How to Ignore People (!)

Last week, we looked at a questionable study on empathy, and many of us took the test the study is based upon.

In the comments section, Lorelei shared her high empathy score (68 out of 70) and commented that “it can be a bit overwhelming” to feel so much for and from others. I empathize with that! Before I knew how to manage my extreme empathy, my life was pretty miserable, and I write about that in the early part of The Language of Emotions. But there is a happy ending, because I figured out how to work with and moderate my empathy so that it stopped ruining my life.

The five empathic skills I write about in the book are central to creating the privacy and emotional flexibility empaths need. But what I didn’t write about is a magical skill I’m calling How to Ignore People.

Photo of Mom at age 12
The fabulous Billie Karyl Lucy Rogers at 12 (1944)

I attribute this idea partly to my mom, the late, great Billie Kara Lucy (her friends called her Sam). In my early twenties, I was really struggling with my empathy, and Mom said, “Look, if you had a perfect sense of smell, you wouldn’t have to become a perfumier in France. Strong gifts like this are plus disabilities, and you can manage them just like you manage your learning disabilities.” Hey cool Ma, thanks!

It took me a while, though, because I had mistakenly identified my empathy as a paranormal skill. I thought empathy was a form of psychic ability, and I felt that I owed it to others to share my ability (For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required. — Luke 12:48). Thank goodness that I discovered my error, which led me to leave my career in 2003 to go back to school and figure out just what was up!

During this time, I went to a family wedding, and you know how emotional and chaotic those usually are! This one was no different, and there was an embarrassing blowup between the father of the bride and the bride. And you know what? I saw it but didn’t get involved. I certainly could have, and I could have suffered along with everyone who knew what was going on. But I didn’t, and I just sat there and marveled at my freedom.

Now of course, if it were something important, or someone was hurt, I would have intervened. But this was just typical wedding-day nonsense.

So what did I do differently? First, I stayed behind my own eyes and in my own skin, and I studied the situation as a scientist might. Empathy is one of my skills, but it’s not my only skill. I can feel alongside people, or I can stay separate from them. Certainly, the five empathic skills from the book help me stay separate from others when I need to. But reframing my ability as just one of many abilities also helps.

If you’re suffering with your empathy, remember what my mom said. There’s no law that says you have to empathize with everyone simply because you can. You have a right to your privacy, and so does everyone else.

Now, if you’re in a situation where there are a lot of emotions flying all over the place, and you can’t concentrate, it helps to set physical boundaries between yourself and the turmoil. You can avoid eye contact, cross your arms, turn your back to the trouble, and excuse yourself (you know, like insensitive people do!). If it’s not safe or practical to make these obvious movements, you can also use your imaginal skills to strengthen your sense of a personal boundary.

This boundary is very useful, and thankfully, I was able to take it out of the paranormal realm as well. I once thought of this boundary as an aura, which meant that it was a metaphysical construct and you had to have magical skills to work with it. But actually, this sense of personal space is created by your brain and your nervous system in a process called proprioception and interoception. There’s a great book on the subject (The Body Has a Mind of Its Own).

In The Language of Emotions, we work with this proprioceptive area a great deal, because skilled empathy isn’t just about feeling everything around you. It’s also about learning to set boundaries and make separations. I call it emotional hygiene, and I’m here to tell you, that’s a great skill to have!

If you’re really struggling with your empathy, grab a copy of the book and discover how your brain and your emotions can help you make good separations. You won’t become insensitive; rather, you’ll become appropriately sensitive. Yay you!

13 Responses

  1. Simon
    | Reply

    Just what I needed to hear! Thanks Karla! I’m starting to realize this myself! Ignorance is Bliss!!! 😉

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yay ignorance!! Let’s go together into a whole room full of unconscious, emotionally unaware people, and totally ignore them! But don’t look at me, because I’ll fall out laughing, and then the jig will be up!

