New Year’s resolutions can be a great way to set goals for the upcoming months and assess your progress from the past year, but many people have become exhausted and cynical about new year’s resolutions, and it’s not hard to see why.
“New Year, New You!” messages bombard us in the media, imploring us to better ourselves and stop using excuses for not achieving our goals. It’s tempting to jump into the latest weight loss challenge or resolve to magically change your life by tidying up. But maybe you didn’t follow through with last year’s resolutions, so this year you don’t even want to try. Or perhaps you just don’t like the pressure of having to declare victory or failure at the end of the year and announce your determination to try again.
I’ve seen many people saying they don’t like new year’s resolutions because they don’t follow through or because it feels like a competition, but they still have goals that they are striving towards. For some, it seems like there’s just a semantics issue that doesn’t change the spirit of practicing reflection and striving for new goals. I think all of us, however, can agree that setting goals and letting go of past mistakes is a good thing.
Personally, I love New Year’s resolutions, despite the fact that I’ve fallen short of many of mine. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it was by March. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to work on my goals every year, I just seem to decide to put the ones I won’t really get to under the title of “New Year’s Resolution”. Maybe that makes it seem less impactful when I don’t accomplish it. Because sure, I fell short of my New Year’s Resolution, but doesn’t everybody? If I put it on my goals list, though, I won’t put it on the back burner.
That being said, I still love the whole spirit of the New Year because it is a chance to step back and reflect on the past year and see how things have changed, and set your sights to making the next year an improvement in one way or another.
It can be hard to reflect on your year and see that you’ve fallen behind in your goals, or realize that your life has changed in a profound way, perhaps not by your own choosing, such as when you lose a loved one. But reflection doesn’t have to be about measuring progress or failures. It can also be about recognizing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses. Not because you want to overcome every flaw and become a more perfect version of yourself, but because recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is part of being your own authentic self.
So for those of you out there who are ready to set your resolutions and smash them this year- resolve away! I will always encourage you to set high goals for yourself and go for them. Just make sure that your goals are centered around what you really want, and not what you think you should be doing to present a picture perfect version of yourself to the world. You’ll be more likely to follow through if you set goals for yourself.
For those of you who can’t stand the idea of making another failed New Year’s Resolution, keep pressing forward with your otherwise named goals and create plans to accomplish them year-round. You don’t need pomp and circumstance and a Facebook announcement or a new challenge to sign up for to keep plugging away at your career/life/family/health goals.
I want to think our culture has broadly shifted away from the high pressure, high stakes, dogged commitment to presenting perfection as the ultimate goal and solution to all your problems in the New Year. I have a tendency to think that’s true, but then I realize that the reason I don’t see those kinds of messages that much anymore is because I choose not to. I have, myself, shifted away from those kinds of high stakes pressures to be practically perfect in every way, so therefore I surround myself with like-minded social accounts and steer clear of any media, businesses, or product lines that cater to a self-critical mentality. Yet I realize that those kinds of messages are still glaringly present for many people, and we are all still susceptible to absorbing negative messages wrapped in a self-care package, particularly young people.
I’m choosing to UnResolve this year. This just means that I’m planning to continue to work on all of the goals and plans that I have and I’m going to continue to value myself, my family, and my community this year. I’m going to reflect on my past year with gratitude for everything I got to experience and accomplish, and I’m going to look forward to everything still to come and make concrete plans to make progress on my goals. But I’m not going to set another arbitrary resolution that sits on the shelf and does nothing but stare at me, only for me to realize mid-June that I’ve been busy working on my goals.
My life continues to flow year in and year out. My goals will never be truly finished, because I will always look for new ways to move forward, and I constantly resolve to try something over again that I haven’t accomplished to my satisfaction, no matter what time of year it is. By the way, I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book, but I did start watching her Netflix show “Tidying Up” and I find her totally adorable and I’m not sure why she gets so much flack for being tidy. I should probably go fold up my laundry now, though. Happy New Year everyone!
It’s Thanksgiving, so it’s naturally a time of year when we think about gratitude and being thankful for what we have. We love to make an extra effort this time of year to give thanks for what we have, but many of us don’t carry that practice of gratitude throughout the year. This year, take some time to think about how an intentional gratitude practice can benefit your mood throughout the year. This is the perfect time to kick off an intentional gratitude practice to boost your mood throughout the holidays and into the new year as well.
