Survival Strategies For Women Who Feel Too Much
How would it feel to have strong boundaries for yourself while simultaneously building close and healthy relationships? What if you could focus and work with the information inside your emotional states, hear the deepest parts of yourself, and make use of that information?
Empathic skills allow us to see the world as alive with knowledge and meaning. They help us listen to the meaning underneath words, to understand and to connect emotively with the world around us. When I was a young girl, my grandmother loved to take me to the Italian Operas at the NY Metropolitan Opera House. I didn’t speak Italian and I didn’t even know the story of the operas before we attended. But at 10 years old, the power of the music and the emotions carried in the tones and pitches sung by the performers swept over me in currents that allowed me to engage in these events through empathic dialogue.
Empathy is a normal human skill – and seems to be in animals as well. Empathy makes us sensitive and intuitive. The skill of empathy allows us to read the inner state, the intentions, the emotions, the desires, and the possible actions of other people. Empaths can get right to the core of any issue, often feeling what others are unwilling or unable to acknowledge.
Here’s the problem for empaths: when most of us were growing up, the only kind of intelligences that mattered were the logical and spatial forms. We didn’t learn that anger helps us set effective boundaries, that fear is our intuition, or that sadness helps us relax and let go of things we don’t need anymore. What I noticed at school, and it may have been different for you, is that acting out of our compassion was also frowned upon. For instance, if a child was being isolated and identified as a geek or target, you took your social survival into your own hands if you tried to befriend her or stick up for her.
Unfortunately, we don’t always respect our emotions and their healing power. Instead, they are vilified, ignored, celebrated, repressed, manipulated, humiliated, adored, and manipulated. Rarely, are they honored. Rarely, if ever, are they seen as distinct healing forces. What if we were able to appreciate the full range of emotions and tap into the brilliant information inside each one – not just the happy emotions – but also the ones we tend to shun or repress?
Learning to trust and honorably channel our emotions, to hear them, to feel them, to attend to them, and to converse with them, is the central skill of an empathic practice. We need a way to identify our emotions, to understand them, and to begin to learn their language so that we can communicate with them empathically instead of being at their mercy or treating them cruelly. To do this, we need to keep our minds and bodies calm and relaxed so that we can effectively work with emotional data.
- Stop and notice. Notice when your emotions are rising. What do you normally do? Do you stop to understand the information they are providing, journal about what’s coming up, and choose your response? Or, like many of us have been taught to push them down, choke back the tears, beat yourself up for being “too emotional”, repress them, or project them. Do you walk away from an interaction wishing you said what you were feeling or being upset with yourself that you said too much? The first step in developing emotional expression competence is to know where you’re starting. You might begin simply by noticing in which situations you’re open and free-flowing and in which situations you clamp down.
- Counteract the fight/flight response with breathwork. Once you’ve begun noticing your emotional states, you may also notice when you’re in states of overwhelm or when you’re picking up so many emotions from others that you need to sort out which are yours and which are theirs. Overwhelming emotions can set off the fight/flight alarm. One of the ways to perceive your fight/flight alarm is through your breath. If your breath becomes shallow and high in your chest, your sympathetic nervous system may have been activated. To counteract this alarm and reinstate calm, you can consciously engage the parasympathetic nervous system with a simple yogic breathing exercise. This simple exercise sends a message to the primitive brain that everything is ok. To do this, sit in a comfortable posture. Feet on the floor. Back resting into the back of the chair. Notice where your breath is. Don’t try to change it, just notice your breathing. Now, gently breathe from the belly. On the in-breath count to 3 and on the outbreath count to 5. Do this a couple of times. As you feel the calm, now count to 4 on the in-breath, and 6 on the out-breath, elongating your breath until you feel the calm settling back in.
- Self-care. People who are highly empathic need to take extra care of themselves. There are some good books on self-care by one of my fav writers – Jennifer Louden. Here’s a simple practice you can do in just a few minutes that allows us to tap into our inner resources for self-support. Sit comfortably. Feel the support of whatever you’re sitting on. Put your hand over your heart, the energetic center for unconditional love. Simultaneously, visualize someone or something you love deeply. Allow the image of this love until you begin to notice sensations of warmth and comfort. The image may change depending on the kind of support that would be useful. When I’m feeling beat-up, I imagine my grandmother who was a warrior. When I’m feeling a need for a hug, I imagine my children when they were little, jumping into my arms at the end of a long day. You can find what works for you too.
As we learn to keep our minds and bodies calm, our ability to read and respond to emotional data improves. And, we’re able to use this data to enhance our emotional connections.
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