  2. Lorelei
    | Reply

    I think that I have applied this method of controlling when I empathize occasionally (not often enough), over the years, though it was not a conscious effort on my part. Thanks for the tips! I think that making a conscious effort not to get sucked in will be very helpful in the future. 🙂

  3. Katrina
    | Reply

    I’ve had to learn both sides of this … the hard way … over the course of my life. When I was a kid, I found people so overwhelming that I shut them out by being shy, quiet, and withdrawn. I also grew up in a family with poor social skills, so I had to learn good social skills on my own — which I decided to do my last year or two of high school and on into college and adulthood.

    Then I returned to acting as an adult — and discovered just how completely I had shut myself off from my body and from my emotions. It took years of self-work (with books and audio series by Julia Cameron, Dawna Markova, Elaine Aron, and others, including some of your earlier work, Karla) and classes and workshops in dance, acting, and stage combat (imagine … learning how to create the illusion of violence on stage helped me to become more emotionally whole, more connected with my body, and more comfortable in my own skin!) … but I now feel like a whole, balanced human being — intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and creatively.

    But it has been very scary and very difficult opening back up to my emotions — because that meant dropping some of the “armor” I’d used for so many years to keep myself protected from other people.

    I can’t wear that “armor” and still be a good actor (because good acting requires a very deep level of empathy, a willingness to be emotionally available and emotionally vulnerable … in front of complete strangers!).

    So I’ve had to learn other ways of keeping myself emotionally healthy while living and working every day with other people (I’m an actor with a “day job” at a small daily newspaper, so I deal with people in the “business world” on a regular basis.)

    But what I’ve learned about body language as an actor really helps. When I want to make it clear that I have strong boundaries and I’m not to be messed with, I sit and stand and walk in strong, no-nonsense ways — and most people get the message immediately.

    When I’m with someone that I want to “let in,” I “soften” my body language and “invite them in”; I let my body language reflect my desire to be gentle and accepting and welcoming — and as a result, people usually feel very comfortable around me; they relax and “let me in” a little, too.

    It’s hard to explain exactly what I do physically, though — because I’m usually not thinking about the specifics. I just think, “tough, no-nonsense,” or “gentle and accepting” … and my body language shifts accordingly.

    People think of acting as “pretending” … but I have found that the best acting really comes from being more authentically human and real and vulnerable than most of us are able to be in everyday life.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you for writing in, Lorelei. I hope I didn’t shock you by using your comment!

      And Katrina, great story. Acting is wonderful training for empaths, and body language is so powerful. There are a lot of studies out now about how body language actually creates emotional states. So we can all learn better body language and fake our way to good boundaries!!

      But it’s not fake if other people believe it and it tricks our brains into specific moods. Hah!

      Let’s all sit up straight, puff out our chests, smile widely, and feel proud and strong!

