Are you often told that you are too sensitive? Can you intuit things before they happen? Are you an introvert who cares deeply about the people and places around you?
Using a new and specialized framework for understanding empaths and sensitive individuals, integrative health coach Courtney Marchesani demystifies the science of sensitivity to help you maximize your gifts of empathy, intuition, vision, and expression.
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Hello friends. Have you noticed that you can get caught up in consuming content or maybe you noticed you are hyper, hyperfocused on the doing? Empaths we often consume. And I know because that was me too; soaking up information from all my favorite teachers and mentors. But it wasn’t until I started focusing more on the being and embodiment work that the door to massive clarity was finally unlocked and I no longer got confused about what was my energy versus everybody else’s. I was able to become a more clear channel for creation and as a result, transform my life, business, and health. In fact, my meditation and embodiment practice is what helped me have a nearly $40,000 month this past January, see the highest downloaded month of the podcast, and finally release a lot of unnecessary stress. And my clients felt it and saw it in their lives too.
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Welcome to The Uncensored Empath, a place for us to discuss highly sensitives’ energy, illness, healing, and transformation. My name is Sarah Small and I’m a life and success coach for empaths who want to create a thriving body, business, and life. Think of this podcast as your no-BS guide to navigating life, health, and entrepreneurship. You’ll get straight-to-the-point, totally holistic tips from me in real time as I navigate this healing and growth journey right beside you. This is a Soulfire production.
Welcome back to another episode. I had the absolute honor and privilege of interviewing Courtney Marchesani, who is the author of the Four Gifts of the Highly Sensitive and developer of the Highly Sensitive Gifts Test. She, like myself, loves to nerd out on all the complexities and the nuances of being highly sensitive. And so, it was my deep pleasure to be in this virtual room with her for as long as we were able to have her. And in the time we did have, we covered so much, including right off the bat, the difference between HSP and empath, how our past trauma potentially has shaped us as HSPs, how this is connected to the nervous system and brain functioning more specifically, and we dive into what she talks about in her book, which is the four types of sensitive people, including the sensitive empath.
Courtney’s experience has also included being accepted into the Bigelow Institute of Consciousness Studies’ International Essay Contest for her original research into the afterlife. Her health and wellness coaching style focuses on holistic medicine and finding balance while living with sensitivity. Since sensitivity is closely interconnected with the nervous system and brain functioning, it’s not something she says that we need to get rid of, which you know, I’m on board with as well. She’s known for her intuitive and empathic style which emphasizes acceptance and learning how sensitivity’s silent effects can impact our mental, emotional, spiritual health and wellness. So let’s dive into this conversation with Courtney and start to destigmatize the term sensitive.
Sarah: Welcome to the show, Courtney. It’s so good to have you on.
Courtney: Thanks. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited about our conversation today.
Sarah: Me too. I don’t even know. My empath is already turned on where I’m just feeling it in my chest kind of like buzzy excitement; excitement to be here with you today. As I was just telling you before we pressed record, I just feel the community of listeners is really going to resonate with the work that you do and the writing you’ve done in your book. So I also told you I have so many questions and we’re going to try to get to as many as possible, and I’d love to kind of start with a foundation. So your book is about HSPs or highly sensitive people. I would love for us to just at least get your take on how you define the HSP, the highly sensitive person, and how you see differences or similarities between HSP and empath.
Courtney: Well, it’s a raging debate…you know that. There have been people who are kind of the old school who read the first highly sensitive person book like myself. I was going through college in the ’90s when I first found Dr. Elaine Aron’s book. And she was the one who really sets the underpinnings or the foundation of the highly sensitive person. She coined the term, she did the highly sensitive person scale, which was very pioneering and has been studied extensively. But when she came out with that work, it was really refuted at the time as well. A lot of people looked at the highly sensitive person and how she defined it and saw it as well, that’s her thing that she discovered, but it might not be applicable. Well over the years, over the last 20 years of her defining what it is, which is essentially an organic brain, natural ability to process deep information through a sensitive processing sensitivity. That’s what it’s clinically called, this SPS.
So we receive more information through sight, sound, taste, touch through the classical five senses and all that has been well-established. That’s the highly sensitive person. There also is a second part to that that’s very clinical where we have more emotional reactivity. So this is really important for the empaths. We perceive more information in any given environment, but then we also have faster emotional reactivity and that runs the gamut how our emotional reactivity will strike. So where I go into depth that’s kind of it’s not a departure, it’s not a radical departure from Dr. Elaine Aron’s work, but I started to dig down into the way different people developed gifts or giftedness of sensitivity.
So sensitivity the way I look at it is an overall umbrella. And then I look at the patterns that are expressed within that umbrella and empaths were one type of giftedness that really came about. It emerged through all of the studies that I had done. And so, I think empaths are amazing people who have sensitivity that’s extraordinary and they fall more on the extreme. That’s how I look at it with the emotional reactivity part of it, of the sensitivity.
Sarah: Okay. So interesting. And so, I’m super visual and I use a lot of the clair senses in the way I describe things. And so, it’s that clairvoyance of trying to visualize this. And so, the way you describe it almost sounds like HSP, different types of HSP, or a spectrum of HSP and an empath would fall underneath one of those types. Is that right?
