“Empaths did not come into this world to be victims, we came to be warriors. Be brave. Stay strong. We need all hands on deck.” - Anthon St. Maarten
Being too empathetic can suck because you suck the emotions out of other people and hold them in, like an anxiety sponge, as they water log your well being.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
Your friend at work is having a bad day and wants to vent. She sits down and begins to talk about everything that’s wrong in the office. The dishes are never done, Karen still won’t do her part of the project, Jim takes a 10 minute smoke break every hour while everyone else gets shit for occasionally checking Facebook, and so on. You listen attentively, ask follow up questions, and you guys even come up with a clever sign for the kitchen dish problem that’s funny, but drives home the point.
She thanks you for listening. “I feel better, thanks!” But now you feel awful. You find yourself carrying the heaviness of everything she said all day and can’t shake the negativity and worry.
Even if you’re never heard of it, you may be hyper empathetic. Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, discusses how hyper empathic people have a “specialized group of brain cells that are responsible for compassion” and she describes these cells as “hyper-responsive.”
Orloff says that being empathetic for these souls goes way beyond understanding another person’s point of view cognitively. For the hyper empath, emotions are a contagion and these folks have low immunity.
If you see yourself in these descriptions, what do you do? The prevailing advice is all quite similar and logical. We’ll sum it up in three strategies.
Be Aware This Is Happening
This one is huge. When you see this happening in a conversation, feel yourself start soaking in emotions like a sponge, notice it. And then tell yourself this key fact: being supportive has nothing to do with fixing someone’s problems. Listening is all that is required. They are simply there to feel heard. You don’t need to take their problems on, fix them, or make them better. They don’t expect that.
Build Emotional Boundaries
Remember also that you are only responsible for the way you feel. Even if someone’s emotional issue involves you, it’s not your responsibility to influence or change anyone else’s emotions. You can act however you see fit, in any situation, but it still may never change how a person feels. That is always on them. People must own and take responsibility for their own emotions. If it helps, envision a force field around yourself, a sort of net, that catches and stops someone else’s emotions. You see can them, identify with them, but they are kept at arm’s length. It’s not your job to gather them up. Leave them sit there after the conversation is over.
Reconnect with Yourself
Once you’re out of the situation, learn to manage any discomfort with mindfulness. Reground yourself in your own reality. Get in touch with what emotions you took to heart and ask yourself why. Then use your empathy as a weapon in your favor. Think of where that person is in their life, where they come from, and why they may feel differently than you. See the separation of experience and emotion and then get back in touch with your own emotional needs.
And finally, remember, you always have a right to walk away from toxic relationships.