Are you familiar with the concept of compassion fatigue?
It’s a condition that often befalls caregivers like nurses and people who are constantly exposed to suffering in either people or animals. They have so much compassion and empathy for the distress of others that they end up getting completely overwhelmed and shell-shocked by it, which causes them to retreat emotionally.
It actually dulls and lessens their compassion over time, and can eventually lead to complete apathy if it isn’t kept in check with regular self-care and therapy.
The thing is, this experience isn’t limited to those who work in trauma wards; it’s a very real condition that many empaths struggle with. They are so attuned to other people’s emotions, all the time, that often the only way to save themselves from the constant overwhelming onslaught is to “numb out.”
Hypersensitivity and awareness are pulled inwards, and a protective shield comes up to block out the never-ending waves of hurt, worry, despair, anger, and other emotions that slam into each and every empath on a constant basis. Many feel that they only have two options in situations like this: put those walls up, or burn out completely.
The Danger Zone
Being an empath has its benefits, but it also has an enormous cost: when you’re so attuned to what literally everyone else is feeling, conditions like severe anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even physical pain can manifest on a constant basis, and none of it originates inside you! It’s like a thundering torrent of external influences thumping into you from all directions and it never seems to let up. When you’re dealing with that kind of situation, withdrawing and creating a protective cocoon just seems like the smartest and safest bet, doesn’t it?
Well, yes and no. You see, when people put up walls, they don’t just keep outside emotions from slamming into them – they keep their own emotions at bay as well. Empaths, who are usually the embodiment of human compassion and understanding, can turn into apathetic automatons that would be able to step over a relative’s corpse to make a sandwich and not bat an eyelid.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an over exaggeration, but still.
Shutting down and retreating inwards is just as dangerous to one’s emotional and psychological wellness as being a raw, exposed nerve that’s constantly zapped by everyone else’s energy. Sure, it might feel safer and more comfortable to go numb, but you’re doing yourself more harm than good, and may also harm everyone around you in the process.
By shutting down and cultivating apathy instead of empathy, you may deprive yourself of the little joys that make your life worth living. Do you enjoy reading? Drawing? Running? When you shut down, most of those things won’t matter anymore and you’ll likely just numb out in front of the TV for hours at a time because you cannot be bothered to do anything else.
On top of that, when you block out other people’s emotions in an attempt to save yourself, you’ll also be blocking out the people close to you. You may find yourself unwilling to give a damn about your spouse/partner, especially if they’re being emotionally “needy” in your eyes (which is totally normal when someone freezes a person out).
Your kids, if you have them, may become utterly annoying attention hogs instead of the fragile little ones they actually are. Your friends may discover that they can’t talk to you because everything they say just annoys you, and you may risk losing your job because you can’t put sincere care or effort into what you’re doing.
By withdrawing into an apathetic cocoon, you may be sparing yourself pain and emotional overload, but you’re also preventing yourself from actually living. You’ll just be a hollow shell of a person, going through the motions, but not truly feeling or experiencing anything… and that is a sad state of being indeed.
It may sound like something that’s easier said than done, and saying that balance is easy to achieve would be a steaming pile of you know what, but it CAN be done, and it’s really quite important to do so.
There’s a happy middle ground between being flayed by other people’s emotions and numbing yourself out entirely, so you need to find out what your threshold is as far as being able to tolerate the onslaught, and which techniques work best in terms of self care and replenishment.
One thing that’s really important to do is to take note of the situations (and people) that drain you the most. If you find that a trip to the shopping mall leaves you wanting to lie on the floor in a comatose puddle for a few days, then it’s probably best to avoid going there. Similarly, if time spent with a particular friend or family member depletes you and turns you into a shaken, anxious mess, you may wish to limit your time with them as much as is feasibly possible.
Some empaths turn to drug or alcohol abuse in order to brace themselves against the crap that pours out of toxic people, but that’s a temporary fix which will almost certainly cause harm in the long run. Whenever possible, only maintain a bond with people who enhance your life – learn to let go of those who drain and poison you.
In addition to avoiding situations that deplete you or cause you pain, another great thing that you can do is to create a safe physical space to retreat into. A bedroom is ideal, as you can literally lock the door and have space to yourself when you need it, especially if you hang a huge “do not disturb” sign on the front so others will know to leave you be when you’re in there.
Decorate your space in such a way that it’s calming and airy, not cluttered. Pale hues, replenishing colors, green plants, and lights that can be dimmed or brightened depending on your needs can all help exponentially.
Retreat to this space when you’re feeling overwhelmed and try to focus on your breathing. If you find that you get lost in your thoughts very easily, try a guided meditation instead. This will help you to learn to differentiate between your own emotions, and other people’s, which you may be carrying without even realizing it.
Meditative practices that reconnect you with your body can also be remarkably effective at calming the emotional maelstrom. Most empaths reside in their own heads and spiritual selves most of the time, so pulling back into the physical realm can create some much-needed grounding. Yoga and Tai Chi are two excellent ways to ground yourself: not only are you physically connecting with the earth when you do poses and movements, but in being totally focused on what your body is doing, and how your breath is moving through you, you’re not being assaulted by other people’s emotions. It’s all about YOU: your strength, your calm, your wellbeing.
There is no one formula that will work for everyone, as people’s emotional thresholds and ideas of self-replenishment are all quite different. You may have to try a number of different shielding and self-care techniques before you find the magical middle-ground that fits best, and that’s absolutely okay!
If you’ve spent years being overwhelmed by other people’s thoughts and feelings, it’ll take time to learn how to differentiate which are yours and which are theirs, and also to sort out what makes you feel safe, happy, and healthy.
Exercise when you can, try to eat well, and if you find that sitting in your underpants, gorging on cheese and watching cartoons is part of your “happy place,” then that’s absolutely okay too.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.