Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How to Observe Without Absorbing

I have been described by several people in my life, whether it was in the spiritual sense or the social sense, as an empath, and I have a very tenuous relationship with my skills for feeling the energies of other people.

Once, many years ago, I met up with a few friends at a bar called Dirty Franks which was only a few steps from the entrance of my apartment building at the time.  I remember playing darts with them and drinking 2 or 3 gin and tonics before finding myself completely engulfed by a conversation with a stranger at the bar. I don't know what I said to her in those first few moments, but she very quickly shifted to talking about my gifts as an Empath, as well as the burden of such gifts.  I started to cry.  It had never been described to me as something useful before that night, and I had never really collided with another empath who was willing to read me so quickly.  It was touching to feel so understood. I had often been described as 'too emotional' and 'not a ton of fun to drink with' because someone else's energy was always effecting mine.  Could this be a skill? A tool to be mastered?
I felt ready to take a next step in my self awareness.  Over years I started to become more aware of what this 'gift' meant:
1. That I couldn't be friends (for long) with people who focus on negative topics frequently.
2. That, when hearing gossip, I would ALWAYS be compelled to map out the potential inner workings or emotional state of the person being talked about (and that REALLY pisses some people off)
3. That I was most conscious of my ability when I was surrounded by negative energy (because when you're surrounded by positive energy you're just 'having fun' or 'being productive')
The first step in using my skills to benefit me needed to be cutting the fat.  The friends of mine who focused more on the negative actually ended up doing this FOR me, though I didn't come to know or appreciate that until.... now.  But these people were the same ones who, when complaining about someone, would often be on the receiving end of one of my "well, she's going through [this] in her life right now, so she could just be lashing out emotionally and not mean what she said to you..." sidetracks, which most people don't want to hear when their feelings are hurt. So, no harm no foul. Because I was the one being dropped, it was hard for me to appreciate the benefit to my psyche that not having these friends around would supply.  Luckily, I had closer friends who talked me through it, in their way, encouraging me that the energy those people brought to the table wasn't right for me. They convinced me that my lost friends' leaving was necessary for both my sanity, and learning about the places where my ability to empathize with EVERYONE can be useful, and where voicing those views can be insensitive.
Next, I had to become aware of when I was using this "skill." Too often I would find myself in a funk after a long conversation with a friend who needed support in a tough time, or exhausted after watching the news.  My emotions were giving me energy as well as sapping it. I needed to make a note of when it happened and what I was feeling.  When a cold hard pit forms in between my ribs and my immediate reaction is to want to go to bed, I ask myself if I am feeling my own emotions, or absorbing someone else's.  (Having kids helped a lot with this. You can't go in your room and pout when there are dependents in the living room trying to find things small enough to put into their mouths). If it was someone else's emotion I was feeling, I talked myself through it:
"You can't know exactly how she feels, because you ARE NOT HER."
Which brings me to my situation here and now.
I am working on understanding that empathizing is IMAGINING someone else's emotions, NOT FEELING THEM.  I am not that person, with their personality, history, and baggage.  I am my own person and i bring my own baggage that colors my perception of their pain.
My gift is useful insofar as it supports understanding and acceptance.  When I think about this, my immediate reaction is to want to develop the skills to "turn it off," but so far that seems impossible, and causes more discomfort and drama. So how to proceed? I am trying to learn to observe without absorbing, and to understand that my experience feeling the emotional or situational state of other people is a PIECE of empathizing, but it isn't the end result.  I do no service to someone by simply joining them in pain.  I need to use that information (feel it, but not linger there) to inform my next steps.  Sometimes listening is enough for someone, and in that case, feeling their state, and letting it flow through me is the best course of action, so I can be quiet, receptive, and emotionally light for them while I listen.  Other times people will need solutions.  Feeling their pain can be helpful in understanding how to frame information in a way to be most beneficial to them.  Do they need an excited brainstormer to shift the energy? Do they need gentle suggestions? Do they need to be reminded of the positives in the situation?
I also need to keep in mind that, while I do appreciate having this gift, no one else's happiness can be my responsibility.  My empathizing cannot take their pain away (and often they don't want it gone anyway, they feel they have EARNED it), and it should not effect me to the point where my emotional state is now being flattened by a host of other people's problems.
My happiness is in my control, and my happiness and emotional lightness is often what other people need.  More importantly, my emotional lightness is what I need.
I have in no way mastered this.  There are some lessons in life we have to keep re-learning, and this is one of mine.  The desire to make everyone feel good is so compelling for me that I often end up doing the opposite or making myself unhappy... which brings me to my last point...
I am not perfect and I cannot expect my emotional reactions to be perfect.  It is ok.  It is in the nature of emotions to be messy.  I am not a robot that can sense human emotion, I am one of these cartwheeling tornadoes of nonsense myself. Use empathy when it's useful, feel it and move on. If I feel the feelings and think "I shouldn't be feeling that" and tramp it down, it does me no service.  If I feel thankful for my gift and let it flow through me like water, I have more space for my own feelings and for getting shit done.