Courtney: Yes. Very, very good delineation. Then when you look at the extreme, okay? So I look at it as a line and a linear line visually, if we’re going to talk about the clairvoyant visual aspect of HSP. I look at it as, okay, you can identify as an HSP and that’s on a linear line where you have low-grade sensations, then you have really, really finely-tuned sensations that fall along the line of hypersensitivity on the other end. But then there’s the depth. Okay, if you look at it as like a T, there’s the line that has the HSP scale but then there’s a depth of it that goes deeper into not just sensations that you perceive and how quickly you respond to those sensations, but then the depth of the processing. That goes into awareness; awareness falls into that depth. So empaths, gifted empaths will likely be HSP of course. They’ll fall on that spectrum. But then there’s a depth to their empathy. It’s a depth function.
And so, that awareness connects to relationships, how you process emotions, how your brain works to resolve those emotions, and your awareness. And it’s a complex depth processing function. That’s the best way I can describe it. And it comes through stories, through people’s own personal experiences that you really learn how fascinating the gifted empath is.
Sarah: I’m so curious because I actually had…well, I have several clients who also work with highly sensitive community and empath community and the overlap of that. And they’re often asking me, where can I research more about this? Where can I find research on HSPs and empaths? And unfortunately, I haven’t been able to send them in too many directions. And so, I’m super curious what your thoughts are on that. And it feels like something that I’d love to have more research on and yet it seems challenging how do we research this, right?
Courtney: I keep at it through every different angle, to be honest. I came at it through neurodivergence. Neurodivergence; Dr. Elaine Aron, when neurodivergent came out and came on the scene, she wasn’t dismissive about it. She just said HSPs are not neurodivergent. She made that claim. And so, I continue to dig into neurodivergence because I thought a lot of emerging studies came through there. Empathy was really, really studied in hospital settings. It was studied through education, it was studied through social awareness and intelligence. So when people are going to look about empathy and deep empathy, there are resources, but you have to be willing to do the work. And so, it takes time.
Daniel Goleman’s work was one of the groundbreaking foundational works on EQ. And so, that validated a lot of people who had empathy and felt that they were different somehow, but there wasn’t a lot of research around it. Now there is. So now there’s things like studies around mirror neurons and how mirror neurons affect emotions or people who don’t have as many mirror neurons, they might be more narcissistic or less empathic. So you have to look at the range of studies that are coming out and you have to be diligent about it. But ‘The Age of Empathy‘; Frans de Waal wrote ‘The Age of Empathy‘. That was a great book. So there are people that are talking about the differences between EQ, IQ. I call my type of social awareness SQ. So it’s emerging. So just keep paying attention because I feel like now there’s a wellspring of books about it.
The thing that’s important for people to also know is some of the books that are out there are not necessarily walking the walk. So you have to be able to discern the writer’s intentions, if they’re for real, or if they’re just trying to really use the marketing to make money, because everybody is really interested in the empathic awareness right now. Empaths will know the people who walk the walk.
Sarah: Right. We have those lie detectors, internal lie detectors, right?
Sarah: I hope to see more research continue to come to the surface and I think you made a really good point about it. You have to look, right? You have to find and know what to even search And that search word might not just be empath or empathy all the time. And I often refer people to the research and studies around mirror neurons because I think it’s fascinating and starting to validate some of what we experience as empaths. Because, and I’d love your take on this, but I think that there’s a common notion that empath is this spiritual concept. And I actually see it as being more based in our nervous system and our brain chemistry. And at the same time, I do think that empaths are naturally drawn to spirituality and intuition plays a big role, but I don’t think that we can only talk about it through a spiritual lens. I think we can also talk about it through more of a scientific lens. What do you think?
Courtney: Well the reason that the subtitle of the book is ‘The Science of Sensitivity‘ was because I was really trying to marry those two concepts. Because all the research I’ve done over the last 20 years, and I’ve looked down every rabbit hole possible, even the most far-out things, just because I really want to know the way different people are conceiving of this idea. And there’s always been the new age esoteric stuff that’s out there trying to really quantify what we’re talking about, but it is a central nervous system function. It is related to our organic brain functioning, which is basically a biological evolutionary ability that developed. Empathy is part of the human experience, but some individuals have this biological sensitivity in order to detect, detect information. So I like to call sensitives the bellwethers. They’re the ones that are out in the front sensing, perceiving, detecting in order to basically educate the tribe, the clan, our societies. So it absolutely is a physiological function. I mean, that has been proven regardless of what people want to say, if they don’t want to believe it, or if they don’t want to look into it. It has been established.
But the other part that you’re talking about cannot be neglected or ignored either. And I think that’s where my book is kind of on the leading edge in some ways with the empath enlightenment movement if you want to call it that, because there’s different types of empathy, there’s different types of empathic abilities that emerge through the personality. And that is not, in some ways, a mystery. It’s because these individuals are already predisposed to have it and then the individual through their home life, their experiences, sometimes through trauma, they develop very real talents and skillsets based off of empathy. So I try to combine both. I love what you’re saying. I love being able to ground the concepts in real science because it helps people validate, yes, this is a real thing for the empath. But also people who are in a relationship with empaths, it’s very important for them to understand how their person is going to respond to them and their own stress because empaths perceive that and feel it in their own mind and body, and it affects relationships deeply.
