Human beings are interconnected spiritually, emotionally, mentally, even physically. Everyone remembers this occasionally, with a little shock of recognition. Take breathing, for example. What could seem more personal than our breath? Yet humans all over the world share your air. As songwriter Tom Chapin sings about recycling, ‘Someone’s going to use it after you. Someone’s gonna need it when you’re through.’ Our physical swapping doesn’t stop with the nostril stuff, either. It’s mind boggling to realize that Planet Earth uses, and always has used, the same water supply. Dinosaurs drank from pools that, many water cycles later, have filled up bottles at your local convenience store, bottles that bear that mystical label Coca-Cola. In fine print those labels should read, ‘Recycled over eons from mountain lakes, jungles, and city sewers; distilled from the sweat, blood, and tears of every race that has lived on this earth.’
– Rose Rosetree, Empowered by Empathy: 25 Ways to Fly in Spirit
Imagine what it is like, then, for someone very empathic. Imagine how swapping the air with other human beings, feeling their energy acutely, and tasting the water that contains eons of many different life forms could make someone extremely sensitive feel completely overwhelmed.
That is how I have felt most of my life. When I was an adolescent — maybe 10 or 12 — my mother said to me: “What a gift it is that you are so sensitive, Courtney, and yet I am so sorry that your sensitivity makes life so hard for you.” I remember being entirely understood in that moment. My mother’s words blanketed me with assurance that I was not crazy; in fact, her words indicated that I had a gift. At the time, I pictured a strange package set out before me: a beautiful gold box with a silver bow. Inside, though, contained my worry over the puppies in the pound, apartheid, and the Holocaust (for some reason, those were my “big three”). I also held in that gift box my worry over falling off the balance beam during my routine, my concern for the girl down the street who had cancer, and anger at my peers who made fun of gay people.
No, life was not easy for me. I watched Sophie’s Choice and Dry White Season. I read Virginia Woolf and thought about the importance of a room of my own. I spent many Friday evenings as a teenager watching Hitchcock movies instead of going to parties. I rarely raised my hand in class for fear of hearing my own voice, and my struggle with speaking in front of others worried me for years.
Later I discovered that some of my feelings (and even bodily sensations) were not entirely my own. I picked up on others’ emotions, felt others’ pain, and even sometimes knew what someone was thinking before they spoke a word. Sometimes I would even pick up stomach aches, headaches, and even hangovers from others. On a subconscious level, perhaps I was trying to be Mother Theresa of the empath world: I was trying to take others’ suffering away.
As Rosetree writes, “Unskilled empaths suffer.” Yes, indeed. This became clear to me the year my father was sick with kidney cancer. My left kidney area often ached. I felt nauseated a lot. And on the day my dad had the worst time keeping anything down, I threw up later that night. Ultimately, I feel I took on my father’s fears and pain, and as a result I began having panic attacks.
Empathy doesn’t have to be this painful. It took me 33 years of my life to realize that not only was I empathic (and not “damaged” in some way), but to see that I was not skilled in managing my empathy. I am now learning how to “turn down the volume” of my empathy. I liken this to the tuning that acupuncturists do with the needles. They can increase the intensity or lower it by twisting the needles. Often times I turn up the volume of my empathy when I am giving my massage and energy work sessions so I can tune into my clients fully. When they leave my space, I turn the volume back down and create an energetic boundary, which reminds me that I am me and my client is my client. I break the energetic connection we just had so that I can feel what I feel in my body and in my heart and know that it belongs to me. Sometimes I breathe a little matra: “I breathe in Courtney, I breathe out who I am not. I am me.”
My mother was right: my empathy is a gift. But it is a gift I must fine tune so I don’t feel so much internally-driven pain. If you find yourself experiencing stress due to over-empathizing with others, try that breathing technique I mention above:
Breath in: I am [your name]
Breathe out: I am not anyone else.
Breathe in: I am me.
Repeat several times until you feel calmer and more centered in yourself.