I’m all but certain that my son is an empath.
It’s taken me quite a while to reach this conclusion. He is only five years old, so I’ve been reluctant to “label” him. Plus he’s an extravert and a boy, so he doesn’t fit the stereotype I have in my mind of an introvert female empath. And to be honest, I just didn’t want him to be one.
Although I’ve learned to view my own sensitivity as a strength, it certainly hasn’t been an easy road. And who wants their kid to face those kinds of difficulties? We all would rather see our kids spared from pain.
But the signs have been there for a long time:
- BIG emotions
- Vivid dreams (I get the summary most mornings 🙂 )
- High sensitivity to any kind of discord, conflict, and criticism
- I could tell he was aware of and concerned about my feelings a lot earlier and a lot more so than his two sisters
- ENFJ personality type, which is very close to my own INFJ type in terms of cognitive functions
And then a couple of weeks ago a random incident served as the final eye opener. His twin sister got in trouble for playing with the window buttons in the car after I repeatedly asked her to stop. When we got home, I put on my stern voice to give her a safety lecture. She got upset, which was to be expected. But what was not expected was that her brother who had not participated in her antics and was simply observing the whole situation proceeded to totally fall apart. He started crying as if he was in trouble.
As I held his sobbing little body in my arms, it struck me that he was feeling his sister’s feelings. It also struck me that, in general, he is much more in tune with and concerned about all emotions surrounding him than the average 5-year-old.
It struck me that, whether I like it or not, my son is an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person.
It struck me that I needed to stop ignoring what my intuition had been telling me since he was a toddler.
It struck me that, instead of living in la-la land, I needed to accept the obvious and figure out what to do about it.
What could I do to help him? What could I do to make sure his road is a little smoother than mine has been?
What am I going to teach him? What do I wish someone had taught me when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old?
And then it occurred to me that maybe you, dear reader, could use some of these lessons too.
So in this post, I’m going to share with you what I wish someone had taught me when I was still a child and what I plan to teach my son: how to protect your own energy when you are hyper-sensitive to other people’s energies to the point that you are feeling everyone else’s feelings.
Empaths & HSPs: How To Protect Your Energy
1. Notice When You Are Feeling Other People’s Feelings
When I first started reading about INFJs, pretty much all of whom are empaths (correct me if I’m wrong about that), all the references to high levels of empathy and feeling other people’s feelings sounded pretty woo-woo to me. It made me think about that goofy guy on TV who gets messages from dead people.
But as I became aware of this phenomenon, I started paying more attention to what was going on with me. And holy moly, I realized it was true. When someone was stressed out, sad, angry, anxious, or anything else around me, I not only noticed it without them explicitly verbalizing their feelings, but I actually FELT those same emotions in my own body.
It seems kinda crazy to me now that I could have been so oblivious, but I think I know why I wasn’t more consciously aware of this.
First of all, for much of my life, I was carrying so much of my own stress, despair, and anxiety that other people’s pain got mixed in without bursting the equilibrium. It’s not like I was feeling great all the time just to be burdened by someone else’s crap all of a sudden. When you are already feeling pretty miserable, throwing some more misery on top of it just isn’t that noticeable.
Second, I was a people pleaser and completely other-focused. I only paid attention to other people and how they were feeling and it never occurred to me to examine how their feelings might be affecting me. Instead of asking how I was feeling about a particular situation, it was always about what they were feeling, what they thought of me, and how I could make them happy.
Third, this had been happening to me since I was a very young child. It was all I had ever known. It was my normal. Picking up and carrying other people’s feelings. Just knowing where they were at without examining the mechanics of how I knew.
Even now – even though I know this happens to me and I try to notice it – it’s something so automatic that I miss it all the time. I know I miss it, because I’ll realize it’s happening waaay into it. As in, there I went again, carrying my husband’s stress for the last hour before I noticed it and remembered I wasn’t supposed to just let this happen to me anymore.
But even though it might be hard, the first step in learning to protect your energy as an empath is learning to notice when you are feeling someone else’s feelings.
Whenever you are around other people, get in the habit of checking in with yourself regularly. Wear a bracelet that reminds you. Carry a rock in your pocket. Set an alarm on your phone. Do whatever you need to do to remember to observe yourself. How are you feeling? Where is the feeling coming from? Does this feeling belong to you or to someone else?
Even if you never achieve a 100% track record, the more often you notice and the earlier you notice that you are feeling someone else’s feelings, the better.
Because once you notice, there are things you can do about it.
2. Practice Not Feeling Other People’s Feelings
Your sensitive nervous system can pick up other people’s energies and set off an emotional chain reaction in your body before you even become consciously aware of it. But as soon as you do become consciously aware, you can regain control of your nervous system. And with time, you can learn to anticipate the kinds of situations where this is likely to occur and prevent it from happening altogether.
For an empath, the ability to NOT feel other people’s feelings is a learned skill. This means that it requires practice. A lot of practice. When I first tried it, I was terrible at it. It just didn’t work. But I’ve been practicing it semi-consistently for a couple of years now and I’ve gotten A LOT better at it. I wouldn’t say I’ve fully mastered it, but I have gotten to where it works much more often than it doesn’t.