But the other part of it is there does seem to be a exceptional quality to certain types of empathy which do bring empaths into contact with bliss states, transcendent experiences, anomalous experiences, exceptional experiences. And so that, I think, in the past has been kind of lumped into spirituality. Then when you start to look at the fine-tuned sensory experiences that different empaths have, it falls along certain lines. So it is bliss states. It is when empaths emerge themselves in their loving relationships that it is a transcendent, ecstatic feeling that goes beyond the ego or the identity. And so, these types of profound experiences are what empaths are known for, so it’s kind of a called spirituality. If you ask an empath if they are spiritual, they’re not always going to say yes. They’re going to describe what their experiences have been usually through those ecstatic bliss states.
Sarah: Yes. Oh my gosh, I’m loving this. This is so fascinating. I just love somebody else I can geek out on all this over.
Sarah: There’s so many nuances to it and it is fascinating to me. And I also have often arrived back at this question of why am I the way I am, as I self-identify as empath, HSP, as well as SPD ‘sensory processing disorder’. And that question has led me in many different directions. And I’m curious what your take is on how childhood experiences and past trauma potentially do shape the highly sensitive person and or empath.
Courtney: It’s really, once again, a controversial topic that’s kind of ignored, I think. And I think that’s the other reason why I wrote this book the way that I did is I never identified my own self as a sensitive person. I never did. Even though when I look back now at my childhood experiences, absolutely. Hiding under tables, hiding in closets, overwhelmed. Transitions are very difficult from one environment to another one, but I didn’t know that because I was a child. And then when we’re children, we don’t really relate to what we’re experiencing to others. We just know we’re the only ones that have a problem. So when I got older and I saw it as a sensitivity, I came at it through trauma and through post-traumatic stress disorder and understanding complex trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Then my light bulb turned on with sensitivity. So I came at it from a different way. A lot of people come at this just through the highly sensitive person label. And so, I integrated those different fields. Now I do talk about SPD a little bit, but I don’t go into great detail about SPD because it’s a separate book.
Sarah: Yes, totally.
Courtney: It’s a whole other field about multisensory awareness, convergence; convergence of multisensory intelligence, which often happens with people who have synesthesia and other types of SPD. So I do look at them as different, but they overlap in interesting ways. So that’s how I conceive of it is there are overlapping components between all these three things that we’re talking about. That’s how they get delineated when you start to talk to people who have these experiences is they express themselves in unique ways. And that’s the importance. There are individual differences. Does that make sense?
Sarah: It does. And I’m just thinking about my personal experience. If I’m going to rewind my life, my timeline, and go back, I think, obviously individual to me, but I can see where I have especially flexed that muscle and develop that skill, honed in on these abilities within myself in order to protect myself in a chaotic environment as a little girl. And how that eventually became something that just was a habit, it was just automatic after having to or feeling like I needed to pick up on the energy of the room and who is the biggest threat. And by taking on the emotions of the surroundings or having the extrasensory ability to tune into things right as they’re happening or right before they happen helps me to feel, or at least a facade of safety as a little girl. And that really shaped a lot of my childhood and then who I became as I grew older and as an adult.
And everyone’s obviously going to have their own personal experience that maybe they can draw connections from their childhood to adulthood and the ‘why’. The ‘why’ fascinates me. Why do we function this way? Why do we process this way? And for me, a lot of it has been rooted back to safety. I’d love your thoughts on that.
Courtney: Well, I will moderate what I said earlier with an additional aside. So in all the research that I did about what we’re talking about, which is pain really, right? Detecting potential harm however the child comes into their environment. We’re like sponges, we don’t know. We don’t really know the dynamics of our home environment. We have to learn and be conditioned really; threat, pain, harm, suffering, love, attachment, joy, right? Fulfillment. A lot of times when I would encounter this interesting phrase in the research, it was prefaced like this; ‘sensitivity tends to moderate pain’. So because sensitivity comes about as a way to detect harmful, adversive, or painful, potentially painful experiences, there is absolutely research that shows that sensitivity tends to moderate these adversive experiences to help us to interact in a way to keep us safe. So what you’re experiencing and what you can recognize from your own youth is absolutely a hundred percent true.
They’re starting to look into it; why does sensitivity moderate pain? Why? Because the central nervous system to be maxed out is unhealthy, right? So the system and the balance between mind and body needs homeostasis. So sensitivity is being looked at as this moderator. And why are some people more sensitive than others? They haven’t found a clear correlation between people who are on that hypersensitivity scale that we talked about from the beginning of the line to the other end of the spectrum, but my guess, just my personal opinion is hypersensitivity is absolutely correlated to pain perception.
Sarah: Yes, that’s super interesting to me also, again, on a personal level because I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia when I was 17 years old. And it’s kind of that blanket diagnosis for chronic pain or your brain signaling that there’s pain when there’s no other reason for pain in the body. And so, I see a lot of overlap in my lived experience around that as well. I’d love if you have these details if we can just inform the audience on how, more specifically, being an HSP is connected to the nervous system and brain functioning. What does that look like? What is the process in our body that does set us apart from someone who maybe doesn’t identify as HSP?
Courtney: Great question and what is really sorely missed in medical diagnostic tools if you ask me. You’ll talk to a doctor who handles pediatric practices and they’ll say, oh, yes, we have kids that are highly anxious. They have gastrointestinal upsets, they have sematic complaints that aren’t real, and they also have more what would typically be called neurotic or neurosis. So there are these patterns, right, that doctors, physicians, and neurologists, and pediatric people alike look at and say, okay, these people are generally more anxious. They’re more responsive, they have more allergies. Are they connecting the dots on all these patterns with fibromyalgia and hypermobility? No, they’re not. They’re not. They’re kind of diagnostically missing the mark. I think that one of the reasons why I go into all of this in great detail in the book is to illuminate how it is connected through the research and to also illuminate for people who are diagnostically experiencing these types of mysterious symptoms, where to look.