Some people struggle with negative thought cycles that keeps their mind occupied with the things they wish they had, or the things they wish they didn’t have, or the problems they may be facing that seem overwhelming. We all struggle with these negative thoughts at times, but when negative thoughts take up the majority of your mental energy each day, it can lead to depression, anxiety, fatigue, and hopelessness.
What Are the Benefits of a Gratitude Practice?
Gratitude is an appreciation of what is valuable to you. Gratitude also benefits your mental health in very tangible ways, and research supports the benefits of this practice. Gratitude reduces negative thoughts, increases life satisfaction, and boosts self-esteem. Practicing intentional gratitude can also reduce negative rumination, improve overall well-being, and is a form of self-care.
Incorporating a gratitude practice has been shown to benefit people who have PTSD, those will serious health conditions, and in general has resulted in positive impacts for participants across the past two decades of research. Researchers have shown that an intentional gratitude practice actually trains your brain to be more altruistic, making people more likely to give to charitable causes. This research suggests that practicing gratitude can have an actual impact on our brain’s inner circuitry. As with all habits, consistency can wire your brain for change, bad or good. There is even some preliminary research that suggests that gratitude journaling could reduce inflammation in the body, which is a common source of many negative health conditions.
How To Start A Gratitude Practice
There are many ways that you can start to implement intentional gratitude into your daily life. Everyone can benefit from starting an intentional gratitude practice, but if you struggle with negative thoughts cycles, depression, anger, past trauma, or low frustration tolerance, you especially may want to start a gratitude practice to combat some of the mental impacts of these problems. Here are some options for how to do this:
- Start a gratitude journal
You can simply keep a daily list where you jot down one thing that you a grateful for every day, or you can journal a little more thoroughly and really process why you feel appreciative of the people, places, and things in your life. You can challenge yourself to do this daily for a certain period of time, such as 30 or 100 days, and then try to keep it going as a daily reminder to live in gratitude. You can include anything in the world that you feel grateful for: friends, family, a job, your pets, lessons learned, a kind word you received, your home, your neighbors, food to eat, opportunities to grow, et cetera. When you start to recognize how much you have to be grateful for, you will begin to live with that appreciation in your heart.
- Do a mental affirmation each morning or each evening before bed
Start each day with a mental affirmation like “I’m grateful to be alive today and I’m committing to living today with that gratitude in my heart”, or you could end your day with a similar affirmation, such as “I’m grateful that I was able to make a difference today in my (job, family, community, et cetera)”.
- Think of specific traits of the people you care about that you appreciate, and then tell those people how grateful you are for the positive things they bring to your life
Note the very specific things that you appreciate about the people in your life and what those qualities bring to your life. This could be things such as “My best friend is super fun to hang around and she always cheers me up”, or “My partner is really patient, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed and frustrated”, or “My children are so funny and interesting, even when they challenge me”.
- Make a list of all the things you DON’T want that you DON’T have
This list could go on forever, really, but sometimes it’s helpful to think about all the things that you do not have to live with that others unfortunately do. There is nothing wrong with feeling gratitude that you have escaped some hardships that others have had to endure. These could be things such as “I do not live in a war zone, I do not have a terminal illness, my life is not made harder due to a disability”. Of course some people do have to live with these circumstances, and so if you are lucky enough to be one of those that do not, then gratitude is in order for the ways in which you benefit from not having to struggle with those issues.
Cultivating gratitude is something that can improve your overall quality of life and boost your mood when you feel stuck in a cycle of negativity. Gratitude is not about wearing rose-colored glasses and pretending you don’t have any problems. Nor does it mean that you don’t still need to do the work to change the things about yourself or your life that you find unsatisfying. Gratitude is about recognizing everything that you DO have. It is about looking at your life from a strengths perspective, and noticing everything that you have going in your favor instead of worrying about everything that you have working against you.
If you want to start a gratitude practice and start living a more mindful life, you can start with a small challenge to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine. I’ll send you a free 30-day Mindfulness Journal that includes space to journal your gratitude daily, along with daily inspiration, places to track your habits, and journal about your progress. Get started today to incorporate the benefits of gratitude in your life!
