Do you inadvertently absorb other people’s emotions? When your emotional boundaries are flimsy, you may find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, or sad when others are. Or, you may find that you are incapable of feeling happy when those who matter to you are not.
Being sensitive to other people’s emotions can be both a blessing and a curse. It can mean that you are an empath, endowed with the remarkable ability to “walk a mile in other people’s shoes” and connect with others through a deep level of understanding. But it can also become emotionally draining and disappointing to always feel what others are feeling.
Being empathetic is a valuable character trait, but so is the ability to set emotional boundaries so that you are not constantly drained by absorbing the energy of those around you. Change is hard. But setting emotional boundaries, like any other skill, can be honed with practice.
You may be aware that you are adopting the emotions or moods of others. Occasionally, however, you may be having an extreme or disconcerting emotional experience after interacting with others without knowing why. You may be wondering whether this is your own experience or if you are picking up on the energy of someone else. So, how do you know if you are an empath or a highly sensitive person? While everyone is unique, the following characteristics are shared by most — if not all — empaths:
If these characteristics sound familiar, it could mean that you are an empath and tend to take on other people’s emotions. Many of these characteristics are associated with feelings of overwhelm, as feeding off other people’s energy can often be too much. As a matter of fact, this may be one of the primary reasons you are seeking advice on how to change.
If other people’s moods and energy affect you all too often, you might even have an inherited temperamental or personality trait called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). According to Additude magazine, “Sensory processing sensitivity is a trait that explains why up to 30 percent of people experience strong reactions to stimuli – strong smells, bright lights, other people’s moods, and even caffeine.”
Having some emotional reactivity and empathy can be a powerful asset — but too much of it can be overwhelming. Thankfully, there are many ways to take control of your emotions and avoid feeding off other people’s energies. Setting clear emotional boundaries is one of the most effective ways.
Boundaries are clear lines that you draw to prevent others from draining your emotional reserves. Setting boundaries may not come naturally to an empath and may even feel wrong. After all, empaths want to understand and help others in any way possible. However, if you do not set clear emotional boundaries, you will wear yourself down to the point that you will be unable to support others in the way you instinctively desire.
The first step toward establishing boundaries is to define them clearly.
As a sensitive person, this can be a bit tricky because you may feel guilty about setting boundaries. Nonetheless, you must not let guilt keep you from taking the necessary steps to prevent yourself from owning other people’s emotions as your own. While this is certainly not easy, you must be honest about what boundaries would help prevent others from exploiting your empathetic nature. Ask yourself, what do you need to protect yourself in this relationship?
The second step is to communicate your boundaries with others openly and honestly.
Once you have identified what will help you unhook from other people’s emotions — such as limiting the time you spend listening to other people’s problems or simply saying no — sit down and talk with people your boundary applies to. Then, assert your boundaries firmly but politely. While you do not have to rationalize your boundaries, if you feel comfortable doing so, it may help to bolster your assertion — especially if you are talking to someone you trust will not react to it negatively. For example, a boundary might be telling a friend, “I care about you but I cannot meet tonight because I need rest.” Or it can be, “I deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. If you can’t treat me this way, then we can’t talk.”
The third step is to maintain your boundaries.
Expect others to test your boundaries. They need to know you are going to do what you say. So if they keep saying that they really need you, reassert your boundary. “I understand that you need support right now, and I do care about you. But I have to take care of myself right now. I can call you tomorrow.”
Additionally, you can use grounding techniques to help clear your mind of overwhelming emotions. These include mindfulness and meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, slow living, minimalism.
Related blog: 5 Steps to Diaphragmatic Breathing
While being an empath has no inherent flaws, it can have a detrimental effect on some people’s emotional well-being. If you constantly feel overwhelmed because you tend to pick up on the energy and feelings of those around you, expert counseling can help.
At RDU Counseling for Change, our counselors can help you learn how to create a healthy distance between your own emotions and the emotions of others. No two sensitive individuals are the same. Therefore, RDU Counseling for Change counselors work with you to understand your unique emotions and create strategies to help you cope with overwhelm and stressors.
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