And so, here’s how it’s connected. So because sensory processing sensitivity is a clinical organic brain function, it’s been recognized. Do they know much about it? No. But it’s related to these different neural networks in our brain. So when sensitivity kicks in, let’s say that there’s an alarm that goes off in our environment, and then we tune into it, everything starts firing; everything. The central nervous system goes into activation, the brain is peaked and perception is peaked to try to discern and detect harm where it is. And then obviously this is not something we’re thinking about, it’s automatic. It’s not the thinking-through brain process, it is the fight-or-flight process.
So once fight-or-flight happens, then that kicks in the HPA axis, which I can’t go into in a huge amount of detail, but there’s so much research on the APA axis. The HPA axis is responsible for hormones. It’s responsible for neuro regulation for all the adrenal system and all of that. So it’s all connected. So what you see is individuals who are super sensitive who are activating these types of processes more often. The CNS is in a heightened state more often so they experience more anxiety. They also experience more gut and abdominal issues. So those are the two things immediately when anybody is having abdominal pain or any kind of abdominal issues, gastrointestinal functional issues that haven’t been addressed, they’re probably HSP. They’re closely linked and they’re also closely linked with anxiety. So any parent who has a kid who’s going to school who starts to talk about tummy upsets and nausea and feeling ill, they are real, okay? It’s not psychosomatic. But because doctors are looking for a root cause and not finding anything and sensitivity really isn’t part of the diagnostic picture, it’s called psychosomatic.
There’s dual sensory innervation in the gut. That’s the other thing that people who are listening too ought to know. And the reason why gut is affected is because sensory neurons are always firing and they go directly into the spinal cord and also in the gut. And so, these two processes, like you hear about gut instincts, you feel a gut instinct, it’s totally related to sensory processing sensitivity. And so, all those things are intertwined together. They’re kind of hard to tease out because one affects the other and there’s a cascade. There’s a neurochemical cascade between the gut and the brain. And the interesting thing is sometimes, well, all the time, sensory-motor neurons are going directly into the spine. They’re not even coming up to the brain immediately to be processed about what’s happening in the environment. So you’re going to get immediate responses through the gut and the spinal cord. So you should always trust your gut. You should always trust those feelings first and then the brain will try to understand it and it’ll come around.
Sarah: Yes. I was just going to say it reminded me of the saying ‘something sent chills up your spine’. Well, that’s a real feeling that you have in your physical body that, like you mentioned, the brain doesn’t receive immediately. And so, it’s like, we don’t exactly know what it is, but we feel it. And we need to trust that; that feeling that we get that I do and I have heard so many times people say, ‘this is a curse’. And so, I would also love to tease apart and pick apart your thoughts on just… My perspective is that when we don’t know what’s going on in our body, it can absolutely feel like a curse because life in the world feels really fucking chaotic and hard to manage. And I’ve been in that boat. Even as you were speaking, I am the kid who got just the sensitivity, not being part of the diagnostic process. I had gut issues. I have celiac disease, got diagnosed with fibromyalgia, super anxious, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, right? But no one ever put that altogether.
And so I can understand where some people feel like, oh my God, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. And then at the same side, now that I’m kind of like in hindsight, in retrospect, all the understanding that I now have around it, I’m like, oh no, this is like the most powerful thing that resides within me and I can hone it and I can harness it and I can use this in motherhood, in my business, and in my relationship and so on and so forth. So I’d love your perspective as well.
Courtney: Well, thank God that you got there. Because I feel like in the waystations of our life with medical, they’re essentially called medically unexplainable symptoms ‘MUS’. And the way just so people have context, when you have an issue that you go to to the doctor, and they’ve looked at all the screenings, they’ve done all the labs, they’ve done every kind of test, and they can’t find what it is, it’s called medically unexplainable or MUS. So underneath MUS, a lot of things were lumped into this category like fibromyalgia, chronic pain, muscular disorders that couldn’t be addressed. And so, what doctors eventually did was decide that MUS diagnostic category was essentially emotional pain. I mean, I don’t have any better way to say it. It’s a very strong overgeneralization, but in all the research that I found, that’s essentially what they did.
Doctors would say, okay, this person is medically unexplainable. It must be pain. It must be unresolved pain in this person’s life. And so, then they would be referred to a psychiatrist or a psychologist. That would be the normal progression, just so people understand when you get the cattle call, right? And you go in and you’re going through this process, it’s not that the diagnosticians or doctors don’t care. They do. They just can’t find a root cause for this kind of stuff. So then you go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist who might be incredible and they might understand trauma and they might understand a lot of the clinical diagnostic stuff for psychiatry, but they don’t understand sensitivity.
So I’m somebody who went through college in the ’90s when Dr. Elaine Aron’s book came out and even, I didn’t identify as a sensitive person, and I’m extremely far out on the scale. So I think it’s wonderful that you figured it out. I also think it’s wonderful that you got to the place where you see it as a gift because that’s where I am. And I know that a lot of people feel it’s a curse. Sometimes even a family curse, right? When it’s you have a predisposition and it gets passed down through your mother or your father, and everybody’s having auto-immune diseases and other things. It feels like you’re being shackled in a way. But the beautiful part about this, especially when you start digging into the systems of the body like the fascia and how the fascia holds all through this fibrous tissue of your whole body, how it connects everything. And it is another type of sheath, right? Protecting you. You have to look at sensitivity with new eyes once you start to realize what it is, which is basically a warning system.
