The physical toll of empathy: Part 1

Since I was about 8, I knew I was a deeply feel­ing person.

Watching movies like hor­ror movies (yes, I had the unfor­tu­nate exper­i­ence of watch­ing a hor­ror movie at 8) and sad movies I’d think about the char­ac­ters for hours. Even now, if someone is being tor­tured, I feel like I’m being tor­tured. If the main heroine in the movie had a hus­band that left her for anoth­er woman, I’m heart-broken and feel it in my chest, aching deeply. Many times I’ve been told to suck it up, not be so sens­it­ive and so dra­mat­ic about my feelings.

So it was­n’t a huge sur­prise (although I have to say a bit of a relief), when I real­ized the term empath actu­ally described me more accurately.

You see, I feel oth­er people’s feelings.

Let me say that again.

I feel oth­er people’s feel­ings in my body.

Empathy is when are able to feel so deeply for anoth­er per­son that you can actu­ally be in their suf­fer­ing and pain and exper­i­ence it, but an empath is a per­son that LITERALLY feels those feel­ings on a reg­u­lar basis.

It became very obvi­ous to me when I went into clin­ic­al prac­tice; I’d feel all of a sud­den very anxious in a patient vis­it, or very unpro­voked anger in the middle of a seem­ingly benign con­ver­sa­tion. If a per­son had a chest infec­tion, I found myself very quickly unable to breathe over a minute or two. Weird right?

What became more frus­trat­ing was my aware­ness of this; if the per­son was open I could dis­cuss how my feel­ings were theirs and sup­port them…which is how I learned I could accur­ately feel another­’s feel­ings as they would con­firm my perceptions.
But what became more exhaust­ing over time was actu­ally when a per­son said “no, I’m fine”, either by social norms and not want­ing to dis­close their feel­ings OR that they were not aware they were feel­ing them at all.

And herein began what has become both a bless­ing and a curse for me both per­son­ally and professionally.

So when I’m with a per­son, and I start to feel the tell-tale signs of emo­tion­al over­whelm, grief, anxi­ety, anger…and I real­ize it’s not mine (thank you, med­it­a­tion and self-aware­ness), I know that it’s not mine to carry. I release it from my body, which has made my body very happy, because all of that extra emo­tion was weigh­ing me down. Fatigue, emo­tion­al out­bursts, head­aches, stom­ach aches…I’d end up with someone else’s emo­tion in me. It took me a long time to real­ize that mine and “oth­er” was import­ant to estab­lish, and handle.

The thing is — every­one has the capa­city to do this and most people do for one anoth­er. Most humans have com­pas­sion (aside from a few fairly obvi­ous excep­tions) and most of us have these exper­i­ences. We’re just not taught to include them in our act­ive experience.

You know the ‘story’ of a broken heart in grief? It’s a real thing. The human heart can actu­ally break and go into car­di­ac arrest and spasm when grief is present. So if that’s the case, why can­’t oth­er phys­ic­al con­di­tions hap­pen with oth­er human emotions?

They can, and so does the volume of invest­ig­a­tion with chinese medi­cine over 3000 years.

Traditional Chinese medi­cine attrib­utes each organ with an asso­ci­ated emo­tion — liv­er and anger, lungs and sad­ness, spleen and worry, kid­neys and fear, heart and joy, and so on.

It’s fas­cin­at­ing because they long ago accep­ted that emo­tions can cause changes in the phys­ic­al body.

It’s some­thing so pivotal to a part of my invest­ig­a­tion now that I can­’t ima­gine not includ­ing it, and being that I am so empath­ic myself, I can con­firm what I see and feel in another.

It’s real. It exists. This is where feel­ings become form.

The ques­tion is, what do we do about it? If emo­tions can cause phys­ic­al pain, could some of your pains pos­sibly be emotional?

Your turn. You tell me.

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