“An empath is a person highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around them. Empaths feel what another person is feeling at a deep emotional level.” ~Leah Campbell
About ten or so years ago, I was amazed at how much relief it brought me to learn the word “empath”. I thought to myself, yes, that’s me! Finally, a reason as to why other people exhaust me. A reason why I had the ability to read people in an instant and was always in the throes of helping, listening, or supporting other people’s crises.
Now I don’t believe this definition.
I no longer feel empathy.
Has my condition been improved? Was I never an empath?
I was able to unlock a new understanding for me that allowed me to feel free of the prison-like feeling I felt when I first became an empath.
I discovered I could change my responses to people’s emotions so that I no longer managed my life according to them.
When I discovered the concept of empathy, I saw so many of the challenges I faced: attracting people to me who were struggling and in need of my support like moths to a flame; my inability to get out of the stresses and emotions of other people’s lives and focus on my own; my exhaustion from spending time with people.
It felt like I was in a cage. I had to orientate my life around avoiding “toxic” people, around “emotional blood suckers.” But I found that even if I covered myself in white light or avoided certain people, it didn’t prevent me from feeling completely overtaken by the emotions of my relatives, my children, my husband, or my close friends on a regular basis.
This was very frustrating.
A few years later I discovered a different word that changed my life in a more significant way—appeasing.
Appeasing is our survival mechanism that kicks in when we feel overwhelmed by emotions or situations. Appeasing is similar to the fight, flee, or freeze response. It’s a reaction to feelings of emotional or physical danger.
It was then that I realized that, like many others, I had learned to be safe by anticipating and supporting the feelings of the people around me.
Hypersensitivity to emotions and helping with them was my survival response, which helped me remain as connected to people as possible.
When we learn young that a sense of safety comes from suppressing our own feelings in order to be of assistance to others—or to at the very least minimizing our emotional needs so we aren’t rocking the boat, causing a fuss, aggravating our parents, or calling attention to ourselves—we then spend our adult lives in that same habitual pattern.
We feel the safest when our emotions are not being attended to, but other people’s are.
When we are emotionally available to others, when we listen, help, fix, or support them, it can bring us a sense belonging, connection and validation.
By not expressing or revealing our true emotions and needs, we may also create a sense of comfort, safety, and continuity.
It’s amazing how many times I have felt proud to be helpful. What a ‘good person’ I was. How kind and supportive I was. But really it wasn’t a response driven by genuine, authentic desire—it was a response driven by a need for safety, belonging, acceptance, and love.
It has been fascinating and challenging for me to unravel my appease reaction. To be the person that is delightful, easygoing, without drama, and no stress is woven into me.
Someone who doesn’t add to the emotional load of any group or person, but helps take away the problems and challenges of others.
To be able to overcome these reactions has required a lot of awareness. I’ve had to learn to attend to my emotions, building a sense of safeness in my nervous system and offering incredible gentleness toward myself.
I’ve had to recognize that other people’s emotions can feel incredibly scary, uncomfortable, terrifying, and even dangerous to me. And that it doesn’t come naturally to me to share what I feel and need because of these habitual survival response patterns laid down in childhood.
But with awareness and the right tools, I have learned to gently walk toward the path of authenticity, of safety in being myself out there in the world surrounded by other people’s emotions, but not overtaken by them as I used to be.
I also learned that the way I had learned to support people—by fixing, smoothing things over, helping, taking over, endlessly listening—was actually not the kind of emotional support that helps to enact change in them.
True emotional support only happens when we aren’t in our survival reactions, and it never comes at the emotional cost of another.
It is not acceptable for me to support a cause that puts my safety, my energy or my time at risk.
Being an empath was a sentence I felt I would never be able to escape. But I now know that it’s a learned response that can be unlearned. When we have the awareness and the tools to gently support the nervous system activation that comes when we are aware of other people’s emotions.
Here are some helpful tips.
For me, creating awareness was the first and most important step. We can’t change what we don’t notice.
Start by noticing how it feels to be around certain people when they’re emotional. What happens to me? What emotions activate within me when I am hearing or witnessing another person’s emotional activation?
It’s learning to turn our attention away from other people and to ourselves. What’s happening to us?
Do I have a feeling of urgency, doom, or trapped? Do I want to help, fix and support someone right away? Do I feel like I have to come up a list of solutions to help someone? Do I lie away at night mulling over other people’s emotional challenges?
If we feel this sense of urgency—that we must help, support, do something—it’s a good sign that our survival responses have been turned on. And our brain is sending messages to the body that a threat exists, which is only a pattern if there is no real threat.
So, when we feel this sense of urgency, the next step is to bring a feeling of safeness to our bodies, so we can move out of this need to help/fix/support that’s our survival response.
How to Create a Feeling of Safety in Your Body
An orienting practice is one way I give my nervous systems a signal of safety when I feel overwhelmed or a sense urgency.
Here’s how you can do this orienting exercise.
Slowly and gently scan the entire room. Let your gaze drift, slowly. You can also turn your neck slowly. Take in the surroundings.
If you’d like to, stop on any objects that catch your interest, not so much as an object but as an interesting collection of colors and shapes.
Slowly scan the sky above and below. Then behind you. If you have windows, you can look out and at your horizon line.
The horizon line soothes our nervous system and helps us to survive.
Knowing what’s around you, that there is no threat on the horizon, brings a sense of safety to our bodies.
Feel how your body feels after a few minutes.
Have you noticed anything? Do you notice any changes in your breathing or sensations?
After a few seconds, your nervous system will absorb any changes.
You can do this exercise a few time a day. Stopping and scanning helps the nervous system orient to our surroundings and signal safety.
Create a Pause
Last but not least, I would like to suggest that you take a moment of silence. We can forget to do all the things that we need to when we’re busy.
When people say:
Can you take care of my five children and eleven pets for a whole week?
Can you stay late for work even though it’s your partner’s birthday?
I know you’re working, but can I come over and have a chat? I’m so stressed.
When we are used to appeasing, it’s super easy for the nervous system to read these requests as urgent things that need our attention, and the yes seems to pop out of our mouths before we realize.
I therefore encourage my clients focus on creating a pause.
We can then breathe, pay attention to our own selves, notice and offer ourselves a self-regulating exercise like orientating.
You can tell if I am feeling a rush to answer yes.
If we feel like it’s an urgent desire, it’s a surefire sign that we are in our survival responses.
I suggest having some expressions ready to say when someone asks us a question or we feel the urge to help/fix/save, even at the expense of our own time, capacity, emotions, or needs.
Thank you for thinking about me. I’ll have a think and get back to you when I know.
Stress is a difficult thing to experience. Let me do some thinking and let you know what I have to do.
We can create new options for ourselves by taking a break. If nothing is urgent (e.g. no one has to be driven to hospital), you can give yourself time to see how you feel.
You can ask yourself:
What do I really want to? Need to?
What is the impact on me?
Can I handle this emotionally?
We can begin to disconnect from others and their reactions by pausing, and turning inward.
It’s a more connected and attentive relationship with ourselves that we most want when we are people who appease a lot.
Diana Bird is a neuro emotional coach and writer, helping people release unhealthy emotional patterns and deep overwhelm. To receive her free workshop on building emotional resilience, sign up for her newsletter here. You’ll also receive invites to her free webinars on subjects like releasing shame and soothing overwhelm. Diana works with clients in her coaching practice and in online workshops and lives on the beach in southern Spain, with her children and photographer husband.
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