And so, when you start to see it that way, you can feel and learn how your own system responds and then react in positive ways. So self-care goes up. Also, peace and tranquility in your life goes up when you start to recognize what you need personally: interpersonally, personally, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And it sounds exhausting, but really when you decode and detect how your sensitivity is working for you, it’s phenomenal. I mean, my own sensitivity, just to attest to this phenomenon, has saved lives multiple times. Not just once, repeatedly; people that I’ve cared about. And so, when I started to look at it and write about it, I was like, this isn’t a curse. Because that’s what people always say. The empath thing, it’s a blessing or a curse. I started to see this is one of the most powerful things that I could have. And so, I recast a lot of my other adverse experiences in my life and thought, well, maybe I was born to understand this in this way, to send a different kind of message and to also educate; educate people in the medical community about people like myself who got thrown into a medical kind of wastebasket when it’s there’s so much more to it.
Sarah: Yes. Oh, that brings up emotion for me because I, again, so resonate with that path personally. And I know you have some powerful stories of when intuition has saved lives and I’d love for you to maybe pick one out and share that with us so that people who are listening who are maybe still questioning whether this is something that they want to understand deeper or want to love about themselves can understand the impact it can have.
Courtney: Yes. Well, I have many stories which were basically like my awakening process because I didn’t realize I was any different. I mean, my home was pretty much like you conform. We were blue-collar, blue class, do what we have to do, work hard work ethic, but we weren’t any different. And so, for me, when the awakening aspects happen between these life-saving events and warnings, I had to look at my own personal experience and try to see how I fit in my own community. And so, the one profound experience that happened was a…it wasn’t the first experience, but it also kind of culminated on several other experiences which made me go, this is important, I need to pay attention. And it was, I wrote about it a little bit in the book, I didn’t tell the whole story, but it was a fire. It was a fire that I prevented in a three-story brownstone in Capitol Hill in my neighborhood.
It was my girlfriend’s apartment. And so she asked me to move a bed for another friend and they were going to move in together, save money, pool their resources, and move to New York. And so, what ended up happening was, as soon as I picked my girlfriend and her two boys up at her apartment, I started to feel not to move the bed, do not move the bed. And I had a gut reaction, like we’ve been talking about, that visceral nausea. It was a sickening feeling. There’s no other way to put it. But then there was also a voice. I heard an authoritative voice that said don’t move the bed, which was my intuition. That’s how I look at it later. But I tried to understand it for years and years because it went beyond what I had experienced before. It happened in the daytime. My other pre-cognitive dreams and intuitions and warnings were all through dreams before.
But once we prevented the fire, what ended up happening is we went to our other friend’s apartment. I dismantled the bed. I was putting everything in the back of the truck and then I just said, we need to leave right now, and I did an edict ‘we need to go’. And so, I put my friend and her boys back in the truck and we drove all the way back across town. And when we got there, the whole apartment complex was filled with smoke.
Courtney: I’ve never went up into the apartment so I had no way of knowing, but it was, in my way of thinking about it, a deep empathic connection with my friend, Rebecca. Because she knew, even if not consciously aware, that she left her candle burning. There was a three-wick candle burning on her window sill that she forgot about. And when we went in, there was a bamboo lightshade that was covering it, that was smoking, and it was black and it was expanding. And all that smoke in the hallway had been coming off the bamboo light covering. So we got there in the nick of time, but the thing that was impressed upon me was it wasn’t an accident. It seemed to me like I knew somehow.
And so that fascinating bit; how did I know without knowing how I know is what led me over the past 20 years to try to understand it. It was life-changing. I mean, it changed my belief system. It changed my personality in a sense. So I also think sensitivity is a healing mechanism, an underlying healing mechanism that is not talked about that much at all, that kind of leads us to the spaces in our lives where we need to heal ourselves. So I think it’s a healing function.
Sarah: I totally agree. And when I arrived upon the words to describe what I had been feeling for so long in my life, it absolutely opened up a healing path and validated a lot of what I was feeling. And you had mentioned this as you were talking before, but it’s learning what I needed, learning how to take care of myself versus conforming, like you mentioned, within a family unit or conforming within a friend group or society in general, when a lot of society wasn’t created with highly sensitive or neurodivergent minds in mind. And so, knowing what I know about what I need and how to take care of my nervous system, my physical body, my emotional body, my mental energy body, all the different layers of myself has been absolutely life-changing and the way in which I have been able to see it as a gift versus the thing that was really annoying in the past, like, oh, why do I have to be this way, right?
Courtney: It is annoying. I mean, it is. It’s a daily level of maintenance is what my mother would call it. You know, go do your maintenance. You have to attend. Sensitive people are known for not attending to their sensory warning signals. We don’t want to stop and pay mindful attention to what we need. We tend to push through things and say, oh, well, I’ll attend to that later and then we don’t. And what happens is we get maxed out. And so, that’s why you see a lot of chronic fatigue. That’s why you see a lot of these other things that are misdiagnosed or not able to be diagnosed. It’s because we’re not pausing and attending to ourselves routinely. But when you do, and it does seem like a lot of work, but when you do, like you said, I’m so happy that you found life transformed in unique ways when you learned what you needed.
