Last week on the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I had an experience right out of a big-screen drama. No sooner did I board the train and sit down than I heard screaming. It only took me a second to realize where it was coming from. Across from me, a sweet girl, probably 6 or 7 years old, was sitting on her mother’s lap, hitting her head hard against the woman’s chest. From time to time, she would stop the screaming and hitting, only to explode again with emotion. She seemed to be in her own little zone, as her mother tried to hug, comfort, and hold onto her firmly. When I got off the train many stops later, the outbursts continued.
The mother appeared as if she was used to her daughter’s temper tantrums. Yet it was clear that she felt helpless, scared, and embarrassed by the situation. I felt uncomfortable watching.
In the past, I would have felt the intensity of that experience deep in my gut, rendered unable to breathe—the sounds of screaming, the anxiety and shame I sensed from the mother. I would have felt both their emotions in my own body, as my heart rate sped up and tears welled in my eyes. Witnessing a scene like that would have thrown me off balance for days.
In the past, I would have found myself awash in deep sadness until I became anxious and depressed, as if the emotions of the mother and daughter were totally mine. I may have even had a physical reaction such as severe vertigo.
What happened this time? We’ll get to that. But first, let’s understand a few fundamental facts about empaths:
- Empaths face emotional overwhelm every day.
- Their empathic overload can get worse if compounded by untreated trauma from the past. They can become more triggered and more controlled by their emotions.
- One of their biggest challenges is deciphering between their feelings and those of others.
- One of their biggest lessons is learning to manage the intensity of what they feel.
How empaths react when they feel somebody else’s pain
One of the challenges of empaths or people who are highly sensitive to energy is separating their own feelings from the feelings of the other person. “How do you know which feelings are yours and which feelings belong to others” is a popular conversation topic in my Thriving Empath Facebook Group for Women.
When we lack emotional boundaries, someone else’s pain can feel like our pain.
One of my heroes, a physician, healer, author, artist, speaker, visionary, mystic, and activist, Lissa Rankin talks about three possible reactions to feeling somebody else’s pain: fixing, lashing out, and pulling away.
Fixing – You try to improve the situation for the person, so it makes your own pain go away. Unconsciously, you simply want to feel better. If you are a natural giver, it is natural for you to want to fix things for other people.
Lashing out – You lash out at people because you don’t like how you feel inside. If you talked to my husband, he would tell you that I can lash out at him for no good reason, later to realize (and apologize) that I was reacting to suppressed emotions that weren’t even mine.
Pulling away – You withdraw from the situation and numb yourself to self-protect. It is too overwhelming to feel, and shutting down is an automatic reaction.
Growing up, many empaths (including myself) learned to shut down. When people around you keep telling you that you are too sensitive, and you feel ashamed of experiencing vivid emotions, you develop strategies to protect yourself.
Shutting down is a default for many empaths. If you suffered from trauma in your childhood, this armor helped you survive. As an adult, whenever you’re triggered, you automatically go into protection mode. You shut down in order to protect your inner child—your 6- or 7-year-old self, who felt unsafe. This armor no longer protects you as an adult. It limits you. If you’re asking yourself how to take off the shut-down armor, read my blog Emotional Freedom for Empaths.
What’s the solution?
When the little girl’s screaming didn’t stop, and I started to notice some tension in my body and heart, I tapped into Reiki, the pure energy of the universe, and invoked higher guidance. The guidance arrived immediately in the form of one word: compassion. I used the techniques I teach in my Reiki classes (if you are an empath, please come learn Reiki with me. It’s a must for us!) I asked the divine love (what we call Reiki) to flow through me to the mother and the daughter. I could feel the healing energy calming my body down, and I knew that my body was drawing in some energy because I needed it. The healing energy was also delivered to the mother and her daughter who sat across from me, not knowing that the light was holding them too.
As soon as I tapped into Reiki, I remembered what I have practiced and taught for many years: my role, our role, is offering a vibration of compassion and kindness.
When I got home, I immediately took myself through my clearing ritual (I call it the “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours clearing ritual.”) I released the feelings that weren’t mine and shifted back to peace and gratitude. It felt good to be able to support a little girl and her mother who were suffering without ending up drained and depleted myself.
Lissa Rankin says that empathy means we feel WITH people. Compassion means we feel FOR people. I couldn’t agree more with this statement.
Regulating your emotions and not allowing them to take over and control you is the solution to your emotional overload if you are an empath.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of shutting down, which comes across as lacking empathy, you could offer a vibration of compassion to the person who is suffering?