I’ve fed on and digested a wide range of advice for overwhelmed empaths from the web, courses and books. Testing, adapting and discarding, over time I’ve pieced together a strategy that’s worked for me — moved me from having to avoid public transport or even lively streets towards enjoying travel, sometimes even relishing the bustle. While my sensitivity hasn’t changed, I feel more settled, stable and resilient inwardly.
Note: this process has taken me about a year; and previous to that, I’d been cultivating some of the practices mentioned — such as mindfulness and body awareness — for almost a decade.
However, on my path from paralysis-by-empath-overload to a state of relatively joyful equilibrium (not perfect but more than I’d deemed possible), I’ve had to use other, more “substantial”, I’d say, resources and skills. These go beyond “tricks” that you can learn in a day or week. They are skills that require months or years of cultivation, and a slow, incremental process of accumulating micro-insights which only from time to time culminate in tangible watershed moments.
On the other hand, following this path has given me much more than just freedom from empath paralysis. It was an intense process of inner growth that has enriched my experience, resilience, ability to connect, sense of aliveness and empowerment, and — in a non-trivial sense — peace of mind.
Here is a fairly off-the-top-of-my-head summary:
1. Start at foundation level: balance your physiology with food and natural rhythms. Specifically, stabilise your blood sugar and synch your circadian rhythm with nature (i.e., the sun).
While some HSP and empath resources mention generic nutritional or lifestyle advice, for me finding a regime that supports my body’s stability and resilience was a major milestone. When in physiological balance, I’ve noticed that I need much less awareness-work to stay out of difficult energies — many of them “magically” keep off when you are well-slept, well-nourished, and your life-force (Prana, Qi, blood, lymph) is circulating.
In part driven by a fascination with these ancient systems of knowledge, I’ve spent years studying Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) and other approaches to individualised nutrition, and hope to write an empath-specific article on this at some point. My bottom line is that the usual “healthy eating” habits (e.g. wholegrains and salads) may not be sufficient, or even be detrimental (like in my case), for some people with a highly sensitive nervous system. For me the secret was to eat a lot of good fats, and finally (after a long time of trying to avoid that) include specific animal proteins in my diet. Like me, some sensitives (specifically, the Ayurvedic Vata types) may require heavy foods, e.g. specific fats that are typically not marketed as “healthy” (a good source of information on that, also if you suffer from mood swings of psychiatric symptoms, is here). Other body types require a lighter diet and are harmed by other factors. Your instinctual food intuition can guide you, but there are certain ways it can get off-compass — and ways to get it to work reliably again; and there are some good dietary starting points based on your individual metabolic type.
(I’m qualified to advise you on individual factors that may affect your nutrition based on on a questionnaire and a Skype meeting, or can share resources. Contact me if interested.)
2. Focus on resilience over protection: build emotional resilience. One way to do that is to cultivate a mindfulness practice.
As Imi Lo writes in her book, a lot of the advice for both HSPs and empaths focuses on protection. You are to slow down, create safe spaces for yourself, tune down on the stimulation, turn down social commitments. Make your life more monastic or ashram-like. While this is helpful and understanding this need of the sensitive nervous system for deep rest has certainly helped me regenerate, it has also gradually led me to withdraw more than is beneficial.
The same is true of a lot of the advice for empaths, which focuses on techniques like shielding or otherwise “blocking out” unwanted energy.
The problem with this advice was that it made me withdrawn, paranoid, and exhausted. Fearful, and feeling like the external world is generally a threat. While I already had a tendency to feel that way, this kind of advice merely heightened the state of alert.
So what else to do? In my experience, there is at least one way (and probably many) to develop more robustness in terms of tolerating intense stimulation and emotions, and not having to avoid them and the situations that may bring them up.
My personal path was mindfulness, although I actually started with a vipassana meditation retreat. While these types of techniques differ in their details, the key point is that you learn to witness — observe, be in the presence of — strong emotions or sensations without needing to contract or defend, but are able to perceive them as energy and let that energy “pass through your system”, so to speak, sometimes quite physically. It is about opening more than closing.
While this is (at last for me) a difficult and long-term practice, it works. It leads to more inner security, calm, and ultimately a base for expanding into the world, into novel and potentially stressful situations, with an increased sense of inner safety.
3. Start inhabiting your body, literally living in the inner space of your body. If you have difficulty distinguishing other’s emotions and sensations from your own, this will help.
I had this problem to a significant degree. Before doing an extended (and costly) empath training, I was not even aware how much of my time I’d been spending actually inhabiting other people’s feelings, sensations, problems; how much of the energy that I perceive as “my cloud”, or the atmosphere that constantly surrounds me, actually belongs to other people.
Once I became aware of this, I was still unable to locate a “ground”, or a “centre”, an energetic space about which I could clearly feel, and know, that “this is me”. While the various empath exercises have helped me somewhat with this, the biggest help actually came from 1) a comment and empath friend made; 2) a book on body awareness for spiritually sensitive people.
