“Being empathic is being sensitive to emotional energy. It is vital to understand empathic ability in order to fully, holistically understand yourself as a sensitive person.” In introducing her new book, The Strength of Sensitivity: Understanding Empathy for a Life of Emotional Peace & Balance (Llewellyn Worldwide), available in bookstores May 8, local author Kyra Mesich, PsyD., says empathic ability is a profound reminder that we are all connected. However, it’s not always easy to cope with.
“For highly sensitive people, empathic ability can feel like an invasion, leading to confusion, physical issues and emotional distress,” she says. “The Strength of Sensitivity explores the causes of empathic connections and provides techniques for developing and coping with sensitivity in a positive way.”
Dr. Mesich’s new book follows up on what she presented in The Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, which explored how it feels to endure the discomforts of being a sensitive, empathic person. The new book shares stories not only about the struggles of being an empath but also the triumphs, and it presents amazing research that explains how empathic ability works. It reveals tools such as flower essences, mindfulness meditation and visualization practice that effectively help sensitive people create healthier relationships with their empathic abilities.
“In the 15 years since I wrote the survival guide,” she says, “I’ve learned a great deal about going beyond merely surviving and instead learned to evolve my experience as a sensitive, empathic person. Empathic ability can be developed and used more comfortably. The way you experience your sensitivity can evolve, and its gifts and benefits can outweigh the overwhelm. As sensitive people, our time has come to embrace who we are, carry ourselves proudly, and spread our influence to make a world a more peaceful, compassionate place.”
She earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology in 1995. A quest to understand sensitivity from a truly holistic perspective led her to study extensively in the field of integrative health. Her holistic training includes flower essence therapy, Reiki, hypnotherapy, yoga and meditation. Empathic experiences with clients plus frustration with the limitations of traditional talk therapy led her to integrate holistic modalities into her healing practice.
She shared with us some insight into sensitivity, empathy and how the two are related.
Your book is titled The Strength of Sensitivity. Are you a sensitive person?
Kyra Mesich: Yes, of course. My work began on the path of self-understanding. I was a stereotypical sensitive little girl and young adult. I cried easily. I was exhausted by crowded places. I couldn’t stand violence or negativity. I was picked on at school. I felt odd and misunderstood. Fast forward 25 years, and now I am a holistic psychotherapist who sings the praises of sensitivity. Sensitive people need to know that there is nothing wrong with us. In fact, the more we embrace and learn about our sensitivity, the stronger we become in body, mind, and spirit.
How do you define sensitivity?
KM: I describe sensitive people as very perceptive and aware of even the most subtle influences. We feel emotions deeply; experience strong reactions, and generally experience the world with more impact than less sensitive people. Sensitivity is often confused with shyness and introversion, but those are different things. Sensitivity is about keen perception and responsiveness. For example, it has been shown in scientific studies that sensitive people’s physiology is more reactive. There is greater blood flow in our brains in response to certain stimuli. So what I want people to understand is that sensitivity is a holistic experience for us: physically, emotionally and energetically.
Why did you write a book for sensitive people?
KM: If any group needs a boost in self-esteem, it is sensitive people. We’ve been told our entire lives that we are weak, odd, and that we need to toughen up. We get dismissed with “Oh, you’re just being too sensitive.” Most sensitive people really do think there is something wrong with them because they are so sensitive, and they dislike being that way. I want every sensitive reader to know that he or she is not alone. Far from it, actually. Highly sensitive people are at least 20 percent of the population. We are strong in number and possess strengths in many misunderstood abilities such as sharp, quick perception, compassion, empathy and intuition.
What new perspectives does your book provide for sensitive people?
KM: There are a lot of new concepts in The Strength of Sensitivity. I challenge readers to really look at how they define themselves and to change the limiting beliefs we’ve been taught about our sensitivity. I address sensitivity from a truly holistic point of view — in addition to the physical and emotional, I don’t skip over the energetic and metaphysical. We need to understand who we are in mind, body and spirit if we are to become more comfortable with our sensitivity and access its strengths. That leads to a whole host of new ways to heal, recalibrate our sensitivity, and appreciate the importance of why we are the way we are.
Why has sensitivity been regarded as a weakness?
KM: At some point in the history of humanity, we made a collective shift to focus on the coarse physical and mechanical aspects of life. We separated ourselves from nature and sought to override subtle with forceful. We feared anything that we couldn’t readily see and understand. From that perspective, sensitivity was no longer valued and even viewed as a threat. Also, when sensitivity was defined through that limited, concrete mode of thinking, we lost the knowledge to understand the strengths of our finer, subtler, energetic aspects. Despite all that, sensitive people have always been the artists, visionaries, compassionate healers, and spiritual teachers, providing balance to society as a whole.