Many people report that they feel better in a variety of ways when they spend time in nature. Hiking, walking, going to the beach, gardening, outdoor sports, and camping all have tangible benefits to your mental health. Nature helps us disconnect from the stressors of our everyday lives, reminds us of our connection to the earth and the cycles of life, and facilitates spiritual connections by engaging our senses and quieting our minds.
Some people intuitively know that they need that time in nature or outside in the fresh air in order to keep mentally well. But sometimes we forget that nature is a powerful healer, and if you did not grow up in an environment in which exposure to nature was routinely encouraged, you might not have considered how much of an impact that exposure can have.
In the field of mental health, therapists and doctors are used to making clinical recommendations such as medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and support groups to help clients on the path to mental wellness. In outpatient settings, there is attention given to building coping skills such as meditation and exercise, but we don’t always do a good job of encouraging our clients to spend time in nature as a valid practice to improve mental health. This is unfortunate, because nature provides so much that can boost mental health and it does so for free in most cases.
How Does Nature Benefit Your Mental Health?
Research supports the positive benefits of nature exposure in a variety of ways. One study found that neighborhoods that had more green space such as forests and parks had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. This was found to confer benefits to communities in many ways, including encouraging physical activity, increasing social interaction, and protecting against air and noise pollution. Another study found that patients who were in a nature-based horticultural program saw more improvements in their levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and that those benefits lasted longer once they completed treatment.
Here are some of the benefits that exposure to nature provides:
Sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, an important vitamin that helps us stay well. Vitamin D has deficiency has been associated with poor cognitive function, depression, and anxiety. We know that exposure to sunlight boosts your mood, because of research done on the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD occurs in areas that do not get exposure to sunlight for many months out of the year due to their proximity to earth’s poles. People in these areas often experience depression during those months because of the lack of exposure to sun. The treatment for this disorder actually involves using light boxes to transmit the necessary benefits of light to people suffering from SAD. This study found that workers who had exposure to natural elements and sunlight in the workplace reported less depression and anxiety and more workplace satisfaction. In fact, exposure to direct sunlight was the dominant predictor for anxiety traits; so if you have anxiety getting exposure to sunlight could be key in managing your symptoms.
Mental stress is a primary factor in anxiety and depressive conditions. The more stress people are under, the more likely they are to experience anxiety, depression, burnout, cognitive decline, and physical manifestations of their mental health problems. Research continues to build support for nature’s ability to decrease stress, improve mental clarity, and reduce symptoms associated with mental health problems. One way to use this information to your benefit is to try and fit in a walk outdoors before, during or after your work day whenever possible. Even small amounts of outdoor activity can build up to give you improvements in your quality of life that will boost your mental health.
Everyone knows that when children can’t pay attention to a task, you send them outside to play for awhile. We live in a time where we are increasingly disconnected with nature. Surveys have shown that Americans on average spend 90% of their time indoors. Screen time and consumption of media has increased exponentially, and this has had an impact on our collective mental and physical health. However, a review of the research reveals that exposure to nature has the ability to actually restore our attention. Excess concentration can lead to “attention-fatigue”, which most of us have probably experienced, like when you stare at a page and read the same paragraph over and over again without retaining the information. Getting out into nature can reset our attention span by provoking fascination, which allows us to recover from mental fatigue.
Getting dirty has tangible mental health benefits too. Getting dirt under your nails and inadvertently into your mouth can increase the good probiotics in your gut. A healthy gut has been linked to good mental health because your gut is connected to your brain through your central nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Traditional thinking maintained that psychological conditions did not have a biological origin, but the latest research is finding that our mental health is actually very much connected to our bodies and specifically our gut. The bottom line is that exposure to nature, specifically getting dirty, can improve your gut health which has demonstrable benefits to your mental health. For more on this, read my post on Gardening for Mental Health.
