so much I could hear — grumpy. I believed I could tell it from the way he made noise in the kitchen, rummaging through the utensils, baking something, and tossing the one or other teeth-clenched grumble in there. Naturally, my first instinct was to interrupt my meditation and greet him so as to a) be nice and b) figure out what on earth is going on. Then, I decided to experiment.

In mindfulness, we simply observe what is — with an interested, friendly, non-judgmental eye. Above all, we observe not others, but ourselves. In essence, it is something that wise people have done for millennia and now we have a fancy term for it. Yet the part that is especially tough to swallow is that, whether what is feels pleasant or not is, in a first step, completely irrelevant. We take whatever there is. Because it’s interesting, particularly when it feels unpleasant. We generally like to feel away from whatever isn’t superfun. We like to categorize it and label it as a particular emotion or state and then make it go away or, if we can’t do that, at the very least ignore it. Only few will naturally feel into the physical sensation of hunger. Or, on an emotional level, perhaps shame. But once you do it, there is a lot to see. What does shame really feel like? Where do we feel it, even on a physical level? What does it do to our body? When did it start? Was there a moment that made it kick in? Can we go back in our minds and figure out what it was that brought about the change? What exactly happened there?

Up until that one meditation, with all the the energetic clatter of dishes cutting through the air, I liked to say things along the line of “his mood easily transfers to mine.” But that day, I realized that this is indeed another categorization that I quickly make without closely looking at what truly happens. And what truly happens became extremely visible once I decided to, just for ten more minutes, sit with it and observe what was happening — to me.

In truth, when my person came in that door, a number of things happened, and once I zoomed in on the sensations, I realized that his grumpiness is not simply “transferred” to me. As much as I’d love to hang on to this somewhat convenient explanation, it is much too simplified. Indeed, his mood does make me grumpy, but not because I am a helpless little sponge that directly copies all the colors of the world. In reality, several reactions to his emotional state happen within me, and ultimately, the outcome of those reactions leads me to become grumpy, too. What occurs is, in depth, this:

  1. In a very first step, I actually make an assumption. Oh dear, today he is grumpy! We generally tend to make assumptions because we like to categorize and be ready for things. With this readiness, we then approach the situation that we perceive to be real, when really it might not even be the case. By approaching the situation with a certain suspicion in mind, however, we then also act on that suspicion, which in turn influences the outcome of our interaction. Food for thought.
  2. Then, I feel the urge to go up to him and gather information. Why do I need information? I need information because I must know exactly about what is going on at all times. Because. I like to know. Because then, I can fix it, right? I can make everyone happy again. Because happy feels pleasant, and grumpy does not. (This reaction deserves to be examined more closely. Further questions would be: Why is it so hard for me to bear unhappiness? Am I afraid of it? Do I fear it’ll never go by?)
  3. What happens next is that usually, when I do follow my urge to confront the person and inquire and feel my way into their state, I often end up feeling rejected, because well, the other person is grumpy. They don’t want to talk. They also don’t want to feel responsible for my feelings. They just want to make noise in the kitchen. So I get slightly hurt.
  4. Then, in a last step, I get angry. Because. I am, on average, a fairly happy person, yet I am not just naïvely grinning through the day — I make an effort to see the negative as well as the positive. I take care of myself. I try to take self-responsibility — for my choices, for my behavior, for my reactions. This has, over the past few years, in turn granted me a certain level of stability and happiness for which I am immensely grateful. But it’s not a natural given. So yes, I do find it annoying when people just grump all over the place. Can’t they get a grip of themselves?
  5. End result: I am grumpy.

You will have noticed that his grumpiness does not automatically equal my grumpiness. It is an entirely new, different grumpiness. But how does this help me?

It helps me in so far as I now can say that yes, I am susceptible to the moods of others, but I am not a victim. A lot of what is happening is actually intensified by my own automated patterns. Nor is the other person responsible for my emotions. They of course do put something out in the world, as we all do with each and every second of acting and even non-acting — but ultimately, our reaction to it is OUR reaction. More often than we’d like to admit, we actually have a choice. It’s perhaps not always nice to hear, but it’s true.

In the end, merely in having been able to observe what is actually going on, I no longer have a simplified explanation for something that deserves to be differentiated. I now have room to react differently. A whole field of questions and, with them, possibilities has opened up and I can continue along some threads and watch my own reactions — if possible, always with a friendly, open, curious, observing gaze, also towards myself.

Yes, we are highly sensitive. I am not going to argue with that. We ARE easily disturbed. Many a person would perhaps not even pick up on the grumpiness of another person in the first place. But we instantly KNOW (or we think we do). And undeniably, sometimes it’s exhausting to know. It is allowed and advised to embrace ourselves in it.

In my case, however, the real question is no longer why I “copy” other people’s moods, because strictly speaking, this is simply not the case. The real question actually comes in a plural: why is it it that I feel this excessive need to restore a person’s emotional state to “normal”? What does that say about ME? Is there something I am afraid of…?  Is it because I feel so deeply? Am I scared that it will last? Is there some terrified part in me that thinks this will permanently influence our relationship? Which part of Marvelline is this? What formed it? Can I touch this part with warmth and understanding?

So. Perhaps I can, in similar future scenarios, remind myself that mindfulness is truly accepting what is, ALSO in other people. Maybe I can remember that, as I have talked about in my mini-post “Feelings,” emotions are generated by life’s little pebbles thrown into our ponds, and the ripples — our feelings — will unfold in a reactive dynamic, whether we want them to or not. If I can just recall that emotions are not optional, also not for other people. Let them have theirs (they will go by). Accept them in the ripples they are experiencing at the moment. It is something they need to go through, because life threw them a pebble. They have their very own right to react to it the way they want to.

All I can do is watch mine. My pebbles. My ripples. Mindfully.

Advertisements