In Search of a "Sensitive" Therapist
By Jeannette Folan
In the midst of a depression several years ago, I learned that I was an empath. I hadn’t sought therapy up to that point, but couldn’t imagine climbing out of my deepening hole without some help. After several unsuccessful phone consults, I found a counselor who had personal experience with depression, anxiety, and addiction. Figuring he must know firsthand the way out of a deep hole, I booked him for an appointment.
At our initial session, I held up two sheets of paper. On one was a bucket with a happy girl sitting on top. The side of the bucket read: Music, nature, inspired, joy. The other had a bucket with a sad girl and it read: Lonely, alcohol, dark, sad. “Your job is to help me get from the sad bucket to the joy bucket,” I said with some desperation. He smiled and replied, “I can do that.”
And he did. Yet the biggest obstacle in the therapy process was that he didn’t know what it meant to be an empath and how much that affected the other issues I was struggling with. For example, my husband was a news junkie. I begged him to not have the news station on while I was in the house, but he wasn’t always quick enough with the remote and it angered me that I had to absorb even a minute of gunfire and the details of homicides. My therapist perceived my anger toward my husband as classic displacement. We went around the subject a few times, my frustration rapidly growing into discouragement, when finally I shouted, “Hearing the news feels like my internal organs are being tasered and my husband is the one holding the baton… which is, of course, the remote!”
My dramatic outburst put the empath issue into clearer focus for him. High sensory sensitivity = High emotional reactivity. By the end of the next session, we realized we were starting to speak the same language. He began to validate my empath experiences, helped me find ways to explain to my husband what I was feeling, as well as coaching me through my emergence from depression.
Shortly after we ended our sessions, I researched how few mental health professionals understand the Highly Sensitive/Empath trait – even though reports indicate that 30-50% of clients seeking therapy are HSPs/empaths!
If you are currently seeking a “Sensitive” therapist or are in therapy now and don’t feel fully understood, here are a few ideas for how you can help your therapist better help you:
Environmental — Be honest if there is something in your therapist’s office that affects you, such as a vivid painting or bright lighting, or if you would be more comfortable sitting on the floor instead of the sofa. You may not be able to adjust every environment you’re in, but therapy is one place where you can easily have these needs met, and your sessions will benefit as a result.
You might also find that you have a more productive session if you close your eyes periodically, because 80% of our stimulation is visual. It will be easier to sense your feelings and articulate your thoughts if you aren’t distracted by inconsequential things in your environment.
Eye Contact — Therapists are trained to maintain eye contact; when a client does not maintain eye contact in return, it can be perceived as avoidance, shame, or social anxiety. (And sometimes we even feel that way about ourselves for not holding eye contact!) We might also feel a pressure to connect, which only causes us to get flustered or shut down. Explain to your therapist if eye contact is uncomfortable or overstimulating to your senses. You might even be more comfortable facing another direction or closing your eyes.
Provide a Scale — When we are trying to convey the depth of our feelings and experiences, we sometimes rely on graphic language or dramatic emotional expressions to be understood. Reliving our experiences at such an intense level can trigger the fight/flight/trauma state and derail us from progress in our session. By using a scale, both you and your therapist can take a more objective approach to the situation. For example, the intensity of the “News Conflict” with my husband was a 7 — compared to burning my hand on the stove which was a 5. Besides helping in session, developing a scale of your emotions/experiences will boost your self-awareness and allow you to apply any techniques you’ve learned to those challenging situations.
Give Permission — Sometimes our HSP/empath defense system is on high alert for reasons having nothing to do with what’s happening in session. One commonality sensitive people share is the feeling of Not Being Safe. To honor your sensitive system and calm your subconscious, begin each session by giving permission to your therapist: I give you permission to help me work through whatever issues I bring up today and I trust that I am safe in doing so.
State your Intentions — Another method to help calm your fight/flight system and have a productive session is to begin by stating your intention. Unlike naming a specific goal or breakthrough you want to achieve, this intention focuses on opening your mind and body to the potential for a healing experience. I am choosing to be here, to be open to learning about myself, and to developing myself in ways that lead to a joyful, healthy life.
Spiritual Matters — There are many wonderful therapists who are not spiritually focused and do not feel at ease discussing spiritual matters. Yet if you are an empath, you need a safe, nonjudgmental outlet to share these experiences. If you love your therapist in every other way and do not wish to change, consider finding a supplemental spiritual coach who can provide that essential support.
If you are in need of a Sensitive-trained mental health professional, Jeannette has created
Click here to download a free PDF entitled “Creating a Safe Space in Session.”
Jeannette Folan did not realize how much her life was about to change after her empath awakening in 2014. Committed to learning how to heal and break free from her mental health struggles, she immersed herself in the world of empaths and spirituality. Within two years, she closed her marketing business and published her first novel, Diary of a Teenage Empath: The Awakening. She then co-authored a digital workbook, Energy Skills for HSP/Empath Teens, and created an activity book for children, Discovering the Power of Sensitivity.
In 2017, she became an Integrative Health Coach and began leading a support group for empaths in her community of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Along with her mentor, Dr. Wendy Nickerson, she developed the first-ever accredited HSP Certification Training Program for mental health professionals, which is being offered at a $50 discount to Shift Network members (use code SHIFT50 to claim your discount).
Jeannette is an active member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology, where she presents workshops for mental health professionals and school teachers and administrators to gain a better understanding of the unique challenges and therapeutic approaches for highly sensitives and empaths. She is a dedicated advocate, working to support the professionals who are supporting the valuable HSP/empath population.
Click here to visit Jeannette’s Empath Diary website.