Place yourself in the following scenario: You are at work and your colleague is giving a presentation in front of senior leaders of your company in a meeting that you are attending. They are stumbling over their words, visibly shaking, not making eye contact, and sweat is rolling down their face. They are currently facing one of their greatest fears and are severely struggling to do so. How does this make you react?
Or imagine this scenario: One of your best friends has been down on their luck and recently relapsed into a drug addiction they had previously overcome. Their long-term relationship comes to an end and they are struggling to find a place to live while continuing down the terrible path of addiction. For us who are extreme empaths, when those around us are faced with challenging times, we can’t help but place ourselves their shoes. Whether these scenarios be big or small, part of being empathetic often means that you take on the emotions of others.
So then, how do you be an empathetic individual without taking on negative emotions and trying to solve other people’s life challenges?
This is certainly easier said than done, but I will explain how I rationalize this with myself and understand how I am actually able to be more of a help to those around me.
Let me give you an example: you go out to buy a used car and you are deciding between two. One of the cars has been well maintained, had regular oil changes, parts replaced as they got old, and interior kept in tiptop shape. The other car is the opposite, with irregular services, fixing parts only when they were at their breaking point, stains on the seats, and unpleasant odor within. When choosing between the two, it is obvious to you that the first one would serve you better, and get you where you need to go, with less chance of breaking down. The second car looks a bit unpredictable and quite likely would not be able to serve its purpose. Let’s take the time to break down the point of this analogy.
Broken people do not help other broken people. We do not look for advice from those that we do not look up to. We don’t aspire to be those who seem burnt out and unable to give, but rather those with a healthy balance. The number one way you are able to help others as an empath, is being able to take good care of yourself, physically and mentally. When you are in a good space, you have room and compassion for the issues of others and these do not feel like a burden. At any point if this changes, then you know you need to serve and work on yourself before allowing yourself to open up to the emotions and feelings of others.
I grew up in a religious community that valued the community first over the individual. I always felt that it was my duty to wrap myself around those that were going through issues to try and lessen their pain and hardship. In doing so, I was telling myself that I do not deserve to be happy if those around me are unhappy.
Life is never going to be a continuous uphill ride for any of us and we need to remember that just because someone is currently at their low, while you are at your high, does not mean you have to swoop down to join them. I dealt with a severe anxiety disorder that I was able to overcome through years of working on it and fighting.
One thing that helped me most, was to be surrounded by people who did not let me emotions impact them. When others were able to treat me with a business as usual attitude, it helped me to feel less isolated and more normal. While this did not cure my anxiety, it was a helpful reminder that there was life outside of my anxiety.
I think it’s an important thing to remember that just because we think what we are doing as empaths is helpful, if we are too understanding and caring towards someone going through a hard time, it can act as a crutch. Those that are facing the challenge may start to victimize themselves and take on self-pity. It is smarter to acknowledge the problem and help to identify ways to help another through these problems, then to wallow in the challenges that the problem brings. We will all face situations in our life that bring us down, but we have to remember that it is important to find a way forward.
We have to stop ourselves from going back in time and reliving all of the ways we should have been there for others or didn’t do enough. Part of the human condition is that we make mistakes. Throughout time we grow and evolve and become better. That does not mean we should shame our previous selves for mistreating others in our past.
Growing up, I was a very strong willed child. I would yell and curse and say extremely mean things to my family members when I was upset. Looking back this is something that I wish I could take back and do over. The reality is that everything that I did helped shape me into who I am today. As long as we are molding ourselves in the people that we want to be moving forward, that is all we can do.
Many times our poor decision or behavior of the past had to do with problems that we were facing at that time and challenges we hadn’t yet overcome. My anxiety certainly translated into fear and anger that I was burdening others with. I know it is our tendency as empaths to not tolerate the pain that we inflict on others. We have to stop holding ourselves to standards that are impossible to meet, but rather to be gentle and embracing of ourselves and our mistakes.
Coming to a place in which we are able to value our own lives, embrace the challenges that come to us and others, and accept ourselves is not done without the conscious effort. Negativity surrounds this world and is easy to adopt in the many forms that it takes shape. This is why it is important to be cognizant of the choices, thoughts and feelings that you have.
We have to be the gatekeepers of our brains. Anxiety and empathy do not have to be a partnership that go hand in hand. It is when we let go of the idea that we have to be in control and let ourselves do the best we can that we are able to live empathetically and happily.