If we lack the capacity for empathic connection, we may find ourselves socially isolated, unable to connect easily with those around us. On the other end of the continuum are those who have plenty of empathic sensitivity to others — empaths. They have highly permeable emotional boundaries or in some way link up easily with others. Deep empathy is a powerful tool for knowing and navigating the world, one that can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing.
Some of us have such permeable emotional boundaries that we end up feeling confused or tugged by the feelings or thoughts of others or just plain overwhelmed by the deluge of feelings that wash over us. If you’re highly empathically sensitive, you may instantly recognize what I mean.
Learning to Turn Empathy On and Off
My sixteen-year-old friend Sarah once described a surprisingly typical circumstance of being a kind of psychic sponge. “I’m an empath, and I hate school. I walk around and people walk in and out of classes, and I get everything from them — their anger, frustration, even happiness or joy. But it’s no fun. I’m not a big fan of crowds . . . but I’m working on turning the empathy on and off.”
Another friend, June, who said she was extremely sensitive to the “vibes” of others, dealt with this sense of being overwhelmed in her own way. Looking back on her youth, she said,
“I became a loner. I didn’t understand why at the time. I was naturally tuning in to so many things, and I didn’t know what I was tuning in to or what to do with it, and I became a very moody child. I don’t know why I picked up all different people’s feelings, but I did. Plenty of times I would be down and I didn’t understand why, and I then I’d realize I was picking up other people’s moods. My escape was sleep. I would sleep long hours to keep away from all those feelings. I didn’t know what else to do.”
A psychotherapist might have reasonably diagnosed June as depressed. It is hard to say how many individuals withdraw like June in order to compensate for their empathic sensitivity. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to try to decrease this sensitivity, creating merely a numbing distraction rather than an effective boundary.
How to Avoid Withdrawing Behind a Wall
Along with moodiness, withdrawal, and feeling overwhelmed, some try to manage their sensitivity by creating a kind of barbed perimeter around themselves by adopting a hostile personality or even aggressive behavior. The tough kid or acerbic adult may be trying to fight against boundary violations of all sorts.
Without knowledge of what’s happening, sensitive individuals may grow up coping in unsatisfying ways. But this doesn’t have to be the case. For someone who is highly empathic, refining and modulating this deep way of knowing involves several keys:
1. Noticing: “Where am I now?”
Staying mindful of our own feelings and reactions, our bodies, and our thoughts helps us stay aware and awake to what is happening within and between us, providing us with an early-warning system before we’re overrun.
2. Distinguishing: “Is this mine?”
What’s ours and what isn’t? This helps us get a little space between us and our feelings. This can be hard to do, since feelings seem to run together and take on a life of their own, but by pausing to ask the question in some form (“Is this mine?”) we immediately bring our witnessing mind to the question, and this gives us a little space to work in.
3. Naming: “What am I feeling?"
Expressing the feeling in some way also gives us a little distance from it and brings precision to our understanding. “What am I feeling? Where am I feeling it in my body? What does this look, feel, taste, move, and sound like?” We might do this with ourselves, write it down, or talk it out with someone.
Sometimes we need more than words to express our feelings. This is why expressive therapies use things like movement, art, sound, and interactivity when trying to help capture the inner experience. For example, it’s hard to know what is going on with a friend of mine until she starts to dance; another brings his inner experience to the surface through drawing.
4. Getting Physical: Walking, Running, Screaming, Crying, Dancing...
Because emotions are experienced not only in thought but also in the body, some physical action — a walk or run, a good scream or cry, beating a drum or just taking a drink of water — can be helpful to discharge and recalibrate our systems.
In many ways, what we’re attempting to do is to modulate and manage emotional arousal. The work is to keep our hearts open without overstimulating and thus overwhelming our emotional system. A daily discharge or clearing of this energy serves to rebalance the system and prevent emotional baggage from accumulating.
5. Housekeeping: Finding our “Sticky Spots”
Things get stuck to the inside of our emotional resonance chambers because we may have “sticky spots.” Like a rough spot on the inside of a cooking pot, sticky spots tend to form where there is friction. We may have particular sensitivity to anger, for example. Perhaps this developed as a first-alert protective mechanism because someone in life posed a threat when angry and we thus became attuned to the emotional frequency of anger in general.
With a little distance and some reflection, we may begin to notice the patterns of our emotional sensitivity, recognizing where we tend to get hooked, how we react, and what our typical reactions tend to mean. Recognizing this gives us a chance to unwind our habits. Ultimately, this allows us the freedom to be able to use this magnificent system of knowing without being used up by it.
Empathic capacity is a birthright for nearly all of us. But it is the integration and balance of this incredible relational, resonant system that allows us to know so directly without being overwhelmed. With awareness and a bit of practice, we can grow and refine this way of knowing.
©2014 Tobin Hart. Reprinted with permission
from Atria Books/Beyond Words Publishing.
All Rights Reserved. www.beyondword.com
The Four Virtues: Presence, Heart, Wisdom, Creation
by Tobin Hart, PhD
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About the Author
Tobin Hart, PhD, is a father, professor, psychologist, speaker, and author of The Secret Spiritual World of Children. He has spent more than thirty years as a researcher and ally helping students, clients, and patients integrate their psychological and spiritual lives. He serves as professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia, as well as co-founder and president of the ChildSpirit Institute, a nonprofit educational and research hub exploring the spirituality of children and adults.