- Fosters Spiritual Wellbeing
Nature has long been a place where people go to restore their spirit and reflect on their connection to the earth and the universe we inhabit. Observing natural wonders such as the beauty of the plants, the unique qualities of wildlife, or the power of water and wind forces us to realize how small we really are and how short our time here on earth is. These kinds of reflections often lead to feelings of gratitude and serenity. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of nature, but many religious writings have revered nature throughout history. Traditional Native-American spirituality wholly incorporates reverence for nature into religious practices. Spirituality is highly individualized, but many people rely on their spirituality to help them cope with mental illness. Thus, the spiritual restoration that time spent in nature seems to provide is an important benefit conferred upon those who seek spiritual refuge in natural spaces.
How Can I Boost My Mental Health through Nature?
It’s not hard to understand why being cooped up indoors for most of the day with little exposure to natural light and fresh air can leave you feeling sapped for energy, mildly anxious and a little depressed. Given all the benefits of nature to our physical and mental wellbeing, everyone should be making an effort to make time spent in nature a priority. Particularly if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, spending more time in nature can help you gain improvements in your symptoms and keep you more balanced overall.
To put this into practice, first take an assessment of your resources. If you live in a rural area, you probably already know where to go. Whether you can hike local trails, wander in the nearby forest, or spend time near the closest lake or ocean, plan to get outside more and spend time really getting to know the natural spaces near where you live. You can journal outdoors, take pictures of natural wonders, or just use the time to process your thoughts and feelings and get some clarity about your goals and intentions. This may be more challenging if you live in an urban area, but there’s still plenty of options. If you live near a park, plan to take walks there. If you have few natural spaces around you, bring nature to you. Buy some houseplants and start doing some container gardening. If you have a porch or a deck, make that a little outdoor sanctuary with plants, bird-feeders, or a mini-fountain for a water feature. Even just taking a walk around the block can give you a boost. You’ll still get exposure to sunlight, and you can take time out to observe any bird or other wildlife that is hanging around. Most importantly, get creative and look for the opportunities that you have to foster your own relationship with nature and support your own mental wellness.
There is a tendency that some people have sometimes to apologize for things that do not require an apology, or to apologize for things that were not their fault. This is a habit that comes from a place of wanting to be considerate of other people, which is a good trait and a good quality to have. However, when we over-apologize, it can have the effect making you feel responsible for things that you shouldn’t be responsible for, and this pattern can contribute to a lack of confidence in how you feel and how you come across to other people.
Some people are so accustomed to apologizing for everything that happens, that they feel awkward when they make the effort to NOT apologize when it’s not needed. This can be a people-pleasing tendency that has become an ingrained habit. Other times it may be a response to anxiety or fear of judgement, but it can manifest itself in ways that merely serve to contribute to overall anxiety. The tendency to apologize for things when you have done nothing wrong may make you feel like you are in a constant state of needing to attend to other people’s feelings and comfort, leaving you feeling as though your own feelings and comfort do not matter.
What’s the Problem with Apologizing Too Much?
There is research that suggests that women tend to apologize more not because they are too sensitive or because men have more ego strength, but because women tend to perceive more wrongdoing in their own actions, whereas men tend to perceive smaller offenses as not worthy of requiring an apology. In other words, women tend to judge their own behaviors more harshly, leading them to find more scenarios in which they feel an apology is merited. Over-apologizing is not a trait only women experience, but it may be more likely to be true if you are a woman, particularly one who has been taught to attend to other people’s feelings more than your own.
Here are some scenarios in which you may have become accustomed to apologizing, but that do not actually require an apology:
- Expressing remorse for something that was out of your control
- Apologizing for being in the way when someone else bumps into you
- Apologizing for being offended at something someone else has done to you
- Apologizing for having feelings or for crying when you are upset
- Apologizing when someone else interrupts you
- Apologizing for making a simple request such as asking the time or a small favor
- Apologizing for apologizing
All of these situations are scenarios in which either someone else should actually give an apology, or in which there is no need for an apology at all because there has been no offense committed.
For example, have you ever been confiding in a friend about a painful experience, and then when you started to cry, you apologized to your friend for crying? This is an unfortunately common reaction that many people have when they start to cry, and the implication is that you have done something wrong by becoming emotional when talking about a painful experience. However, in this situation your friend is probably not offended at all that you started to cry, and in fact you have done nothing wrong; you are reacting in a perfectly appropriate way to an expression of your emotions. Why is an apology required? For disturbing the peace? No, you do not need to apologize in this situation.
