Avoid The Empathy Trap – 5 Ways I Manage My Life as an Empath and Highly Sensitive Person
This podcast and blog are going to give you five tips on how to bring your empathy back under control, as well as respecting its presence in your life. If you don’t identify as an empath or highly sensitive person (HSP), this will offer you a means to connect with those in your life that do. There are few things more fulfilling and grounding for me than finding someone sympathetic to these strong traits.
1 — Put in place gentle, but firm, boundaries.
I feel everyone’s emotions in any environment that I’m in, and this can be incredibly overwhelming, even frightening at times. Imagine standing in the middle of an orchestra, and all the instruments being played at once — that is how the emotions of others feel to my mind.
Whenever I absorb emotions, I have to make sure that I’m ‘switched on’ to which feelings belong to me, and which to others in the room. This can be incredibly useful at times, such as immediately knowing the ‘vibe’ of a room I’ve walked into — and being able to behave accordingly.
The reality is, though, that my brain struggles to differentiate between what belongs to me and what belongs to others. This is actually true of everyone, not just empaths: studies have shown that when we are angered, the brain reacts the same whether we’re angry at someone else or at ourselves.
Literally, if I am in a supermarket experiencing some kind of ‘trolley cart rage’ at fellow shoppers, my brain cannot tell that the frustration is directed at the people moving slowly in front of me. It presumes that the frustration is at myself: this is why we essentially always turn our anger on ourselves. It’s a similar situation, actually, to the idea that the brain may not be fully cognisant of the difference between imagination and reality.
So having this bundle of boundless emotions isn’t healthy for the empath’s brain: we need to split them up and help our brain figure out which are belong to us. Boundaries are the simple, if not easy, way of doing this.
We all have people in our lives that can be emotionally draining, right? The people who on the one hand we love, but on the other, they just feel heavy to our minds. For me, these are overly negative people, who are obsessed with focussing on what they see as failures in their lives — as an empath, these people do tend to come to us, because we do (for better or worse!) ‘get’ them.
Boundaries don’t have to shut people out entirely, but they do offer us ways to manage our relationships better. Now that I have boundaries in place, I find the relationships I have more sustainable and enjoyable — I choose to connect with people when I’m feeling most capable of distinguishing their emotions from mine. I manage my energy before meeting with certain people, and will cancel, if I’m feeling tired or overly drained by my own emotions.
Boundaries offer the ultimate protection for our brain from emotional overload!
2 — Avoid giving unsolicited advice.
As empaths and HSPs, we are often acutely aware of what people’s problems are — AND how they would go about solving them. I’m very good at feeling emotionally connected to people’s emotions, but also excellent at visualizing them out of those feelings. This objectivity is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, rarely welcomed with open arms, as no one really wants to be told exactly what to do unless they’ve asked for that.
I find this point rather funny, since when I’m going through a difficult patch, I often do want a fellow empath to throw unsolicited advice at me! I have to remind myself that’s because I know the power of empathy, and that the advice will more often than not be exactly what I need at that time.
If you can find a way that implies you have the advice for them if they want it, you’ll be a much better friend to them. My latest ‘go to’ line is, “I sense you’re feeling pretty off about this. Do you want to hear my thoughts?” More often than not, with this approach, people will talk through how they’re feeling.
Gently leading a horse to water is more likely to make it drink than pushing it in the swimming pool.
3 —Self care is non-negotiable.
If I’m not careful, I can get burnt out incredibly easily. It starts with basic tiredness, progressing into swings between a gazillion different emotions, and then finishing up feeling totally drained. On a really bad day, I can feel sick with this and the fatigue ends up in my muscles.
As empaths and HSPs, we need to learn that it’s okay to rest, to take self-care time. The reality is, after all, that I cannot help others if I’m burnt out — it is the old adage of donning your oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. It’s true of all of us, but especially common amongst those of us who feel compelled to help and ‘feel’ others.
It’s important that we also figure out what self care ‘works’ for us: it might be a bath and a good book for you, a fitness class for me, or a movie for someone else. As HSPs, we are stimulated by different things in different ways, and that can mean that those standard ‘self care ideas’ lists you find online don’t always apply for us.
Take the time out that you need, not necessarily that you want.
4 — “No” is a full sentence.
I find it incredibly tough to share with others that I need to take some time out to regroup, or turn down an invitation for dinner. I feel a lot of guilt in turning people down. The truth is that we don’t need to feel guilty, and we don’t even have to offer an explanation to others. A simple apology should be more than enough, as long as we do it as much ahead of time as possible.
The overwhelming urge to help people that comes with being an empath can make it really tough to say “No.” Many of us launch into deep and meaningful explanations of why we can’t make that dinner date anymore — and, frankly, our friends probably couldn’t care less. All they want is a headcount to make sure they order enough food.
It often depends on the event for me — for example, a dinner with one person is okay, but once it turns into a massive party with loud music, disco lights and people I don’t know? That’s definitely a “Thanks, but no thanks” moment. These are events I’m honest about upfront — I ask for details, and turn down immediately if I know they won’t fit with what feels comfortable for me.
As empaths / HSPs (perceived introverts), we have a bit of a reputation for cancelling at the last minute. I’ve done it, and actually it’s probably better for the person I cancelled on — I’m incredibly difficult to be around, when I’m drained and feeling ‘forced’ to interact. No one wants to be the empath that kills the party vibe because we’re feeling off.
Those who cancel are more forgivable than party poopers.
5 — The world has her problems, but they’re not yours.
Right now, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, the UK is potentially about to crash out of the union with our European brothers and sisters, systemic racism is rife throughout the world, 300,000 people in Beirut have had their homes damaged, plastic is killing our oceans… the list is endless right now.
I have a really strong sense of anxiety, depression and sadness about the predicament of the world right now. The sense of bleakness and questions of how we will come out the other side ‘intact’ hang heavily in my mind. If I’m not careful, I get sucked into the overall feeling of an event. For me, at least, just like individuals, events also come with an emotional footprint.
It’s not easy, but I am learning to look for what action I can take, how I am able to behave proactively in helping whatever is going on. Whether you do that by donating money, reducing your plastic waste, going on protest marches, or whatever, you are doing something that doesn’t involve simply wallowing in empathy for those who are suffering.
The other big thing for me is limiting how much news I consume. It is designed to be somewhat addictive, in order to keep people watching, and often that means broadcasting dark and dismal stories hour after hour. I’m not saying that it’s bad to stay informed, but a fifteen minute news bulletin once or twice a day would keep you plenty up to speed on what’s going on.
I’ve got 99 problems, and they mostly belong to other people, countries or planets.
In conclusion, those are five of the things I’ve started to do that have allowed me to begin finding balance for the empath / HSP parts of me. We have an incredible gift, but it’s one that can become a poisoned chalice, if we are not careful. Help yourself stay sane by adopting just one or two of these tactics.