Whose Emotions are You Feeling?
The other day a man stepped into the street, so I stopped my car so he could cross. Suddenly, I felt the overwhelming urge to cry—for no apparent reason. Then I looked more closely at the man walking just feet away from me. He looked like I suddenly felt. “Ahhh, these emotions are not mine.” I sent him a silent prayer, grateful that I had finally learned to tell the difference between my emotions and others.
Recently, I read an article describing the difference between an “empath” and someone who is highly sensitive. They distinguished an empath as someone who can feel the emotions of others, sometimes even physical conditions, even though they are not actually going through the same experience. Someone who is highly sensitive is someone who has a high sensory awareness and feels extremely emotional due to others, their surroundings, and visual images, even TV shows. They are similar with some variations, but either way the resulting experience can be intense and confusing. Researchers say that twenty percent of us have highly sensitive brains that respond powerfully to emotional images and our surroundings, and another two-three percent of us are actually empaths.
That twenty to twenty-three percent essentially means that to varying degrees, one out of every four or five of us is experiencing the emotions of those around us, on top of our own emotions. Many of us (especially as a child or teen) don’t even know that we are sensitive to the energies of others. We may even be oblivious to the reality that such a thing exists. Consequently, there is a tendency to think something is wrong with us.
Those who are not empathic (parents, spouses) often think that those of us who are are over dramatic, overly reactive, and get too involved. They don’t understand why we cry when someone else in the household is depressed. They don’t understand why we can’t watch violent movies or fights on TV. In fact, my husband often points out to me, “They are just actors. It is just a movie,” while I assume fetal position on the couch, looking the other way.
Feeling other people’s feelings, being sensitive to images, wanting to cry for “no reason,” and processing emotions that do not belong to us can hit us like a ton of bricks from unexpected places at unanticipated times. If we don’t know these emotions are not actually ours, it can cause a lot of stress, depression, anxiety and confusion for both the person experiencing the emotions and those who love them.
These are particularly challenging traits to have at a time in our history when nearly everyone has strong feelings of fear, concern, hope, depression, anxiety, fatigue and divisiveness due to our current political environment. Actually, most of the world is deeply concerned. Our own emotions can be overwhelming by themselves but now, possibly more than ever before, the challenges of being empathic are amplified. And in a personal relationship, unknowingly feeling the emotions of others can be devastating.
So what do we do about it?
First, we need to practice self-observation and self-inquiry, which leads to self-awareness. Get to know yourself well enough to be able to decipher your emotions from others. This can be as simple as asking yourself, “Is this emotion mine?”
This awareness helps to unravel what you are feeling when a wave of emotion washes over you. If it is your emotion, take responsibility for handling what needs to be handled. Cry if need be. Apologize. Forgive. Express your needs. Grieve. Make some changes. Break up. Heal the rift. Identify what the emotion is showing you.
If nothing has happened in your life to cause the emotions, if there is not a triggering event or experience, they are probably not yours. Simply understanding that can make processing the emotions easier. And knowing this offers you the choice —to process the emotions, release the emotions, or determine if another action needs to take place.
There may not be anything that needs to be done. In which case, simply be aware and breathe as the emotions pass through. If you can identify the person that the emotions actually belong to, you can use the information to offer guidance or compassion. If the emotion is coming from a loved one or housemate, you can use that wisdom to heighten your sensitivity to their needs. If it is collective emotion it may well be that as you process these feelings, meditate or pray for the planet, that you vicariously ease the pain or tension in others.
But, before you jump into caretaking of the other people, trying to solve their problems or intervening, assess the situation. You don’t want your empathy to move you toward codependency while leading other people away from personal responsibility.
Sometimes all that is necessary is a heightened sense of awareness, a few tears and some carefully sent prayers.
For more on the difference between highly sensitive people and empaths, click here.