When you begin to realize that you do not have to apologize for reacting to situations in perfectly normal ways, you will start to feel more confident in yourself. However, if you start to practice asking yourself whether an apology is needed before you issue one, you might find that you feel strange or uncomfortable when you stop yourself from apologizing.
Isn’t This Just Being Polite?
No, apologizing when it is not needed is not a form of being polite. Some people have this tendency because they have been taught or socialized to believe that they should always make sure other people are comfortable, even when they are personally uncomfortable. This is true in those cases when someone bumps into you awkwardly, but then you apologize for being in the way. Sure, you’re trying to just be polite and diffuse the awkwardness of the situation.
However, this is almost an invitation for people to walk all over you. Maybe this will not manifest immediately in the present moment, but over time, this tendency to always present yourself as the one who’s in the way can begin to undermine your own confidence in yourself and shows others that you are not going to stand up for yourself when someone has wronged you. This is most problematic in the way that this habit contributes to your overall demeanor around others. It doesn’t mean someone is going to start bullying you immediately, but over time it contributes to the perception that you will not fault others when they take advantage of or otherwise harm you. You can be polite and kind to others without apologizing for other people’s offenses.
The more assertive way to handle it when someone else bumps into you is to wait for them to apologize to you, which is what would be truly polite, and then accepting the apology with grace by saying simply “Thanks, but I’m okay”, or “You’re excused”. The thanks is for the apology, the reference to being okay or excusing the other person is a verbal forgiveness for the offense of bumping into you. If someone does not apologize for bumping into you, you can either choose to ignore it, or say “You’re excused”. This way the implication is clear that you are not the one who has done something wrong, but you are gracefully excusing the error regardless of the offender’s reaction.
Practicing this new habit in more inconsequential situations such as an accidental bump in a social setting will help you gain confidence for when you need to stand up for yourself in more consequential situations. When you really need to speak up for yourself because of unfair treatment in the workplace, or when a friend has said something hurtful to you, you will be better equipped to handle the scenario confidently because you have been practicing accepting responsibility only for the things you are actually responsible for, and not letting others off the hook for their own offenses by taking unnecessary responsibility.
When Is an Apology Really Required?
Genuine remorse is a different experience altogether. When you have done something for which you are truly remorseful, you should apologize. A genuine apology is an art in itself, and giving a sincere apology is an important part of mending relationships and living up to your own values. A genuine apology should first be sincere, it should explain why what you did was wrong, it should include acceptance of responsibility, and it should include an offer to make amends if possible.
You might need to apologize for snapping at your friend when you were actually upset about something happening at work, or for being late to an appointment where someone was waiting on you, or for not following through with a commitment you made to help with a project. Being able to verbalize a sincere apology is an important skill to have, and can go a long way towards reducing hostility in a relationship or for preserving your reputation.
However, when you apologize for things that do not require an apology, it can undermine your confidence and leave you feeling powerless when others take advantage of you. If this feels like a familiar situation to you, start by beginning to notice all the times you apologize, and begin asking yourself whether that was necessary. Then start by trying to reverse this habit in those smaller, inconsequential scenarios, so that you can begin to build confidence in your ability to assess when an apology is really needed. Just taking these small steps can go a long way in boosting your overall confidence and helping you to become a more assertive person.
This will be the 5th post in my series on Cognitive Distortions. To read more about cognitive distortions and what they are, check out my first post in the series: Coping with Cognitive Distortions.
This post is about Control Fallacies, which are basically a distorted way of looking at how much control you have in a particular situation. The reason that this cognitive distortion is unhealthy is because when we misjudge how much control we have in a situation, we can either blame ourselves excessively for something that has happened, or we can misplace our power by thinking that we have no control over a situation, when you might actually have more power than you think.
Control Fallacies work in two ways: you either think that events in your life are totally beyond your control, or you feel that you are responsible for everything, even things you could not control. Both aspects of this distortion can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. These feelings can cause you to think negative thoughts about yourself, leading to more distress and negative thought patterns.
“I can’t control ANY of this! I feel so stuck!”
The trouble with the first kind, thinking that things are totally beyond your control, can start to happen when you feel helpless and stuck. Perhaps you feel that you are stuck in a job that you hate, but you feel that you have no choice but to remain there. Or maybe you feel repeatedly taken advantage of by others who have used you, and you feel that this is just something that will continue to happen because you are a nice person.