How does intuition relate to sensitivity?
KM: Intuition is the feeling of just knowing something without having any outside evidence. It is a sudden insight that comes from within. Some say it is the subconscious speaking to our conscious awareness.
Sensitive people naturally have strong, accurate intuition. The only problem is that we’ve been taught to dismiss it rather than listen to it. Sensitive people are keenly perceptive on all levels, especially on the subtle, intuitive level. Intuition is one of the major strengths of our sensitivity. We just need to learn to trust it, which takes a little practice.
Do you think people are becoming more sensitive?
KM: Yes, children are being born with more and more profound sensitivities. As human beings, we evolve and each generation is a little different. Taking care of the Earth, compassionate action, and creative, outside-the-box thinking are sensitive attributes embraced by our young generations. Chemical sensitivities and food intolerances are common issues now. People are also more willing to learn about esoteric things such as intuition and empathic ability. Sensitivity, heightened awareness, creativity, compassion, cooperation and empathy had been devalued in our society. I believe the pendulum is starting to swing back in our favor so that these strengths of sensitivity will again be respected and cultivated.
You use the word empathy in relation to sensitivity. How do you define empathy?
KM: People generally think of empathy as truly understanding another person’s emotional experience, but there is more to it than that. I use the words empathy, empathic and empath all interchangeably. I was recently pleased to see that even the dictionary has started doing the same by defining the word empathy as, “vicariously experiencing the feelings of another without having the feelings communicated in an objective or explicit way.” In other words, an empathic person can feel what someone else is feeling. And, in my research, I have identified that empathic ability is a trait shared by all sensitive people.
What do sensitive people need to know about being empathic?
KM: Of all the things people dislike about being a sensitive person, the capacity for being empathic is usually number one. It is our ability to be empathic that makes us cry at awkward moments or feel someone else’s grief as if it were our own. Sensitive people often describe their empathy as painful and overwhelming at times. That is, if they are aware that they are empathic. When sensitive people are never taught that empathic ability even exists, much less that they themselves are empathic, they wind up identifying the empathic emotions they are sensing from others as their own feelings. This leads to a lot of emotional confusion and discomfort. Luckily, though, that state of being can be alleviated.
How can sensitive people experience empathic emotions more comfortably?
KM: For most, it is not an instantaneous process because we live in a society that denies empathic ability even exists. That means we have a lot of limited beliefs to overcome. So first, it is a matter of accepting what empathy is, how it has impacted us throughout our lives, and learning to recognize it when it happens. Next is the willingness to think outside the box and try holistic healing methods to recalibrate. I have found flower essence remedies to be especially healing for sensitive, empathic people. Particular essences can actually recalibrate us to better discern between our own emotions and empathic feelings that we sense. And lastly, we need to stay on the course of healing our own emotional baggage and issues. The clearer we are, the easier it is to discern what emotional energy is not ours. Then we can begin to use empathic ability as helpful information, akin to intuition.
What do you think about the prevalence of physical and chemical sensitivities?
KM: On one hand, sensitive people simply demonstrate to everyone what is unsafe. I’d say this is the case for individuals who experience physical sensitivities to things like synthetic fragrances, food additives, or chemical pesticides. Sensitive people just happen to be the ones whose bodies most forcefully reject the myriad of chemicals we have in our modern world. Food sensitivities, such as gluten or dairy intolerance, can have various causes, though. It’s a very complicated subject because sometimes people do need to avoid certain foods for a while to heal their gut. But, then again, sensitive people are prone to develop what I call NESS or Never Ending Sensitivity Syndrome. NESS occurs when numerous sensitivities overwhelm a person and greatly limit their freedom, or when one sensitivity is replaced by another with new symptoms and then another and another in an endless cycle. NESS has to be addressed from a holistic, body, mind spirit approach to really turn it around.
What’s the most important thing you want sensitive people to know?
KM: Being sensitive is not a life sentence for feeling uncomfortable. We can change. We can learn to understand and use the lesser known aspects of our sensitivity, such as empathic ability and intuition. There are tools available to help us recalibrate and feel more resilient. None of these approaches will dull or “turn off” our sensitivity. When I say we can change, I mean we can transcend the limitations and false beliefs about our sensitivity. The more we learn about ourselves in body, mind and spirit, the more comfortable, confident and strong we become. I’m not kidding when I say there is strength to sensitivity. We just have to treat ourselves with respect and believe that we are far more expansive than we think we are.
For more information on Kyra Mesich, visit drkyra.com.