And I think the other thing that is different, it differentiates my work, and this is controversial but I’m just going to say it, because I say it in the book so I might as well verbalize it: when empaths are little; now this is mine, this is my opinion completely, but it’s from what I experienced and from what I discerned in talking to really gifted and exceptional empaths through their stories and collections of their subjective experiences with their parents, empaths seem to be able to unconsciously, when they’re children, detect when their parents are struggling. Now they may have been born and predestined to be an empath. There’s that argument as well. And maybe that’s true, but there is certainly an aspect of this when a young child sees that their parent is unavailable, whether it’s through an illness, no fault of the parent, right? Not the parent’s fault or whether it is through an addiction or whether it’s through a mental illness or whether it’s through work and they’re just not present to attend mindfully and attune to their own child, young empaths sense this through their nonverbal intelligence. They sense this. And they sense that there’s a lack of connection and there’s a lack of attachment.
And so, what the empath does, this is totally my argument for why empaths are so…why they’re often healers, why they’re often so attuned to others, why their gift works when they know what people need. I mean, empaths, when we get near other people, we can predict and say, I think this is what you need. And it seems magical, but I don’t think it’s magical. I think it comes about when they’re attuning to their parents. And their parents need something in order to attune to the child and an empath kind of figures it out. And I don’t think it’s conscious awareness. I think it’s an intuitive life force, an intuitive life skill that empaths learn very early on and then it’s developed. And so I also think at that time, you see different patterns emerge where the empath healer likely was a child trying to heal their parent so that they would be available to them and love them, right?
And so, when you look at a young empath, what they needed was that love. They needed that loving connection and that attunement and that mindful attention on them. And so, it does make me kind of cry a little bit because I’ve come to this through my own understanding. And it’s not just me. It’s a bunch of other people, exceptional people who have learned how to cope with it.
Sarah: I see this as such a common theme in the women that I work with and the stories that they’ve shared with me and in my own personal story as well. And just how we’ve arrived to be who we are today and yes…
Courtney: Which is amazing, right? Which is amazing that if this were part of our attunement and our attachment was disconnected, how we have grown from it, how we do become parents, how we break the cycle and become mindful parents for our children and provide what we didn’t necessarily get in a loving way.
Sarah: I totally agree. And I feel that part of my purpose on this planet within the family I was born into is to heal that lineage, heal some of those generational wounds through cultivating my own awareness. And like I told you before we jumped on, I just had a baby girl and she’s three months old and just choosing to be a different way and to shift into a new paradigm of parenthood and what it, yes, what it means to, or how I intentionally raise my daughter with her emotional intelligence and understanding of her gifts as well.
Courtney: We’re evolving. I know that we’re evolving and I know that it’s getting better. And it might not seem that it is right now, but the fact that we’re having this conversation and that we can talk openly about how you can identify your daughter and bring her in the environment safely and let people know who she is and stand proudly in that is evidence that we are.
Sarah: Yes. Oh my gosh, yes. Totally agree again. I’m just, yes, yes, yes all day in this conversation. And now we’re getting to the top of our time, but I just want to make sure that we do touch on what’s written in your book, the ‘Four Gifts of the Highly Sensitive‘. And we’ve been talking primarily about the empath within that umbrella, but I would love for you to also just educate the audience on the other types of sensitive people and just maybe like a few characteristics of them.
Courtney: Sure. I named four that I was able to routinely identify and seemed consistent. And we talked about intuition. Intuition, just a few characteristics is it’s obviously there’s different levels of it. And we’ve talked about gut-level intuition, we’ve talked about spiritual intuition. So it runs in patterns, but it’s essentially the ability for an individual, a gifted sensitive to be able to get an answer to a question without knowing how or why. So that’s the easiest way to explain it. You get to A to Z without logical thought. It’s not an intellectual process, it’s a flash. It’s an answer in a moment. But not only that, there’s the feeling that you know it’s right. That it’s right on the money. And sometimes it arrives before you even ask the question, which is even more puzzling, but it is a real effect.
We talked about empaths, but it’s important to say that empaths are these profound sensors that feel other people’s feelings in their own mind and body. And it sounds like it’s not true, but it’s absolutely true. They perceive and detect subtle currents, emotional currents in rooms that they’re in, in situations sometimes even at a distance when someone they love or care about is experiencing distress.
Then there’s the expressive. Expressives are individuals who are using their sensory awareness to detect harmony, beauty, sublime interactions between themselves in the world and they synthesize that sensory awareness into an artistic fusion that they communicate. That’s why they’re called expressives. They communicate it through their own language. It doesn’t have to be verbal language. It could be writing, dancing, painting music. I mean, it goes into many different subtleties, but it’s essentially the way they communicate or express this beauty. That stems from a subtype of sensitivity called aesthetic. They’re aesthetic sensitives.
Then the final one that I write about in the book are visionaries. Visionaries are people who have an ability to use their mind’s eye which is an imaginal space directly in front of their eyes, but it also could be internally with their eyes closed, to detect in that space, spatial awareness. So spatial awareness is the key for them. They can look at objects three and four dimensionally. They have an ability to…some of them have photographic memories. They have the ability to do charts, graphs, directions, and essentially solve problems using the mind’s eye through a visual acuity. That sounds really like gobbly goop, but what it means is they’re able to use their mind’s eye to project something into that, usually a problem, and solve for it in ways that go beyond, once again, logic and reasoning and intellectualism. It’s through an intuitive process.