The fallacy in this kind of thinking is that you are actually able of making changes in these kinds of situations, but you have convinced yourself that everything is out of your control, so why bother changing? This is problematic because by not changing and taking control of the areas of your life where you can, you may just be extending your own misery and missing out on the confidence you will gain from taking power back when you can.
Sure, there are going to be times that you really need to stick with your current job, because you haven’t been able to find a better option and you need the money or the benefits. That’s understandable. Sometimes, though, a person may just not have really put in the work to make a change, and then they tell themselves that they have no options. This is a way of avoiding doing the work by claiming that you cannot change anything. I’m not saying this is always the case, because there will be times when you truly don’t have any control. This may be the case if you have a contract for a certain amount of time, such as for those in military service, or those who do not have many job opportunities in the area they live in. For others, though, they may be avoiding making the changes they need to make because it feels too overwhelming, or they are not sure where to start.
Similarly, if you have noticed that certain things continue to happen to you, such as feeling like people are using you or taking advantage of your kindness, you may also have some control in the situation that you can exercise. This might be a matter of learning to set better boundaries with others, which can be difficult but necessary. Setting boundaries can be hard to do if you are not used to being assertive or telling people NO when necessary. However, when you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t change things because you have no control over other people’s behavior, you may be engaging in a control fallacy.
“This is all my fault! I should have done something more!”
The flip side of this problem is when you feel that you are responsible for things that are actually outside of your control, and thus you feel that you have constantly made mistakes or are always letting other people down. For example, you may feel guilty for not noticing a mistake that a colleague made, and then feel accountable when that mistake turns into a bigger problem. Or, you may feel responsible for your partner’s behavior, because you tell yourself that you weren’t supportive enough or didn’t make sure they took their medicine.
When you notice that you are taking responsibility for things that you actually had no control over, this is a sign that you are not assigning blame in the appropriate ways, or you are not giving others the responsibility that they should have. This can lead you to feel guilty about things you didn’t control, or that you couldn’t have avoided. These feelings of guilt can lead to inappropriate feelings or shame or a sense of overcompensation you try to apologize for things that were not your fault. For more on that, see this post on over-apologizing.
In this case, you need to learn to stop taking responsibility for problems that you didn’t create, and recognize that you are not responsible for everyone else’s behavior. It doesn’t mean that you relinquish all sense of responsibility for things in your life, just that you try to look at a situation and figure out if there was something you could’ve done, whereby you learn something that you can use to make better decisions in the future, or you let go of any sense of shame or guilt involved in situations that you couldn’t control. This might mean that you have to practice not apologizing for things that were not your fault, or it may mean that you have to give yourself permission to let go of the guilt and shame about events that you have associated as being your fault when they really were not.
How can I change these patterns?
When you start to recognize these control fallacy patterns in your thought process, you can work to change them so that you feel more in control of your mentality and more confident about your decisions. If you notice that your thoughts feel self-defeating, if you notice that you constantly think about all the barriers you have instead of all the opportunities you can look for, remind yourself that you have to make small changes before you make big changes. Look for the opportunities to make small changes first, such as setting better boundaries with the people in your life, or making a plan to change your career path. Recognize that while you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can still control your personal decisions and where you direct your mental energy.
If you have the opposite problem with this control fallacy and you find yourself blaming yourself for things inappropriately, practice asking yourself some questions to get a better understanding of if there was really anything you could have done differently. Ask yourself: “How could I have known what the outcome would be? Is there really anything I could have done differently? Is this a problem that is out of my personal control? Is there someone else in this situation that needs to take responsibility for their own behavior or choices?” Recognizing your own power in these situations and figuring out what you can do differently in the future will benefit you if you learn to stop this pattern of cognitive distortion and look at the situation more objectively.
For more on cognitive distortions, check out these other posts:
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 4.0: Emotional Reasoning
Human beings vary in their degree of sensitivity, by which I mean that there are some people who are highly sensitive and who feel emotions very intensely, whereas there are others who display little sensitivity towards others and who also do not seem to be as affected by their environment or the people around them. Empaths are people who are empathetic and sympathetic towards others, and also experience the world as a highly sensitive person.
