Do you consider yourself empathetic? Are you able to pick up on other’s emotions and feelings? Do you find yourself on a constant emotional rollercoaster? If the above questions ring true for you, it is time to ask yourself if you are taking on other people’s emotions. You may struggle identifying where others’ emotions end and yours begin, which can lead to empathy overload. I define empathy overload as not being able to distinguish your emotions from others. Which can lead to mood swings, or feeling like you are on an emotional roller coaster, and clueless on why you are emotionally drained. If you can relate, I suggest you read further to learn ways to help protect yourself from harboring other people’s emotions.
What does it mean to be empathetic?
Being empathetic is defined as having the ability or practice of imagining or trying to deeply understand what someone else is feeling or what it’s like to be in their situation. Some definitions state it is the ability to feel what other people are feeling as if it is your own feelings. In general, being empathetic is the ability to understand what other people are going through and having compassion and consideration for their needs. It is a deep connection with another person, allowing you to experience how they are feeling without having to go through the experience yourself.
Being able to empathize with others is a normal characteristic for most individuals, however many people find themselves experiencing emotions that are not their own, causing empathy overload. This happens when an individual has no or very blurry boundaries, and lacks self-awareness. They tend to identify others' emotions as their own, creating an influx of overwhelming emotions. You begin to feel responsible for regulating the emotions of others, so that you can feel safe and content around them.
Why is it useful to be empathetic?
Being empathetic is a useful characteristic because it allows people to connect with others on a deeper level. It is one of the building blocks for growth and development in individuals. People are social beings, therefore interpersonal interactions are important for most people. Being able to show empathy for others contributes to positive interactions in friendships, family, relations and amongst strangers. Having empathy allows you to provide support either emotionally, spiritually, or physically, when your loved ones are in need.
As you reflect on the meaning and importance for empathy, think about how being empathetic can go too far or what it means to experience empathy overload. If you are not aware of your own emotions and their origin, it is easy to absorb the emotions of those around you and present them as your own. Having emotional intelligence is essential in order to identify and separate your emotions from others. One way to start being more aware of your emotional state is by asking yourself the following questions.
1. Do I normally try to fix problems for others?
2. When others around me are upset, does it ruin the rest of my day?
3. Do I find myself focusing more on trying to mind read, instead of enjoying the moment?
4. After a day out with friends/family am I emotionally exhausted, feels like you were on an
emotional roller coaster?
Consider the scenario below of Jenny.
Jenny makes it clear that she is not able to take over her coworker’s shift. She would love to help but she already has plans that can’t be canceled at the last minute. Jenny is expected at her family’s reunion. This is the first time that Jenny’s family from out of state and out of the country will be attending. It’s not her fault that her coworker is not able to find someone else, but Jenny can’t stop thinking about it. She feels guilty and now having a hard time enjoying herself at the family reunion. Jenny is questioning whether her plans were more important than her coworker’s plans. She wishes she could stop thinking about it, and stop feeling guilty, but she convinced herself that she should have shown more compassion and empathy to her coworker. Now her day is ruined, and her family can’t understand why she is in such a bad mood.
There are times when being empathetic can be counterproductive. This usually happens when you begin to take on other’s emotions in an unhealthy way and your mood and mental health is affected. Seeing someone who is angry may trigger an automatic response in you that makes you feel uneasy, angry, or even afraid. You may feel like it is your responsibility to help calm the person down, in order for you to feel relaxed again. Or you may feel guilty about setting boundaries and telling people no when you are not available to extend yourself. Operating this way will eventually lead to emotional overload and burnout. You are not able to physically or mentally be available to fix, heal and appease your friends and family whenever they are faced with a problem. It is impossible to do, and you should not feel guilty about not being able to always be available to help.
Going back to the scenario of Jenny, the need to please others or fix things for others has created an uncomfortable situation for her and her family. Jenny convinced herself that she should put her needs on hold and accommodate others even if it is an inconvenience. This way of thinking is learned behavior, usually stemming from a lack of boundaries and autonomy growing up. Also, childhood trauma such as abuse could lead to fawning (people pleasing) in adulthood. If you find yourself in similar situations as Jenny, here are some helpful tips to help you begin to overcome the need to please others and decrease your likelihood of experiencing empathy overload.
Tips to get off the roller coaster.
Identify your own emotions.
Building your emotional vocabulary will be essential in this first step. In order to identify your own emotions, you must first be able to name what it is you are feeling. You may know that you are feeling uneasy, but not clear on what the exact emotion is that you are feeling. Take some time learning about the many different emotions one can feel. For instance, your sadness may be stemming from grief, despair, heartbreak or disappointment. Take for instance Jenny, she was feeling guilt about not helping her coworker and enjoying herself at the reunion. Once you are able to name it you are better equipped to move on to the next step of identifying the origin of the emotion.
Pinpoint the origin of your emotions.
Did you wake up feeling this way? Go back and try to identify the trigger/s that lead to your big emotions. Many times, for those who are people pleasers, the origin usually starts with someone else’s stuff. In the example of Jenny, her feelings of guilt didn’t originate with her, she took on her coworker’s problems and emotions and made them her own. This led to her ruminating on negative thoughts which lead to feelings that she would rather not have during a time she should have been enjoying herself. If your answer is I am feeling unhappy because of someone else, then it is time to look more deeply into why you are on this emotional roller coaster, and try to find ways to get off.
Understand the need to please others.
Adults who take on the role as the “fixer” or “people pleaser” may have learned early on that for them to feel safe, they must make sure others around them are content. This could look like a child convincing themselves that if they keep the house clean, daddy won’t yell and beat them. Over time it becomes an automatic response for survival. Being able to understand why you feel responsible for other’s emotions can help you break the cycle. This step can be tricky and may require the help of a therapist to help you process family dynamics and possible childhood trauma. The Center for Growth has excellent therapists that specialize in childhood trauma who can help you process your trauma.
Practice awareness without action.
The last step involves being aware of others’ emotions without feeling the need to react. If someone around you is unhappy or angry instead of trying to change their mood, simply be aware of what they are feeling. Give them the permission to feel what they are feeling without trying to make them feel something different. Refocus your attention back to self by being aware of your own emotions. Focus on any body sensations you may feel, sweating, dry mouth, or nausea. Identify what you are feeling, fear, sadness, anger? It is important to” name it” in order to “tame it”. Then, get off that roller coaster of emotions and repeat steps 1 through 3. This will take a lot of practice and self-awareness, but the more you practice the easier it will get.
To avoid having blurred boundaries and becoming emotionally exhausted, it is important to work on building self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Being able to rewire your brain to prioritize your needs may seem overwhelming or even impossible if you are so used to putting others' needs before your own. However, it can be done, and you don’t have to take the journey alone.
The Center For Growth where many counselors have specific experience in childhood trauma. If you would like to start addressing these issues and begin your therapeutic journey, you can schedule a session with one of our therapists here by calling 215-922-LOVE at The Center for Growth or self-schedule at https://www.thecenterforgrow