So the cool thing about the gifts is they overlap. They overlap in interesting ways. You’ll see an intuitive visionary, you’ll see an empathic expressive, you’ll see an empathic visionary. And so, the thing that’s interesting where my work kind of departs from the general HSP dialogue is I go into those nuances and how you can identify them and then use them in practical ways in your life.
Sarah: Mm-hmm, I love it. And that was going to be my next question was I’m sure people are wondering, oh my gosh, I, just listening to you, resonate with more than one of these and you answered it where it’s like there’s absolutely overlap in the way that these can be combined, in the way that then probably you experienced them and use them in your life. And as you were speaking, this memory popped into my mind of when my brother Jordan passed away. I did not consciously know that he had died. But I was with my boyfriend who’s now my husband and at a big yoga event and I was supposed to be there for a while. And I just came down with this…I was curled over in gut pain. It kind of felt like gas pain, but I was like, I don’t even know what to call this. It just was like such horrible stomach pain that he had to carry me to the car and we left early.
And I got into the car and my phone had been on ‘airplane’ or ‘do not disturb’ the entire time and I turned it back on once we got into the car and I had 13 different voicemails and messages flooding in. And so, I hadn’t seen it on my phone, no one had told me that my brother Jordan had passed, but my body, this is my interpretation of it and I believe it to be true, is my body absolutely felt the grief of all my other family members that were learning that news and I just, as the empath, felt it viscerally in my body before I consciously knew that it happened.
And then really quick, similar, I’ve lost my other brother as well, Joe. And when he passed, I had just got home from getting groceries at Trader Joe’s. And I was starting to unload the groceries and all of a sudden I was just gut-punched and I got this ‘oof’ right in my belly. And I had to run up to the toilet and essentially have some diarrhea, but I released everything in my body. And I should not have my phone on the toilet, but I had my phone on the toilet and I started getting all these phone calls right then and I didn’t answer because I was still on the toilet. But then I called my mom and my sister back and found out that my brother Joe had died. And so, it’s like those are examples of the first time it happened. Maybe I was a little skeptical the second time. It’s like there’s no fucking doubt. There’s no, to me, question that my body was picking up on the emotions of my family members and the grief and the heartache before I consciously knew what happened.
Courtney: And you are a felt sense person. And so, your sensory awareness is very, very highly attuned to the felt sense. And the felt sense is one of the more mysterious types, which makes sense about fibromyalgia or other musculature issues is because when you start to get really tapped out sensorially through your physical felt sense, you will feel more exhaustion. You will feel that gut punch more routinely. But what you’re talking about, that is an acute situation, especially with unexpected death and grief. And also, I’m really glad that you mentioned how you had to carry it for your whole family. Because a lot of times, I talk about grief. I do. I talk about it a lot because it’s one of the hardest experiences for an empath to carry. It feels like it’s unrelenting. It feels like it’s going to go on forever. It feels like you’re never going to pass through it and it takes time.
And so, it’s important for people that are listening to hear your personal experience and that you passed through it and that you were able to see it as a validation of the way that you perceive empathy through the felt sense with such an important learning, even though it was probably terribly crisis-oriented and also probably extremely challenging to deal with. It was a way of informing you this is how this works for you.
Sarah: Yes. The unexpected thing that came from grief and loss was how much I learned and more specifically about myself. And I often explain or describe losing Jordan as what was my first real intimate experience with grief and loss and I describe it as this self-emptying. I was so full holding so much from everyone in my life for so many years of being perfectionist, that in that moment it was like ‘boom’, emptied everything out because there was no space for it anymore. And it was a renewal for me in many ways in the way that I interacted with my energy and the way I took care of myself. And in that ways, there was even blessing in death, even though there’s still immense grief that I carry around that loss. But I think grief can be a really powerful teacher.
Courtney: It is. And pain is a powerful teacher, but so is pleasure. And so, this is one of the things I want to mention about the felt sense and how important this is for you going forward. You mentioned yoga. And so when you’re an empath who perceives through the felt sense, you’re going to have magnificent experiences through the felt sense as well, as well as those sudden shocking, visceral experiences. Working and attuning your body to perceive the joy and the pleasure is really what a lot of times we’re missing in daily life. And that beautiful flip side of sensitivity is when you’re working on your healing, and sensitivity will lead you to the spaces to heal, you’ll start to feel you gravitate towards bliss and joy and love and the magnitude of healing in nature. And the beauty is sublime beauty of looking at other people in different ways and your body will respond to those states too.
And so, one of the things that also is important about recognizing any type of sensory awareness, whether it’s the felt sense or visual acuity or through an auditory intuition, when you recognize the way that your sensory awareness is informing you, you can heal your sensory capacities, and that’s what we need to do. And that is completely neglected and missing in our medical science. But it’s ancient, it’s old. And so, sensory healings are massage, aromatherapy, sound therapies. They’re how we take care of our heart by putting ourselves in spaces that allow the sensory cacophony to stop. And then you add the healing, you add the sensory healing. And because we’re so sensitive, we respond in these amazing ways where we experience therapeutic benefits from sensory healing.
So you mentioned yoga. You probably physically feel these ecstatic states when you go into certain asanas. I mean, many empaths really do respond to things like bliss yoga, more so than other sensors if you know what I mean.
