The ability to empathise is possibly the most important of all human qualities.
It motivates us toward acts of compassion that can be life-changing, and even life-saving, to those on the receiving end. It becomes a precious gift to those around us when we can be where they are and offer them space to be deeply heard, seen, felt, and received.
Having someone else’s pain, fears, anger, and judgement fully inhabit you, however, can be a massive unwanted burden.
It’s one thing to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before we judge or criticise them, and another to leave our own body completely and climb into another’s, or to open up our inner space to the energies of every passing friend or stranger—such that we can no longer find room for our own selves there. The first is a healthy, humbling, and compassionate practice that the world needs more of. The second, however, can be catastrophic for our physical and emotional health, and the world gets no benefit.
Many of us grew up as empaths, sensitives, and embodiers, with a powerful, innate urge to heal the world that we did not have words to explain.
Without the skills to understand the double-edged sword of such a gift, however, what we gained from it in terms of depth of love, compassion, and meaning, we may have lost in terms of sacrificing ourselves and our energy with sometimes devastating results.
Knowing our own energy boundaries—where we end and another begins—is an essential part of our childhood development and one that rests on the fragile variables of how our upbringing, environment, and experiences trained and influenced us to view the world. If you were taught to sacrifice your own happiness for the happiness of others, for instance, or that absorbing someone else’s pain meant they no longer had to suffer, you may have become habituated to soaking up energies that don’t belong to you, and furthermore, are injurious.
We have a physical self, and we have a self beyond the physical—our essential self that feels, sees, experiences, and expresses both what is seen and what is more hidden.
You might visualise this for a moment: as well as having an outer wrapping of skin over your muscles, bones, and organs, you might envisage your body as having an energy skin. You might see and feel this energy body as an aura or luminosity.
When this field is well-shielded, protected, and thriving, it may have a feeling of tingling, sparkling, or humming. That is the feeling of having presence in a big, fluffy energy body. When it is too freely absorbing and holding onto other peoples’ stress, fear, and pain, including that which comes in the form of criticism, attack, and judgement, this part of you can feel dense, heavy, and almost claustrophobic.
There are many ways we can feel an imbalance of what is in our psyche that is ours and what belongs to others. The most important thing is to be aware.
Once we are aware of our habits—of taking on and holding things not meant for us—we can then do the important work of changing those habits so that we can help and support those around us from a strong and healthy place. Just as being conscientious about how what we eat affects the health of our inner environment and what products we use affects the ecology of the outer environment, it is important to be discerning about how we cultivate our inner ecology—and that means paying attention to how and what we take on, take in, and hold onto when it comes to our mind-body-psyches.
Here are just four common warning signs that we are harbouring energies that don’t belong to us and could be injuring us internally.
1. There is recurring discomfort in parts of our body that can’t be explained by illness or injury.
Tightness and a choking feeling in the throat or a propensity to get frequent sore throats are common in people who choose to hold back from speaking their truth so as not to risk offending others.
That trapped feeling in your throat can be a part of you struggling to break free from an energy, person, or situation that has forced it to be silent. Maybe you say “yes” to things you really want to say “no” to because you are worried about how people will receive your “no.”
Every “no” we say allows us to say yes to ourselves. We have a right to our authentic yes, and the world needs us to be in our truth. Try giving yourself this permission and notice how that feels in your throat over time. You may feel a consequent energy of liberation, release, and lightness, and a sensation that the blocked feeling has evaporated.
Other places where we can feel a fear of other peoples’ reactions repressing us are in our bellies, meaning our authentic “gut” feelings are being suppressed; our chests, meaning our hearts might be holding someone else’s emotional wounds; our lower backs, meaning we may feel destabilised by another’s energies; and our heads, meaning we are overriding our intuitive needs and desires by allowing someone else’s to take up space inside us.
2. Your instincts are saying yes, but your mind is saying no.
Our minds are wonderful things, but they can take on other peoples’ stuff in less time than it takes to say, “I know my own mind.”
Do you know your own mind? Or are some of the things it is telling you coming from another person’s mind? Remember that our minds have so many places to take instruction from and to be influenced by: our parents, our teachers, society, mass media, and social media.
If you want to move freely forward on something and your gut is whispering “do it” and your heart is affirming that with love, yet you are allowing a thought to force you to turn back, take a moment to pay attention. Take a moment to put your head back into your heart, back into your gut, back into your soul, back into your whole being. Let it listen within, rather than to what the world says. If you have a problem listening to yourself and hearing yourself clearly, perhaps try consciously cutting out the outside interference for a while. Detoxing from social media, returning the self-help books to the shelf, and thanking people for their advice without letting it slip through that energy field—these are all effective strategies for clearing and sanctifying our inner space.
3. You are not being who you really are.
Quite simply, you just don’t feel yourself. Perhaps you are acting out of character. Perhaps you find yourself saying or doing things that aren’t really true to you. You have spent so much time taking on another person’s energy—and maybe you’ve done this with good intentions or maybe someone has deliberately attempted to put their stuff onto you. People and things can have a hold on us. We all know that experience. Things can take up a lot of space inside of us that is usually reserved for our own authenticity and spontaneity.
To win that back, we may need to set new boundaries. Author, empath, and psychologist Judith Orloff describes in her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide, a wonderful technique using the phrase “Return to Sender” when you feel other people’s stuff affecting you this way.
4. You can’t relax knowing someone else can’t relax, and you can only be happy when everyone else is happy.
“The trouble with you, Alison, is you want everyone to be happy and for the world to be fair,” my mother used to tell me when I was a little child.
I am convinced this is a feeling that burns brightly in our humanity and creates an ideal to strive for without which the world would be in trouble. However, there is a subtle tipping point between the honourable intention to spread happiness beyond one’s own and the misery of a chronic disease to please.
Suppressing one’s own joy will never have any impact other than general joylessness. And while there may be some schadenfreude-lovers out there who take pleasure over someone else’s disappointment, if you have such people in your life, the last thing you should do is take a note from them on how to behave.
After all, your joy is the very thing they are craving—hence the diabolical reaction—it comes from a wound. Own your joy, feel your joy, nourish your joy, and live as much as you can in a surplus of joy. Let its vibration fuel the world.
Let’s be honest, wherever we are on the empathy spectrum, there will always be times when we lose ourselves a little in the onslaught of everything else.
With the development of the digital world, the boundaries of communication and information dissemination have changed exponentially and it can be challenging to keep our energy bodies healthy, supple, and luminous with our individuality. Yet those very factors make it all the more vital to do so. In fact, another word for our energy body is our “vital body.”
Taking space and time for yourself, becoming intimate with your own feelings and triggers, using practices that take you into regular connection with your mind-body-system such as yoga, embodied meditation, and the sacred practice of self-love are all essential in the journey to understanding what’s yours and what’s not.
I have often thought that letting yourself be you and others be themselves is the most spiritual posture of all.
Author: Alison Potts
Image: lucky sparrow on Instagram
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Callie Rushton