I think the reason for the limited help the various empath exercises out there were to me is that perhaps not every empath is that lost — not everyone loses their identity in this, so to speak. But for those who do, there is a preliminary level that has to be addressed before the other techniques will work. And that level is familiarising yourself, thoroughly, with the “feel”, the felt quality, “flavour”, “aroma”, taste, or however else you could describe it, of your own field of experience.
What this basically means is becoming so thoroughly feel-familiar with your own energy field that whenever something hits you from the outside, it’s as strikingly clear as, say, a green (or sometimes merely orange) dot on a red background. The point is that you must familiarise yourself deeply with your own background hues, so to speak. If you don’t know your own colours, nothing will ever “pop out” clearly.
How do you do that? I have personally used modified versions of Judith Blackstone’s “Realization Process” exercises; I discuss this elsewhere, but the main point here is to inhabit every single portion of your (physical) body, not merely be aware of it, but be in it. As you try, you will realise that beyond physical sensation, each body part carries aspects, tastes and flavours of your own energy field, and you will over time become very familiar with this field.
The other clue was my friend saying that she sorted the “own or alien energy” conundrum by going way back to her childhood; until she hit a feeling that felt clearly like her self. I have tried this and in my case as well, going back in time I am sometimes able to pinpoint the sensation of a clear field of pure vitality that feels like the unburdened “me” — to me this feels like my body being very transparent, lively, light, and flowing, as if made of invisible water, and there is a clear quality of “self” or “me” to it — no complexity, duplicity, torn-ness, layers, overlays, etc. Once I was able to locate this, it is helpful (and pleasant) to go back to it when I lose my compass.
I am not sure why this works, but it’s helped both of us. I am tempted to think that going back with your feeling-memory as early as possible puts you closer to your source (whatever that is), the original shape your soul had before absorbing all that you came across in this life. In my experience, cultivating a felt memory of this can be a good “anchor”.
4. Once you feel your own body and it’s characteristic “taste” of energy, notice when you depart from that haven. Focus on coming back, not on fighting other energies.
One of my major issues used to be “catching” someone’s energy, especially a negative one (e.g. related to self-hatred, disease, despair, specific uncomfortable bodily sensations) and not be able to snap out of it for hours, or in the worst case days. I learnt a variety of release, cleansing, and letting-go techniques — but these never quite solved the issue for me. Part of this may have been that I used these techniques with a “fighting”/defensive mindset — rejecting and fearing the energy and paradoxically keeping it close with the force of my pushing.
However, whether the flaw was in the technique or in my use of it, what finally did solve it (by “solve” I mean bringing the frequency down from every couple of days or more to perhaps a couple of times a year, in exceptionally intense events) was 1) simple — although not so simple — mindfulness; finding a delicately balanced spot of relaxed but alert observation with neither pushing nor pulling 2) cultivating a “settledness” in the inner spaces of my own body systematically; inhabiting the body from inside the skin, so to speak. This produced a reduction in empath overload as an unexpected side-effect; when I noticed the connection, however, I was able to apply it deliberately to “untangle” from others and ground myself in myself relatively securely.
5. Understand energetic and everyday boundaries — how far you can go, and how much you can let people into your space, without harming yourself. This was a difficult concept for me, and I still struggle with it, but I see that it is incredibly important at least for me, and other authors seem to agree (e.g. Caroline). The basic idea is that the first person that you have an obligation to keep safe, protect and nurture — is you. Because if you don’t, you will sooner or later be drained of the energy to do this for anyone else; you will become irritable, exhausted, overwhelmed, or maybe even sick. For me it was a big breakthrough to understand that self-sacrifice is not ethical (in most everyday cases) — by not caring for yourself, because you are instead trying to carry other’s burdens, you ultimately force others to carry yours when you get irritable, down, or sick. You are not an inexhaustible well and you are not superhuman, even if you feel (esp. at a young age) that you have a lot of energy — you are human and have human limits. By respecting these, you safeguard and increase your vitality, as is everyone’s birth right, and in the long run you also preserve and increase your capacity to be there for others in ways that you choose with insight — not out of a compulsive habit of guilt and over-responsibility, that can not only lead to you feeling used and depleted, but also come across to others as either martyrological or patronising.
Since in a way, you see yourself as superior — you think you can carry burdens that they can’t; and as inferior — they deserve to suffer less, while it’s ok if you suffer more. The latter mindset could be seen as noble, if it worked — but as I explained above, if you deplete yourself, this is bound to re-bound when you start to burn out. It’s much better to preserve and nourish your own vitality so that you can give what you have in abundance, rather than trying to fill others’ cups when yours is rapidly emptying. Try to see yourself as a human being among human beings: neither superior (while you have specific “super-powers”, others have others, and you have many limitations that non-empaths don’t have) nor inferior (you are not a trash bin for others’ pain; maybe you like to protect bugs from being trampled or plants from drying out — it is not ethical to treat yourself as less valuable than that drying neglected plant that needs water and care, which you instinctively provide). Apply the full range of your caring instincts to yourself — more vitality and power for you is your birthright and makes you more effective, if you wish to be that.
6. Understand responsibility. You are not responsible for taking on and/or processing other people’s emotions, under any circumstances. This can even be morally wrong. The only exception is when this is part of a consensual healing practice (i.e. you have explicitly agreed with the other person on carrying out a healing practice in which you utilise your empathic sensitivity to guide you).
I used to feel responsible for any and every distress I felt. When I was maybe four or six years old, I sensed that my father was in distress (I didn’t understand this then, but we had moved to a new country and he could not get matching work for long periods). So when he told me stories about his hobbies, even though I didn’t understand anything and got very, very bored soon, I forced myself to listen because — as I understand now — I felt like he needs the attention and emotional support. Later, as a teen, my parents had troubles and my mother often got hurt by remarks my father made. I sensed her distress and instinctively decided that it is my task to support her, by listening empathically to her distress. I never got out of this childhood mindset (which I have read is typical for empathic kids) until maybe a year ago (at age 32). Whenever I sensed distress, a need for attention, listening, healing in anyone — a colleague, a random encounter — I would feel that it is my responsibility to help and heal them.
Needless to say, I was not successful at this, and at times ended up intruding onto people’s emotional problems (which to me as an empath where patently obvious, but I did not realise they weren’t for everyone) where they preferred to have their privacy and were not asking for “help”, especially from someone who is not qualified as a therapist 🙂
The aha-moment came when I understood that the mere fact that I perceive distress does not mean that I am responsible for “fixing” it. Just like seeing a piece of trash in the street does not automatically mean I am responsible for picking it up and disposing of it (much less when there are 100 or 1000 pieces of trash in that street), or seeing a crack in the wall of someone’s house doesn’t mean I am responsible for getting the mortar and sealing it (and since I am not a mason, certainly not everyone would give me permission me even if I asked it), or hearing somebody’s car engine malfunction doesn’t mean I am responsible for stopping them in the street, opening the hood, and diving in.
Sure, it can be nice and kind to pick up a few pieces of trash from the street near my house or my neighbour’s, when I feel like it. But it is unreasonable to feel responsible for walking the streets of the whole town cleaning, daily, just because I can see the trash. Unless I am on some special mission or have taken this as a job.
The same is true for empath skills. Having an especially perceptive eye for dust may mean that you can become a top conscientious cleaner; but it doesn’t mean you need to clean all your friends’ houses for free, without asking permission, because you can’t stop yourself when you see dust.
On the other hand, you do have an obligation to clean your own house. And when busy trying to clean everyone else’s, your own may fall into disrepair. (Read: take care of your own emotions, needs, well-being first — keep your own energy-space clear).
Don’t worry if you can’t help everyone — you don’t have to. There is no moral requirement for you to do so. You can choose to train as a therapist, or volunteer in a counselling setting, or just be an especially empathic friend and family member — but not because you feel you have to; in fact, if you feel that, your help may come across wrong to the other person. First take care of your own emotions, energy, needs; then reflect on what you are reasonably responsible for. Remember that other people have their own life-lines, free will, and their feelings are usually there for a reason and can be an impulse to growth. But in any case, they are first and foremost that person’s own responsibility.
7. Resolve emotional and life issues that are not empath-specific, such as old, festering conflicts; lingering feelings or fears of abandonment, resentment, revenge, isolation, betrayal, etc. Unfulfilled longings, suppressed desires and feelings like anger, or love. Particularly helpful for me was a focus on self-care and self-acceptance, including understanding at a visceral level that this is not selfish, but simply healthy and necessary. In short — fewer open psychological wounds = fewer “hooks” for others’ wounded energies to latch on to. Plus, once you learn to solve certain issues (e.g. depression and despair) within yourself, even when you do sense this energy in someone else, you will not panic; without the emotional charge on your side, somehow magically the energy will stop “attacking” you, but will simply sit there quietly to be observed and noticed; and you will be able to move on after simply noticing.
This is not a step-by-step program that you can “do” and follow over a week to “change your life” (although I am considering to write something resembling that at a point). However, it may give you ideas that are not in wide circulation at the moment, things you may have overlooked in your own development because — well — at least for me, it took years to find the clues that this could even be relevant. If any of this is useful to you, or you have anything to add, or perhaps you had your own way with empath overwhelm and your experience differs entirely, please leave comments!
Since this topic is still very much “hot” for me and I am planning on compiling more structured resources for overwhelmed empaths and sensitives with other intuitive talents, I also very much invite you to e-mail me with any questions and comments; I will be happy to have a conversation to learn from your perspective.