As empaths we feel what others feel. We feel the inner struggles of our loved ones, the suppressed anger of our co-workers and the distress of the people in public places. And most often we are so used to feeling all of this that we do not even recognize we are doing it. This just seems and the way we function. We appear to live a life at the mercy of everyone else’s emotions.
Is empathy congenital?
I believe, even though we came in particularly sensitive, many of us unconsciously cultivated that trait because it served us to get our needs met or to make us feel more safe during our childhood.
Let me give you an example to explain what I mean by that.
Let’s say a single mom often times feels stressed and overstrained by working and taking care of her little son. Even though she loves her child she might not always be there for him the way he needs. The son may experience some kind of abandonment or rejection from her. In order for the child to avoid the pain of being ignored, he might start using his empathic abilities to figure out when it’s a good time to ask his mother for support and presence. Over time he gets used to feeling into his mom just like he feels into himself. He learns to feel his mother’s emotions like his own. And eventually unconsciously starts to identify himself with them. He gives up his boundaries towards her. And a possible lifelong pattern of having weak boundaries finds its beginning.
What are boundaries and what are they good for?
Boundaries are nothing more than a sense of self. When we can not differentiate between our emotions and the emotions of others, we do not have sufficient boundaries. Our sense of self is compromised.
Even though empathy is an innate ability to feel and perceive what others feel, we do not have to live at the mercy of this. It is an ability, not an obligation. Like with most gifts we have to learn to deal with it. And this starts with establishing a healthy sense of self.
When we allow others to treat us poorly because we feel their pain, we are the ones violating our own boundaries. And when we spend time with people who drain our energy because we feel how much they need us, we are the ones choosing to be in that situation. Thus, we are the only ones who can stop that. We cannot force or convince anyone else to change their behaviour. The only person we are truly in charge of and responsible for is ourselves! After all, how do we even want to be there for others, when we feel drained all the time?
Only when we have healthy boundaries, we can be strong within ourselves and have the power and capacity to really be there for the people we care about. So, in my perspective, it is all about developing a clear sense for when a situation or person starts to drain us. And when it happens, it is our responsibility to have compassion – not with the other person, but with ourselves. Do whatever it takes to find your inner balance again and recharge your batteries. This might be some alone time, a walk in nature, a meditation, a salt bath or whatever else you feel serves you. Take care of your inner light so that you may shine even brighter!
The obligation to feel?
I believe however, that there is a whole other quality of boundaries that most empaths are not aware of. The boundaries that I am talking about are rather internal than external. I am talking about the question if we need to feel everything we are exposed to in the first place.
For many of you it might seem impossible to not be influenced by our perception. And just to make this clear, I am not talking about numbing ourselves down. I am talking about a conscious use of our gift when it serves us and the situation. And the first step towards this is to learn to differentiate again between our emotions and the emotions of others. What helps me the most personally for this is to ask myself “Is this feeling really my own?” whenever I feel a strong emotion. You would be surprised how often the answer is no!
What happens by questioning the feelings we perceive, is that we train our sense of self. Eventually, step by step, we learn to discern without asking the question anymore.
I really noticed how other people’s feelings have a much lesser effect on me since I became aware of the fact that the emotions I felt were not originally mine. This way, I could internally let go of them. I could stop trying to unconsciously resolve something I would never ever be able to resolve. This was, and is, a truly liberating experience.
Discernment and self-love
However, sometimes questioning the origin of the emotion does not give me the serenity I am looking for. So I began to ask another question to gain more clarity and shift my perspective even more. The question I ask then is, “Do I really need to feel this feeling now?”
This question can help us to differentiate between whether an emotion is really ours or not (which might be necessary when we are interacting with someone we are very close to, and thus barely have any boundaries with). But there is another aspect to that question which is, in my perspective, very beneficial. This question can help us to discern if is self-loving to feel and dive into a negative emotion even when it is originally ours.
I am convinced allowing our suppressed negative emotions to surface is crucial for our emotional healing and the integration of split aspects of self. But I am even more an advocate for self-love. In my perspective self-love should always be prioritized above healing ourselves. Even though healing is a result of self-love, it is not always self-loving to engage in emotional healing. When we suppress negative emotions and memories, we do that because we are not ready to process the entirety of the experience at the time it happened. Pushing ourselves into feeling these emotions and integrating the memories when we are not ready yet to face them, might actually be detrimental for our emotional health. This is why I love the question so much, “Do I really need to feel this now?” It does not only help us to discern our own feelings from those we took on from others, is also gives us a clear indication if its benefit for us to feel them regardless of their origin.
Being freed from the assumed obligation to feel everything all the time is an incredibly empowering experience! When we understand that we are the ones – the only ones – in charge of our emotional state, and that we can affect them without numbing ourselves down completely, we can finally see our empathy as a gift. We can use it whenever it serves us and have tools to support us when our deep and expanded perception becomes too overwhelming. And it all comes down to self-love and healthy boundaries.