All my life I have been extremely empathetic, but for the first half of my life I didn’t even realize that this was a unique character trait that not everyone shares. When I was in close contact with people who were yelling, I would literally shake. When those around me were sad or scared, I would drink in those feelings like a sponge, not realizing that these feelings weren’t my own. It hadn’t dawned on me that feeling other people’s pain wasn’t a “normal” reaction.
Empathy is the ability to tune into and share another person’s emotion from their perspective. It plays a crucial role in bringing people together. It’s the joy you feel at a friend’s wedding or the pain you experience when you see someone suffering. It’s an essential ingredient for building intimacy in relationships.
There are some people who are naturally empathetic. They are more instinctively inclined to step into another person’s shoes. These are the listeners, the feelers, and the ones you turn to in times of trial. People with strong empathy skills can step outside of their own experiences and understand what you’re saying, thinking, and feeling. Empathy is a trait that anyone can learn, but natural empaths have a unique ability to go below the surface and see your soul, accept you where you are and where you are coming from.
You can experience empathy by noticing a person’s body language and voice, but acute sensitivity includes being open to the emotional energy vibrating between you. You might feel this energy in your heart or gut. You sense not only what people feel, but also what they need. You can tell when they need attention, acknowledgment, or an offer of help. You grasp when they want you to back off and give them space or when they want you to quietly stand by. You know when they are impatient to move on or if they want to take more time. With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked.
But this seemingly positive emotion can also have a downside, particularly if someone gets so consumed by another’s feelings that they neglect their own feelings and needs. Because I was empathic, I was often sympathetic to the plights and concerns of friends and family. I didn’t mind because I was happy to offer whatever support I could. However, as I entered my thirties, the burden of other people’s emotions, on top of my own unresolved feelings, became too heavy to bear. But I didn’t know that consciously. I wasn’t even aware of what was happening to me. Those who regularly prioritize others’ emotions over their own are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety or low-level depression. I felt a strong need to withdraw, and I could no longer be in the same room or the same house with people who carried intense, often unconscious, emotions. I had to learn ways to manage the emotional energy, both my own feelings as well as the energy others were bringing around me which I was absorbing.
Being empathic and super sensitive to energy is not something that I can just decide to change, but I can become more aware of how it affects me. The empowering thing is the realization that I can change my reactions and my own behaviors, no matter how overwhelming the emotions others and I feel in the moment. Because 90 percent of the behaviors we do are habitual—meaning we are only doing them because we did them yesterday—we can literally re-train the brain to respond in a new way to the exact same stimuli. I used to think my only two choices were to react to negative energy with negativity or to withdraw and detach. Neither option was conducive to building strong, supportive relationships or to my own happiness.
I wouldn’t change my empathic nature even if I could, because it has helped me to understand people and open my heart to them. I realize that we are all on the same human journey together, seeking compassion and love, even if we’re not going about it in the most effective way. Empathy is a powerful tool that allows people to feel connected and understood. Instead of exhausting myself with this gift, I will make sure my life is balanced to be able to offer it without hesitation or resentment. This Suburban Goddess Mom will use it to empower others and take care of myself in the process.