  4. Roland
    | Reply

    At the moment my understanding of my empathic nature is widening and deepening…again…empathy is marvelous because it’s an appreciation of the natural symphony of intelligence that is in everything and everyone; through my empathy i am learning again and again how we are all interconnected, and this learning like the ocean inexorably erodes the monolithic cliffs of my conditioning that renders most of us mono-elemental, isolated and alone. Because of empathy, in my alone-ness i have never felt alone; i can always sense and hear the love of creation all around and within me. But empathy is a hard gift to wield and sometimes i feel a victim of it; bitter, angry and betrayed. In my life, there was a degree of emotional shut down as a child; school seems to have been the most traumatic for me: lots of emotions, shadows in the corners of rooms, layer upon layer of repression, frustration, fear, anger, and pain, all soaked into the floors and walls of a school that was 400 years old.
    Nature has been my ally always; run home from school and play in the woods and talk to the rocks and sea. I was graced in my 20’s to meet another sensitive who was able to tell me i was open and sensitive to energy, which helped me begin to ask good questions and follow new paths of inquiry which would lead to healing. I see my empathic journey like a step pyramid – for a time i am on one step, learning certain skills, developing awareness of myself and my natural nature. During that time i can feel right in the deep end as lesson after lesson seems to assail me, then a breakthrough, an insight, an opening of some kind, followed by a period of respite, of ease, like the harvest. And like all cycles, eventually a new level is reached, a new step of the pyramid, and everything i thought i knew and worked, suddenly doesn’t! So then, are new insights, new experiences, new problems to deal with, and so on…I have learned to deal with people; in the main i can ignore them, i have systems and ways to manage my sensitivity. But these days my depth of empathy is opening up more again and i find myself feeling like this marvelous gift is also a curse.
    After having lived alone for many years, which was one of the very physical boundaries i chose to have, a reliable, clear, safe healing home space to re-balance and recover in for as long as i needed, in recent years i have begun living with first one other, and now two other people, and i am having to find new ways to remain myself. It is hard.
    About 6 months ago i experienced and survived a high speed head on car collision, and the rules seem to have changed again somewhat. A new experience for me is that i appear to be taking on energy from one of my household members right into my body, and i can’t seem to stop it. She has a loud pain body, with a great deal of negative mind chatter, depression and self loathing. She is a traumatized person with a great skill at disassociation…for me she is like a spiral vortex of discomfort that is very hard to stay separate from. At the moment usual techniques don’t work very well, and i feel like i am in a relentless battlefield almost all of the time. Sounds not too good i know, but i am choosing it, because i would like to evolve my abilities to the point where i can manage my sensitivity while living with others. The car accident has brought me into contact with your work Karla (thank you) and i have begun another journey through revisiting the issue of sensitivity and realizing that i still haven’t come to terms with how it really shapes my entire life – this review feels important. I have worked with the information in ‘how to become and empath’ ’emotional genius’ and ‘energetic boundaries’ and it all reminds me of what i have already learned, has also opened new ways of seeing things and approaching things, and the struggle and confusion continues. I guess my current contemplation and lesson is how do i stay separated from someone who is in pain and suffering, displaces emotions, has trouble with boundaries, and just wants someone to come along an take the pain away?
    If my empathic field is widening, what new ways of seeing and perceiving things must i determine in order to stay sane?

    I feel blessed, but gosh it’s hard sometimes 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Roland,

      It’s so difficult to be a sensitive person in such an insensitive world, and it sounds like your housemate is just too toxic for you right now. Especially after a traumatic accident, you may need to spend more time alone as you heal.

      There are a good series of books by Elaine Aron about The Highly Sensitive Person. Aron has discovered that highly sensitive people like us make up about 15% to 20% of the population, and that our sensitivity is an important part of our individuality. She feels that sensitive people should take their sensitivity seriously, and not try to change themselves to fit into a loud and insensitive world.

      I haven’t been in an accident, and I’m feeling pretty good right now, but there’s NO WAY that I would live in close quarters with a person like your housemate. It would wear me out! There’s nothing wrong with me, or with you, if we don’t want to deal with chaotic people who can’t manage their own emotions.

      Think of it this way: If you had perfect pitch, would you want to listen to constantly flat or sharp notes all day long? No. So look at your sensitivity as a plus — as a skill that you have — and don’t make yourself miserable just to prove that you can be around insensitive and emotionally chaotic people. I’m sure you can, but why should you?

      You know that your home should be a sanctuary for you. I suggest that you see if there’s a way to make distinct separations between the housemate and yourself as you heal. Trying to force yourself to become less sensitive is a losing game. You’re not a regular clown who can ignore pain and suffering around you, so make sure that you don’t ignore your own pain and suffering! Take care of yourself, says one highly sensitive empath to another. Some people are just going to be toxic to you, and that’s not a failure on your part.

      Bless you!

