This post is not for everyone. It is aimed at those who experience crippling amounts of empathy, not folks who are mostly indifferent to other people’s problems. Obviously some people are faced with the task of growing to become more aware of others and their feelings. On the other hand, there are those of us who need to learn to draw cleaner lines between where our own feelings end and another person’s feelings begin. This post is written for the empaths in the latter category; if you already float through life unaffected by other people, I will leave you to that. (I invite you to write a how-to book and send me a copy.)
Please don’t let the fact that I have authored a post on this subject fool you: I haven’t mastered it. In fact, its something I work at daily. I am just rehashing what I have learned from the brilliant minds of others.
Most of us equate detachment with being uncaring. We may think that to disengage is selfish or wrong. We rightfully believe that we ought to help other people whenever possible, to make their issues our concern. This is entirely true when we are motivated by a pure desire to help rather than a sour sense of obligation. We are indeed being caring whenever we take real action steps towards helping someone, even if the “action” just means we are just sitting there and quietly listening to a friend in need.
This active form of caring for others is not to be confused with carrying for others.
To understand what I mean by the word “carrying”, we first need to know what it means to be an empath. Empaths are highly sensitive souls who often internalize the feelings of other people without even realizing it. Empaths fully engage with other people’s problems: indeed, they may notice themselves physically and emotionally responding to another person’s troubles as if they are experiencing them firsthand. They tend to have a keen intuition and a drive to be healers or helpers. Empaths who have not yet learned the arts of detachment and self-preservation are easily exhausted by the end of the day, even if they have done next to nothing. A simple conversation with a stranger at the grocery store or something as small as an unexpected text from a friend or relative can put an empathic person into a funk. Everything is taken to heart. Everything is felt all too deeply: when another human person is having a horrible day, the empath will feel it on their own flesh. Because empaths are generally gifted counselors, they may find that their friends and family members frequently seek out their advice: sometimes this can make them feel useful, confident and well-loved, other times (particularly when the empath herself has not set boundaries) it can be draining. Empaths may need to be alone more often, or need an extra fifteen minutes in the shower, to wash away the energetic weight of other people. In short, empaths often carry what is not truly theirs.
It is a blessing to be empathic! Empaths are fully engaged with their own humanity and the humanity of others. However, because empaths are so open to other people’s energies, they can easily lose sight of themselves in their concern over others. They generally do this without realizing it. It it is essential for an empath to continuously check-in with themselves and ask the question: what am I carrying and is it mine?
Empathy that is not in check can lead to a variety of co-dependent behaviors. While co-dependency was first identified within the context of family alcoholism and drug use, it now has a much broader definition. Being an empath is a gift; having an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions or emotions of others is not: that is a codependent behavior. Having a heightened awareness of other people’s energy may be beyond your control; allowing other people’s emotions to absorb your own sense of self, thankfully, is not. Difficulty separating internal and external feelings is common among empaths, along with a tendency to worry over others and want to rescue them.
Worrying compulsively about other people is usually pointless. I know this and yet I regularly fall into this trap. For one thing, you do nothing to help the other person by worrying over them: it might make you feel like a caring human being but it actually disempowers the person you are fixating on. It makes you feel as if you are actively doing something and yet all you are doing is draining your own emotional reserve. Worry is a natural and helpful emotion when we choose to act on it: is there something we can or should do for this person? Are they truly in need? Can we bring them a meal or give them a phone call? Would that be appropriate in this particular situation? Do they even want our help? If yes, we can do any of those things; we can move from worry to action. If no, if its not our business, not our process, or not our concern, than its okay to just exhale, disengage and watch some Downton. It does not make you a wretched person to set aside other people’s hardships when it is not your place to carry them.
Detachment is all about separating yourself from another person’s process. It means taking responsibility for ourselves and our own emotions and allowing others to do the same. Empaths who continuously fuss over others may find that their need to control is tangled up with their need to care. We may mistakenly consider ourselves too compassionate and certainly compassion plays its part. But for compassion to be truly healthy, we have to fully relinquish any desire to control the situation at hand. Most of us are totally unaware that control issues lay beneath our compulsive worrying: for one reason or another, we have led ourselves to believe that we personally have to hold things together or the Earth will spin out of orbit. Sure, you may be a wonderful person who knows the ideal solution to whatever problem you are worrying over. And yet its a trap to believe that you are so important and so powerful that you and you alone can fix, heal or even destroy the lives of others.
I’ve developed a practice for when I find myself carrying other people’s troubles:
1. Since seperating my own feelings from the feelings of others is my primary goal, first I name the feeling and the supposed cause. “I feel stressed about x person for y reason.”
2. I then ask myself if there is something I can do to improve the situation.
- Yes? Excellent. Do it.
- No? Fine. Send up a prayer and disengage.
The evil thing about too much worry is that it breeds resentment. When we burn energy worrying about so-and-so and their process, we end up wrongfully resenting them: “if only I didn’t have to worry about _____.” Don’t flatter yourself: there is no “have to” and you are no martyr. Stop carrying what’s theirs to carry and you will soon stop resenting them. When you put down the worry and weight you are carrying on their behalf, it frees up energy to actually tangibly care for them when the time is right. Disengaging doesn’t mean that you stop caring altogether (although there may be some extreme circumstances when this is the best option). Instead, disengaging with love means you learn to care more effectively. It means you conserve your energy rather than allowing it to leak all over the place, which ultimately makes you bitter and useless anyway.
I know I am being somewhat hard on the reader, but I’ve had to adopt this tough love tone when addressing my own bad habits, and it’s been effective. Everyday I practice letting go of what is beyond my control. I still pick up on the energy of others or find myself feeling strangely responsible for things that have little to do with me. But now when that happens, I strive to label it theirs and let it pass me by. In fact, since letting go is an enormous part of having faith, detachment and surrender have brought me much closer to God.
When I die, if there is nothing but decay to greet me, whatevs. I will still have benefited from the ongoing practice of letting go and putting my trust in a Higher Power. Faith is never futile. Every religion on Earth could be a total farce. This lifetime could be all there is and will be for Chelsea Clarkson; it would still be deeply rewarding for me to put faith in some kind of Divine Order while I am here. Why? Doing so only reaffirms what we all already accept to be true: the universe is beyond our control. Believing in a Divine Order of some kind gives us a sense of peace that makes us fun to be around. Point blank: nobody wants to hang out with the person who incessantly burdens themselves with things outside of their power and control. It’s a total boner shrinker to be around people like that. I’ve been that person, that wet-blanket who is too burdened by the weighty task of being her own all-powerful God in her own small universe to actually enjoy life. I am learning to accept the fact that I can control my own choices and reactions but not much else. I can do what I think is right and set the precedent with my choices. And then there is nothing left for me to do but rest in my belief in the Divine Order or God. If in the end that belief turns out to be complete bullshit, I will be too dead to know it. But by then, the rest and peace I found in my faith, ideally, will have translated to my children. Hopefully, my ability to disengage a little and put my faith in a divine plan will allow me to respond calmly to inevitable ups and downs in my life and theirs. They can sit around at my funeral and say, “Wasn’t mom so chill?” Nodding solemnly in weepy agreement: “Mom was the chillest.”
That’s the whole point of letting go: when you use detachment intentionally, you free up a lot of space. There’s ample room and energy remaining to be giving, both to yourself and to others. We become able to give from a place of authenticity and love. We have seasons when our capacity for giving is enormous and we have seasons when we just need to get through one more day. Thats okay. Whatever the case, a healthy understanding of when to disengage will do nothing but serve you and the people you choose to serve in turn.