If you are a highly sensitive person, it is likely that when you enter a space nothing will escape your radar. You feel the most subtle smells, you notice the almost imperceptible details of the room and, of course, you perceive the emotional nuances. You are able to capture the energy that floats in the environment.
As a result, you can come to notice in your body the tension generated by environments loaded with stress, frustration or pent-up anger. That special sensitivity, however, has a darker side because not only can it end up overwhelming you, but it also makes you more vulnerable to the toxic dynamics that can be established in your most intimate and everyday circles of trust, such as home or work.
Hypersensitive people often become “emotional sponges“
People who are very emotionally sensitive can perceive with great clarity the continuous waves of tension, worry, frustration, sadness or anger that others give off. That special sensitivity makes them more vulnerable to the emotional states of those around them, becoming a kind of “emotional sponge” that absorbs the negativity that floats around them.
If you are a hyper empathic person, it is not strange that you end up being the reservoir of passive-aggressive tensions of the others. Without realizing it, you will become a kind of “emotional caretaker” for the others. Or, in the worst case scenario, in their scapegoat or punching bag.
Since emotional hypersensitivity manifests itself from the first years of life, it is likely that from a young age you have become the emotional caregiver of your parents and that as an adult you have assumed the role of emotional caretaker of your partner. That extreme sensitivity is what leads you to assume the role of caretaker of all those people who have not grown emotionally and do not know how to manage their affective states.
Of course, it is natural that the emotional experiences of the others influence us. If we notice that someone is sad, we will have the tendency to offer comfort and support. If someone is angry, we will try to calm him down. We regulate our emotions and behaviors based on what the others feel in order to respond assertively.
Every time we try to help someone else regulate their emotions, either by encouraging or reassuring them, we put into practice what is known as “extrinsic emotional regulation”. In other words, we take “control” of their emotions and try to give them a more positive orientation. It is not a negative thing.
In fact, if you are very sensitive, you are likely to feel compelled to improve things, even if sometimes you are not fully aware of it. If you perceive that a person’s emotional energy is low, you will make a joke to cheer them up. When you detect stress, you push your anxiety away and become the anchor of security that others can hold on to. If you predict an outbreak of anger, you will be silent and try to calm the storm.
However, in some cases, this urge to “care” for the others can become so intense that you either take away your power or take on an incompetent role to satisfy the other’s need to feel strong or believe that they protect you, when in fact it happens the contrary. Without realizing it, you end up becoming the “emotional regulator” of the others, at the cost of your own emotions, setting aside your own needs and relegating them to a second or third plane. And that is not positive. Especially if it becomes a pattern that lasts over time.
Projective identification: The casting of shadows
Many people, when they have an emotional charge that they are unable to accept and manage, simply project it outward. It is what Melanie Klein called “projective identification.”
Projective identification is a defense mechanism that works at the unconscious level in which a person discharge his feelings and/or the qualities that he rejects in himself on the others. In this way, the person ends up projecting his powerlessness, anger, frustration or even envy on the others simply because he repudiates those feelings and does not accept them as his own.
Emotionally hypersensitive people are at risk of becoming “emotional sponges” that absorb all the anger, shame, sadness or anxiety that the others are unable to manage. They are more likely to capture these projected feelings and, without realizing it, end up “digesting” them for the others.
The problem is that in the cases of projective identification, the person who projects those rejected emotions or qualities wants that whoever assumes them, feels and behaves according to that projective fantasy. This means that this mechanism has both an “attributive” and an “acquisitive” side, so that whoever acts as an emotional sponge may end up assuming other people’s feelings and qualities as their own.
In families, for example, projective identification can acquire a chronic character and be particularly problematic since it erodes the sense of identity of the person who assumes these projections as their own. Through direct or subtle manipulation, you can end up believing that you are weak or insensitive, when in fact it is just the opposite. In practice, you assume the role that the others have given you. And that will end up eroding your identity.
How to deal with projective identification if you are emotionally sensitive?
Realizing that your sensitivity has made you the reservoir of others’ shadow projections can be painful, but remember that dragging that toxic relationship in for years is more damaging.
Being aware of what is happening is the first step to free yourself and stop behaving like an emotional sponge. This release dynamic can be complicated since your protective and sensitive part can feel guilty and it is likely that you want to continue denying what happens.
However, it is not about looking for culprits but about regaining your freedom. You need to understand that, even if you are an emotionally sensitive person, you do not have the obligation to manage always the emotions of the others.
In fact, assuming the emotions that the others do not want to manage does not help them, but prevents them from growing. It prevents them from recognizing their shadows and assuming their responsibilities. Instead, you need to learn to set limits, say no, and above all, refuse to integrate those toxic projections because they are not really part of you.
Nozaki, Y. & Mikolajczak, M. (2019) Extrinsic Emotion Regulation. Emotion; 20(1): 10-15.
Klein, M. (1996) Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. J Psychother Pract Res; 5(2): 160–179.