Last week I attended the first session of a group therapy stress reduction course. When the man across from me shared how his marriage was falling apart, I sniffled. When the woman next to him described her travails with chronic pain, fat tears rolled down my cheeks. By the time we got to the woman whose unborn baby needed open heart surgery, people were passing me wads of Kleenex.
I’m an intuitive empath.
Judith Orloff, MD, author of Positive Energy, coined the term “intuitive empath” to mean someone “so sensitive and giving, not only does her heart go out to others, she actually absorbs their stress and negativity into her body like a sponge,” she says. “This can cause exhaustion, depression, anxiety and diagnoses such as chronic fatigue.” Excessive empathy can even cause weight gain as women eat to escape others’ pain.
Women who are intuitive empaths — and women make up the majority of this type — may be affected by everything from people’s bad moods to disturbing newscasts. “The news makes me cry,” says Sandra Beckwith of Fairport, NY. “I don’t watch those ‘real women’ stories on Lifetime because they’re too upsetting.” Even watching another person make an embarrassing mistake can make us blush and run for cover. “I have to leave the room if my husband is on the phone so I don’t have to hear him if he stumbles over a word,” says Sandy Shannon of New York City. “Heaven forbid my husband should make a devastating mistake like stumble over a word.”
Scientists are coming to the conclusion that we’re hardwired to feel others’ pain. In one experiment, research patients undergoing brain surgery while awake saw a researcher “accidentally” prick his finger. The pain region of the brain fired just as it did when the subject pricked his own finger.
Of course, empathy can be a wonderful thing. “Empathy allows you to feel all the beautiful things in life, and they’re amped up,” says Orloff. It’s when you can’t separate yourself from others’ negative emotions that there’s a problem. Says life coach Rebecca “Kiki” Weingarten, MScEd, MSA, “It’s almost like getting caught in a thunderstorm. It’s sunny, then suddenly there’s wind and rain and you have no shelter. Then you can even get hit by lightning. You’re soaking and burned…on an emotional level.”
So if you, like me, are an intuitive empath, how can you keep from getting rained on emotionally?
Write It Out
Weingarten suggests that women delve into their journals to figure out why other people’s emotions affect them so much. In the case of Sandy Shannon, who can’t bear to hear her husband on the phone, Weingarten says, “Some of the questions she might tackle in the journal would be, ‘Why do I feel so uncomfortable? What will happen if he does make a major blooper? Am I afraid that that reflects on me and my choice of a spouse — and if it does, how? And why is it important to me that people think x, y, or z about me and my spouse?’”
Weingarten suggest dividing your journal page into four parts. The first part is where you describe the offense (say, your boss came to work in a bad mood and sniped at you, and it ruined your day). The second part is for determining how much of the problem was you (did you let the bad mood get to you more than you should have? did you respond to the sniping?) and the third part is for describing how much of the problem was the other person (did she take out her bad mood on you, an innocent bystander?). Finally, in the fourth section you describe how you can deal with the problem next time (perhaps you can talk to your boss about how her bad moods negatively affect your productivity).
Eat a healthy diet, get good rest, and minimize stress. “When you’re in good shape you’re less likely to take on other people’s stress,” says Orloff. “Also, realize that you can be a good friend without talking on other people’s problems — this makes a positive shift in attitude so you’re less likely to be drained.”
Beware the Energy Vampires
Energy vampires include the Sob Sister who buffets you with her tales of woe and the Drama Queen who turns every situation into a spectacle of major proportions. “Set boundaries: a kind but firm ‘no’ is a way of protecting your energy,” says Orloff. For example, you can tell your Sob Sister friend, “I love you, but I can only talk for five minutes.”
It’s not easy, but if you feel like you got run over by a truck, emotionally, whenever you talk to a certain person, you may need to say sayonara. If it’s impossible to sever ties completely, you can simply have less to do with the person, or talk to him or her only when you’re feeling strong so you have the energy to deal with the negative vibes. Or try having a frank talk with the Vampire. “Tell them, ‘That kind of talk is getting me down,’” says Weingarten.
Put Up a Shield
Orloff suggests visualizing a protective bubble around yourself that keeps out negativity and stress. “Visualize a surrounding cocoon of white light that forms a barrier around every inch of you and keeps you from getting harmed,” she says. “If you can’t get away from something negative, the bubble is good to use because no one knows you’re using it.”
If you’re stuck in a place full of people giving off negative energy — think airports or doctors’ waiting rooms — leave space between yourself and others, suggests Orloff. Try putting something on the seat next to you to discourage others from sitting there, or, if you have to, get up and walk around.
If you’re an intuitive empath, don’t feel that you have to lock yourself in a lead-lined room to escape bad energy. Protect yourself with these expert tips and you’ll learn to face negativity without absorbing it.
Quiz: Am I an Intuitive Empath? (reprinted with permission from Positive Energy)
* Have I been labeled as overly sensitive?
* If a friend is distraught or in physical pain, do I start feeling it, too?
* Am I drained in crowds, going out of my way to avoid them?
* Do I get anxious in packed elevators, airplanes, or subways?
* Am I hypersensitive to noise, scents, or excessive talking?
* When I see gruesome newscasts, does my energy plummet?
* Do I get burned out by groups, require lots of time alone to revive?
If you answer “yes” to one of these questions, it’s likely you’re being enervated by empathy. Responding “yes” to every question suggests that empathy is compromising your energy.
I originally wrote this article for Body + Soul (now Whole Living), but it was killed when the magazine changed direction. Now I finally get to use it!