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.
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!