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Feeling Overwhelmed by Other People's Emotions? Try This.

Do you ever have that feeling, when you're talking to someone who's anxious or angry or despondent, that you're feeling their emotions with them?


You start to take on their story with them, get offended on your bestie's or your partner's behalf, give unsolicited advice in an attempt to make this person you care about feel better and please, stop feeling bad!


After the conversation's over, you notice you feel drained and heavy. Your stomach is clenched and you can't seem to loosen up. Maybe you have a headache or you feel like you could cry.


So you do what you usually do when you feel uncomfortable emotions you can't shake - you eat something sweet or salty, you binge a show, you complain to someone else.


Whatever it is, you hope that it'll get better after a good night's sleep, and you'll feel better in the morning.


Sound familiar?


What you're experiencing is empathy fatigue - taking on someone else's emotions at your own detriment.


Empathy is a wonderful thing. Truly! I think the world needs more empathy in it right now, so thank the stars for people like you!


But what do you do when you feel like a sponge to other people's emotions - especially the "negative" ones - and other people's feelings are bringing you down?


I distinctly remember a conversation with my counselor about 6 years ago that went something like this:


Counselor Ann: Do you know that you don't have to feel other people's emotions?


Me: I don't even know what that means. I don't know how to not feel what other people are feeling. That feels like I'm not caring about other people!


Counselor Ann: Let's talk about emotional boundaries...


Having strong emotional boundaries to keep your emotions separate from other people is a CRUCIAL skill for highly sensitive people.


You can still empathize and understand what the other person is feeling.


You can offer support, comfort, validation, encouragement, and whatever else they want. Sometimes a hug works best.


What you don't have to do is feel someone else's emotions in your body.


You don't have to carry around sadness, guilt, anxiety, anger, offended, or any of the other things you pick up from loved ones and strangers alike.


Not feeling someone else's feelings and holding onto them doesn't make you a bad or uncaring person.


Quite the opposite. Protecting your emotional strength and resilience is the BEST way to support and love others while having plenty of energy and attention for them AND letting them sort out their own problems and feelings.


Taking on other people's emotions is a flawed way to try to play the hero.


Let the people you care about save themselves.


"But how do I even do that??" I hear you asking.


Here's a simple technique that I still use to this day when I'm having trouble coaching myself through holding onto someone else's feelings.


Imagine yourself handing the emotion back to the other person.


Here's a step-by-step process to help you "try this at home":


  1. Identify what emotion you're picking up from the other person. Some emotions are harder to pinpoint than others, but the general sadness, anger, fear, disgust, or guilt are good starting points.

  2. Imagine the emotions as a physical object you can hold in your hands. I like to imagine a screaming baby or a wriggling puppy. Things that require time and attention I didn't sign up for. If you're more magically inclined, you can picture the emotion like an orb filled with smoke or light in the color of the emotion. This one works well because who doesn't like tossing a ball back to someone?

  3. Envision yourself handing the object back to the other person - whether screaming baby or crystal ball of grey smoke or whatever works best in the moment.

  4. Say something kind and firm in your mind while you hand it back like, "I think you dropped this." "This isn't mine. I'd like you to have it back." "I trust you to handle this emotion yourself." "I care about you, and I know you can handle this emotion."

  5. Feel the relief as the emotion leaves your body.


This one has really helped me over the years as I've become more and more aware of picking up stray emotions from other people.


Take a deep breath, and give the emotion "back" to them.


You've got this.


Big, warm vibes,

Steph

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