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Water Cooler: Tips for empaths

UPDATED: Sun., June 6, 2021

Empaths can experience empathy to an extreme.  (Pixabay)
Empaths can experience empathy to an extreme. (Pixabay)

There’s a lot of talk about empaths in today’s popular psychology. An empath is typically described as someone who is very perceptive to the emotions of the people around them, often to the point of feeling like they absorb those emotions.

While being empathetic is generally regarded as a positive trait, empaths can easily feel overwhelmed by the emotions they take on from others. They often offer a listening ear and consolation to others, and they may ruminate and feel anxiety about someone else’s negative emotions or experiences.

Empaths usually have a hard time intellectualizing and specifying emotions and tend to rely on intuition instead. This may be a sign of low emotional intelligence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that tendency, but sometimes it can result in emotions that feel vague and out of one’s control.

A common example of this is having a friend who trusts you as someone to vent to, and they tell you about problems they’re having with a mutual friend.

If you’re an empath, you might take on that negative state and spend the rest of your day ruminating about whether you should keep your relationship with that mutual friend, or how you could mend your friends’ relationship.

You might feel anxious for days wondering what to do, only to find out that your friends were able to talk it out. All of a sudden you feel much better. This is a sign of how much someone else’s emotions affected your own.

Empathy is felt by nearly everyone and it is normal to feel sad or angry after something bad happens to someone you know. But if empathy comes to the point of interrupting your ability to live a healthy life, it is helpful to work on ways to manage how much emotion you absorb from others and luckily there are a lot of tools available.

Work to increase emotional intelligence. This comes through the practice of noticing and specifying your emotions. Instead of saying you just feel “bad,” trying to examine further and think about if you maybe feel fearful, inadequate or angry. Things like definitions of emotions or emotion flashcards can help you think through what you feel.

Ask yourself if this emotion is coming from you or from someone else. Did you only start feeling this way because of someone else’s emotions or actions? Noticing this can help you monitor how much your emotional state is being affected by other people.

Practice managing your emotions. There are many strategies to do this, but one common one that can be done at home is mindfulness meditation. This helps you observe your emotions in a more neutral state, giving you the opportunity to accept them and move on from them. Working on this skill helps you make something of a mental forcefield that enables you to observe and interact with negative emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Create boundaries. If there are certain people in your life that cause you to consistently feel negative emotions, establish limits with them. A boundary is a limit on how much time you spend together or what subjects you talk about, or how much you’re willing to help them out.

Be wary of your tendency to need to “save” others. People do this for various reasons, such as distraction, a sense of control, or a boost in self-esteem.

If you see patterns of compulsively feeling like you need to change someone else’s negative situation into a positive one, reflect on why you feel the need to do so.

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