So what exactly do you do? Well, here are the three steps I follow:
Notice that you are feeling someone else’s feelings.
Take deep breaths through your nose. The kind of breaths that go all the way to your abdomen. This will help relax your body.
III. SEND THE FEELINGS AWAY
Visualize being protected from the feelings. I usually picture a translucent bubble surrounding me. Some people picture a tunnel through which the feelings first enter their body and then exit. Just pick whatever visual works for you the best. I also like to repeat “not my pain not my pain not my pain…” in my mind for reinforcement.
It’s easiest to master these steps with people who you are not that close to. The more you care about someone, the more difficult it becomes to block their feelings.
MY SECRET FOR GETTING A TON OF PRACTICE
While I try to practice this stuff around real people as much as I can, I also have a secret practice method: TV and movies. 🙂
HSPs and empaths tend to be really affected not just by real world tragedy but the pretend kind as well. And I’m no different. When my husband and I would watch a TV show or a movie, I used to run to another room and holler at him to let me know when “the bad part” was over. I just couldn’t take the pain and suffering of yet another Bachelor candidate being sent home, or even worse, yet another regular cast member being turned into a zombie on the Walking Dead.
Nowadays I try to stay at least some of the time, because I’ve realized it’s an awesome way to get a ton of practice not feeling other people’s feelings: Evil villain tortures heroine. Deep breaths. Bubble protection. Not my pain. Not my pain. Not my pain… 😀
3. Be Intentional About The Amount And Kinds Of Energies You Allow Near You
While it’s possible to learn to dodge other people’s feelings, the prospect of spending all day every day focusing on your breath and repeating “not my pain not my pain not my pain” doesn’t sound too appealing. And this is why empaths and HSPs need firm boundaries, especially if we are still learning how to keep other people’s energies from draining us.
First, we need boundaries that protect our time. We need time away from other people’s energies to rest and recharge and take care of ourselves. Do some experimenting and figure out the minimum amount of time you must have to yourself and then block out that amount of time before you schedule anything else.
Second, we need boundaries that protect us from people who drain us without giving anything back in return. In other words, we need to be choosy about who we spend a lot of time with. A dear reader recently pointed out that “it comes down to needing to almost curate your selection of friends” and I couldn’t agree with that more.
Some people can be a lot more draining that others. And on top of that, some people are completely incapable of giving you anything back in return. They are all take with no give. If you find yourself in a relationship with such a person, you don’t have to tolerate it. It’s okay to let draining relationships fade, and evaluate future relationships more carefully before letting them develop.
Which brings us to the next point:
4. Allow And Express Negative Feelings Toward Other People
When my son had his meltdown, he wasn’t simply feeling his sister’s feelings. He was also reacting to the big ugly C word: conflict.
Empaths tend to shy away from conflict. We are deeply affected by all the suffering in the world, and more than anything else, we wish everyone would just get along. We certainly don’t want to personally contribute to the negativity.
Consequently, many empaths are quick to deny and suppress any negative feelings toward other people. We feel like we “shouldn’t” have those feelings, so we pretend we don’t and stuff them down.
While this desire to only send loving kindness to the world may be well-intentioned, it’s just not healthy.
We have negative feelings for a reason. When we feel irritation, frustration, or anger toward another person, it’s a sign that there is a problem. And that problem needs to be addressed.
It could be that you have simply reached your peopling limit and it’s time to take a step back to attend to your own needs.
Or it could be that you are being treated poorly and it’s time to assert your boundaries by either removing yourself from the situation or stating how you expect to be treated.
Whatever the underlying problem, simply ignoring it isn’t going to work.
First of all, the problem is going to live on indefinitely, forever unresolved, causing even more negative feelings to develop.
Second, when you deny and suppress your negative feelings, they are not going to just disappear. They are going to fester and turn into resentment. They are going to create tension in your body and they are going to cause stress hormones to be released.
When you live like this for years – always ignoring the problems, always suppressing the negative feelings – it can literally make you sick.
5. Work Through The Inevitable Guilt
Even when we know what’s good for us, it can be hard to actually make ourselves a priority.
We can always tell when someone is having a hard time. We can always tell when someone is uncomfortable. We can always tell when someone is in pain. We literally feel their pain and because we do, it’s very difficult to just let it go.
When I first started setting boundaries, making my own welfare a priority, and sending other people’s feelings away, I struggled with a lot of guilt feelings. Was I just turning myself into a selfish asshole?
I worked through these guilt feelings by remembering that this was just my inner critic talking and I didn’t have to go along with it. If you, too, struggle with guilt, I suggest that you constantly remind yourself of the following:
You were born to give.
This world needs givers and you should remain a giver.
But you cannot give when you have nothing left to give.
You cannot pour from an empty cup.
You must give to yourself first before you can give to others.
You must take care of your own needs first before you can respond to other people’s needs.
And you must understand that carrying other people’s pain for them doesn’t actually help them.
People are strong. Strong enough to carry their own pain. You can cheer them on and mentor them, but you don’t need to carry their pain for them.
People are capable. People are capable of solving their own problems, and every time they do, they grow. You can cheer them on and mentor them, but you don’t need to solve their problems for them.
You don’t want to rob them of the opportunity to grow.