Sarah: All those things, for me, that you mentioned beyond just yoga, whether it’s a sound bath, sound healing, or breathwork is extremely healing for me when I can get into my body and when I can feel. And one of the taglines I use for…I have an empath leaders membership that I run, and our tagline is ‘when we feel, we heal‘ or ‘when you feel, you heal‘. And a lot of the invitation is to get into your body and to feel something in order to move through it. It’s also not just about feeling your pain. It’s also about inviting in bliss and pleasure and joy.
Courtney: Yes. And we don’t, we don’t. A lot of times we’re talking about the curse part of this where it’s like when you find the healing happens and it does because our body and our central nervous system wants us to heal, right? We don’t want to be in states where the body is compensating and the mind is compensating all the time. But when you lead into the healing, the beautiful extension of that is that you get led to the bliss. I mean, it’s magical. It sounds weird, but it’s totally true. I’ve experienced it where we get kind of called, sensitives will get called to certain people or certain teachings, or maybe a certain teacher. And it’s up to you to acknowledge and say, yes, I’m ready for this right now. And I absolutely believe we have to be embodied to do it.
I think a lot of the new age movement, the problem I have with it, it calls us outside. It calls us away from physical embodiment and everything that you just talked about, which is so important in the human experience is to live, to be embodied, to experience pain, to get through it, to heal. It’s what we do. But to feel the joy too is part of why we’re here. It’s to experience what the bliss of it is, the interconnections, and the depth, and the joy of being in relationship with others. So I think the other reason why I say heal anxiety and deepen your relationships is because I think sensitivity functions in that way for us; to vibe with the people that we want to vibe with, to experience joy and connection and love and attune, especially with our children and our families. Just being in love, you know? And you don’t hear about that ecstatic part of it much. We’re kind of dwelling on the other and we have the capacity to have all those things exist at the same time.
Sarah: Thank you so much for reminding myself and everyone listening of that. I think that is a very often common missed component of this. And yes, I’m feeling along as you’re talking. Classic empath over here. But I’m just remembering the feeling of a yoga practice that I…I actually taught yoga right before our interview today, but like a Shavasana at the end of a class and just being like, oh my gosh, I’m so lucky that I get to feel this deeply. Because through this capacity to feel, I am just…I am feeling incredible right now. I feel on top of the world because I moved my body. And it does, it creates these opportunities for experience for us. And I just want to say, thank you for that reminder. I think we all really, really needed it, especially in the state of the world that feels really chaotic and I think stressful for a lot of people. And as empaths, we tend to take on a lot of the collective stress and chaos and it’s a reminder as well, to access, to connect with the body in a way that also can bring us pleasure.
Yes, and say I love you. I love you, body. Thank you for carrying me all this way. And here’s another aside that’s coming to me intuitively. As a parent, one of the things, especially during the pandemic, that’s going to be so important for your daughter and other people’s daughters and sons who are listening to your podcast is to enjoy the play. Get down on the ground with those little empaths, right? Or those little intuitives or your little mediums or whoever they are and however they show up and let them see with joy and playfulness and fun that you are open. You are an open parent. You are seeing them and identifying them and accepting, but they will respond to you. So when you emulate joy and happiness and play with them, they’re just going to go forward in the world like little bright lights and do the same thing.
And I stay open-minded about the reason why more empaths are being born into this reality right now, but I mean, that’s who they are. They’re open. They feel joy. They bring it through their embodiment for all of us to heal. And so, as parents, we have a responsibility to keep them in touch with their playful spirits and their joy and their love so they don’t have to shut down, especially with the pandemic, with the masks and the fear and the overwhelming grief that everybody’s feeling. They’re the ones who are coming in right now and there’s probably a reason why.
Sarah: Again, I’m just getting this really strong visual of my daughter. And I get down on the ground and just play with her all the time and I just… Ah, it’s such a beautiful window of joy in my day, every single day that I’m so grateful for. And she reminds me, I mean, she’s my teacher, she’s my little healer where she’s just this really amazing reminder to giggle and to laugh and to make funny noises and just, yes, to remain open.
Courtney: It’s magnificent. Speaking from an adult mother who has an adult child, she’s 24 now and she’s also an empath, an intuitive empath, off the scales, I can just say it gets better and better as they grow and as your relationship deepens. It gets better and better. She’s just come from the source; you know? Just soak up the source, right? She’s like a little sun shining.
Sarah: Oh, she is, she is. She’s such a little light. Ah, Courtney, I just don’t want to end, but we have to. I really just want—
Courtney: Yes. Well, congratulations on the birth of your daughter, especially during this challenging time and I wish you both well.
Sarah: Thank you.
Courtney: And thank you for the time and the attention to talk about empathy. It’s one of my favorite subjects.
Sarah: Same. Where can people buy your book, get to know you better, interact with you?
Courtney: It’s easy. You can find the Sensitive Gifts Test if you want to be curious whether you’re an empath or an intuitive. It’s on Inspired Potentials. The test is there and the book is there. All the resources are there on my holistic medicine website. So Inspired Potentials is where to find me.
Sarah: Beautiful. We will link that in the show notes. And I just can’t thank you enough. I really appreciate your time, your wisdom, and all the energy you brought today. Thank you.
Courtney: Thank you. Namaste.
Thank you so much for tuning into another episode of The Uncensored Empath Podcast. I would so appreciate if you could take a couple minutes to rate, review and subscribe. And if you loved this episode, please share it on social media. Tag me, let your friends know about it, and I will see you on the next episode.
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September 3, 2021