From Sociopaths to Empaths
There appears to be about 3-5 percent of the human population that fall under the category of sociopathic, which does not mean that they are all murderers, but does mean that they operate their lives in a way by which their primary concern is always about themselves, and they do not have the ability to see things from the perspective of others. They may feel very little true guilt or shame about doing harmful things to others. Another 1 percent is considered psychopathic, with higher percentages of both sociopaths and psychopaths found among criminal populations.
There is another end of the spectrum though, who are rather the opposite of the sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists, which is those who are highly sensitive individuals, sometimes referred to as Empaths. Interestingly, highly sensitive people comprise about 20% of the population. Empaths are a kind of highly sensitive person that extends their ability to experience the feelings deeply of others as well as themselves. Empaths are people who identify with and feel intense empathy towards others. This does not mean that they are inherently fragile or overly-emotional. It means that they feel things deeply, think about things deeply, and take on the emotions and experiences of others as their own.
Who Are the Empaths?
Being highly sensitive is a temperament trait, not a disorder or a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, it is a trait that likely has some benefit as a survival trait, because high sensitivity exists in over 100 different species of animals as well. For example, certain dogs may be more sensitive and empathetic, which makes them amazing companion animals and also great therapy dogs. These animals, as well as highly sensitive people, are very responsive to small changes in their environment.
Empaths often find themselves worrying not only about their own problems and experiences, but the problems and experiences of their friends and families, people they may not even know, and the problems of the world at large. While many people do think and care about these things, empaths tend to have a more intense personal emotional response to these things, and may find themselves exhausted at caring so much about everything. Both men and women can be empaths, and highly sensitive individuals exist in similar rates in both men and women.
Empaths typically have the following characteristics as part of their general personality and constitution:
- Highly emotionally responsive, ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others
- Easily empathize with animals
- May cry easily, even at seemingly innocuous moments, commercials or movies
- Tend to be creative and curious, with a desire to learn about and understand the world
- Susceptible to over-stimulation, such as crowds, loud noises, or over-work
- May be inclined towards caring professions, such as nursing, mental health, or teaching
- May burn-out easily and need reclusive time to recover
- Tend to observe quietly and take things in
- Mentally process information deeply and thoroughly
Empaths may often feel different than others, feel misunderstood, or have a hard time understanding why others in the world care so little compared to them. This can lead to a tendency towards introversion, although not all empaths or highly sensitive people are introverted. Many empaths have been told throughout their lives that their way of perceiving the world is wrong, or that they need to “get over” their feelings. However, recognizing that you are a highly sensitive person or an Empath may help you to understand more about what your unique needs are by learning to value the traits that you have and use them as a strength.
What do Empaths Need?
Empaths tend to work well independently, and also work well in settings that are one-on-one with another person. Workplace environments with a lot of people, or that are very noisy and simulating may leave empaths feeling drained rather than energized. Socializing may lead to similar experiences. Knowing that certain environments will feel over-whelming and lead to feeling unwell may help empaths make decisions about career paths and socialization choices that will lead to more fulfilling experiences.
Empaths also may need to have down-time in between experiences that are overwhelming. For example, after going to a party one evening, an empath may need to make sure they schedule time for solitude in order to recover and regain energy. They may similarly need to schedule down-time after situations that require a lot of emotional energy, such as caregiving for others, volunteering for charity work, or even engaging with friends to support them.
Knowing if you are an empath may help you understand how to express your needs more assertively. Empaths may often have difficulty asking for help or even saying “No” when others request help from them. Their tendency is to try to solve problems for others, but this may sometimes result in the empathic person neglecting their own needs. Learning to say no to some obligations or requests for help, and learning to schedule time for yourself in order to recover your sense of energy can have a positive effect on your overall mood and improve your ability to interact with the world.
As an Empath, recognize that your highly sensitive qualities are a strength, both to yourself and your community. Sometimes, you may wish that you could not care as much because of how deeply everything affects you. However, the world needs highly sensitive people who are attuned to others and who care about how others think and feel. Empaths have likely long been the healers and the nurturers in human communities, and have been valuable to the societies they live in. However, empaths can also learn to care as much about themselves as they do others, which they certainly deserve due to the value they bring to other’s lives.