  5. Roland
    | Reply

    Thanks Karla for your input. I think it is a key point (that I hear in your words), which I am contemplating, namely that I sense things will be greatly improved as I learn to fully accept, acknowledge and honor the nature of who I am; that being empathic and sensitive is natural and has a place in the world. The more I am able to operate from this foundation, the easier it is to create all the boundaries I need in any given situation.
    In my household, we are evolving our awareness around energy and emotion, and we are also agreeing on new values and ways of being in community together that acknowledge emotional displacement, surrogacy and energetic pollution; it is understood now that it is valid and responsible to take oneself away from community space if one is in a state that energetically pollutes the environment, and seek through being alone, resolution or formally ask for help. All avoided emotional issues are very loud I find. Another way I find works really well for me at the moment, is if I make conscious to others what emotions I sense are being displaced, and often the volume greatly diminishes as others begin to claim their emotions. I see this as a form of boundary making, because I’m not passively taking it all on, but instead requesting more responsibility from others.
    This can only happen as I begin to acknowledge my own sensitivity, and learn to know what an external emotion or energy feels like versus those that are my own to deal with. My confidence improves daily.
    Yesterday I had an unusual experience. I went to a Japanese Health Spa for a reflexology treatment, and spent an hour with the therapist, and to my surprise, I noticed that I couldn’t sense much from her at all. With my eyes closed, the therapist was like a pair of floating hands, but none of her emotional and mental being was with me at all; she had such good boundaries! It has shown me what is possible and how it is rarely my fault that I pick up on emotions from others, which makes sense because over the years I have learned a lot about boundaries in order to survive. As I have said to others about their emotions, displacing emotions is a bit like putting a dead rat in a cupboard out of sight, and expecting it not to stink after a while…much better therefore for everyone to deal with what you feel.
    So I hear in your words, a need for me to keep going, and give myself the full validation and acceptance and as you say, avoid trying to compromise myself in order to fit into consensus ways of seeing things.
    In the end I feel that somehow I have to develop ways to instinctively create boundaries, because at the moment, I am reluctant to see my future shaped entirely by conscious visualizations and techniques that help me manage my sensitivity. I would rather give myself the chance to evolve something more like an immune system that naturally protects me from other people’s emotions, regardless of how chaotic they may be. It may or may not be possible though.
    In the meantime however, your input reminds me to take care of myself, and to not be afraid to define stronger boundaries in my household if they are needed.
    Thank you for your heart felt words of support and encouragement. I’ve order 2 books by Elaine Aron, which I am looking forward to.

    Blessings to you

  6. shakercee
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    My heart has been blissfully asleep for so long. Only now, I am opening up a little. It has not been easy, often move into my indifferent shell, letting my mind take over. Let’s see.


  7. Michael Forbes Wilcox
    | Reply

    Karla, I’m coming late to this discussion, so pardon me if I’ve missed later developments. I hope to catch up and get current, but allow me to observe, in response to your comment “I stayed behind my own eyes and in my own skin, and I studied the situation as a scientist might” that you have described what I have come to know as “mindfulness” — I used to have an enormous amount of trouble doing this. I’m getting better at it, but it’s still difficult. Thanks for sharing.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Michael! You’re right that what I learned to do is a kind of mindfulness — it is also an intentional integration practice I created for myself. I spent most of my young life dissociated, and had to learn how to to stay focused in my body in the present moment. What’s fun is that I can use dissociation as a tool now, instead of being unable to control it. Thank goodness for the plasticity of the brain!

  8. Renee
    | Reply

    I was excited reading this post. I’m a highly sensitive person who has trouble with it too. I feel a lot of my environment in my body and it’s unsettling. I’ve even thought that I was psychic too at times.

    I‘m also highly dissociative and cut off from myself and my emotions a lot of the time. I don’t know how or why it causes such a disruption to other people’s well-being and environment.

    I’m usually always in a toxic environment. And I guess I invite it. And when the environment reacts strongly to me, I haven’t always been good at being skillful in dealing with the situation.

    I’ve come to a place where I can’t turn back the environment I’m in and will have to move. I’m trying to get better and feeling constantly without rest from an environment that I helped create isn’t going to help me with my goal.

    I guess I feel at a loss. I always thought I was highly sensitive but I’m also insensitive? I’m two things at once.

    I relate to the posts and the insights. And now I feel disappointed that I’m also someone highly sensitive people should avoid.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      I’m sorry you’re in such a difficult place, and yes, it’s is very easy to be sensitive and insensitive, especially if you’re overwhelmed.

      Boundaries and thresholds are vital for sensitivity issues, and I write about the in The Language of Emotions and more in The Art of Empathy. Those sections may help.

      Here’s a video of a boundary practice:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *