Have you ever come home from a great day, bright and happy only to be greeted by a depressed or anxious spouse or child and felt yourself being dragged into their mood? Maybe you have walked into a work environment that was stressed and harried and noticed yourself slipping in to the same emotional space? I think this a very common human experience.
People’s emotions can be difficult to resist. If you‘re in the company of another human, you will regularly face the challenge of resisting their emotion barrage. Is that just the way it is? Or can you somehow remain free from this type of entanglement in a way that respects the other but doesn’t make you a slave to them?
I think so. Only the other day, I had a student become angry and walk out of my class. The other students with her said to me, “What are you going to do, now you made her angry?” That’s what we say isn’t it? “You made me angry”. This is a very common misunderstanding in relation to our effect on others. I replied to those students in this way; “I didn’t make her angry. I don’t actually have the power to change peoples’ emotions. She became angry all by herself”.
This is an obvious truth when you reflect on it, but so easily missed in our personal development. In a previous article I wrote; “How do I stop worrying about what people think of me?” I explained the concept of individuation. This is so important to understand, if we want to live in harmony with others. Individuation is the process of teaching our subconscious mind that we are not the other. In any relationship, we will become a slave to the other, to the extent that we are unable to tell the difference between their emotions and our own.
If I see the other as an extension of me, I will very quickly be dragged into their emotional space. This is because at a deep unconscious level, I think I am them. This concept is called enmeshment, a blurring of my personal concept of self with another’s. To the extent that I am unable to differentiate my spouse, child or friend’s self from mine, is the extent that I will be dragged into their emotional world.
Don’t you think it is hard enough remaining at peace dealing with your own emotional responses to life, without adding everybody else’s?
Don’t you think it is hard enough remaining at peace dealing with your own emotional responses to life, without adding everybody else’s? When we are all caught up in this game of “pass the problem”, we are all brought down to a lower level of consciousness. Emotions become “infectious” and it’s usually the more powerful, negative ones that have the most sway. No-one is helped by enmeshment. You will only become resentful of someone in pain, not compassionate.
This all begs the question, how do you remain available to others’ pain but not be drowned in it? Once again it comes down to understanding the concepts of power and responsibility. The sooner you realise that the other person’s emotions are totally out of your control, the faster you will realise how futile it is to take responsibility for them. Our emotions are totally within our own control, and their emotions are within their control. Each person must accept responsibility for their own emotional responses.
Ask yourself this question next time you are swamped by another’s negative feelings; “Can I actually control how they feel right now? The obvious answer is no! You can offer sympathy, you can listen, but you don’t help anybody by accepting responsibility to change them. That is an awful burden for anybody to try and carry. When you take on responsibility for their feelings you will either; one, try to manipulate them to stop the outpouring of pain, or two, you will shut down and run. Both responses are unloving and ultimately futile.
It also helps to understand why we feel others pain so vividly. It has been discovered that we possess “mirror neurons”. These process the visual cues from subtle facial changes in others. These cues communicate emotions and create a similar emotion within us. For example, if you look at a smiling face, your face will automatically mimic the smile and you will feel a copy of the happy feeling you have interpreted. This means we feel the emotion of the other. This is a powerful and important human ability that allows us to experience compassion and empathy.
The problem occurs when we then, subconsciously interpret these “mirrored” emotions as our own. We then go from empathy to manipulation. this is because we want to stop the painful emotion, because we are experiencing it as our own. That is a huge drain on our compassion. We feel trapped in another person’s emotional world, with no way out except to force them to stop feeling it or run away.
This is often the motivation for with-holding information. We lie, because we can’t stand to experience the pain or disappointment they may feel, so we manipulate the conversation to protect ourselves. This is much more destructive in the long term, because it leads to a loss of intimacy and trust, two crucial ingredients to good relationships. If we can simply allow the empathy to create compassion, but also discern that it is not our pain, we are then able to interact with others in a much cleaner, healthier way. We also protect the inner wells of compassion, which is crucial to avoid compassion burnout.
A mantra I use when I feel like I’m in danger of being absorbed into another’s emotional pain, is this; “I am not responsible for their feelings”. I feel instant relief as I remember I have neither the power nor responsibility to change this pain. Then I am able to reengage my compassion safely. Stop taking responsibility for other’s feelings today before you lose all compassion. Empathy is a wonderful human emotion, but you need to guard it.
So, who’s feeling are you carrying around today?
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