“When someone throws you a stone, throw back a flower.” ~Gandhi
“Ouch,” I cried out instinctively as my husband, Barry, and I walked through the beach parking lot, barefoot. It was only when Barry turned to me and asked me why I yelled out that I realized it was him who stubbed his toe, and not me.
“Because it hurts,” I answered him. He looked at me curiously and said, “But it didn’t hurt you. It hurt me. I’m the one who stubbed my toe.”
It hadn’t dawned on me that feeling other people’s pain wasn’t a “normal” reaction.
All my life I have been extremely empathic, but for the first half of my life I didn’t even realize that this was a unique character trait, that not everyone shares.
When I was in close contact with people who were yelling, I would literally shake. When those around me were sad or scared, I would drink in those feelings like a sponge, not realizing that these feelings weren’t my own.
As a result, I felt on edge a lot of the time, as I was carrying not only my own feelings but also the emotions of many people around me. However, I was not in touch with this anxiety—I didn’t even know it was there. It was unconscious.
Because I was empathic, I was often sympathetic to the plights and concerns of friends and family.
Even as a child, people turned to me for guidance in resolving their problems. At the time, I didn’t mind because I was happy to offer whatever support I could.
However, as I entered my teen years, the burden of other people’s emotions, on top of my own unresolved feelings, became too heavy to bear. But I didn’t know that consciously. I wasn’t even aware of what was happening for me.
I turned to food, alcohol, and other substances to numb the intensity of what I felt.
I felt a strong need to withdraw and I could no longer be in the same room or the same house with people who carried intense, often unconscious, emotions.
I had to learn ways to manage the emotional energy—both my own feelings as well as the energy of others—that I was absorbing.
This was a major key for me in breaking free from food and all other addiction. There were many bumps along the road as I learned to do this. Over time, I discovered four powerful ways to help manage emotional energy.
1. Practice awareness.
I noticed that if I wasn’t aware of what I was feeling, either in response to an internal shift, such as a hormonal or mood change, or a reaction to another person’s strong emotion, I was much more likely to be reactive and act out in a way that wouldn’t feel good to me.
With awareness, I could consciously choose a response and an action that I could feel good about.
2. Understand the nature of energy.
A big key to healing for me has been the understanding that my response to my environment also feeds the energy. Therefore, if someone throws me a stone and I throw another stone back, or worse, a rock, I am going to exacerbate the problem.
Not only will I add fuel to the fire and cause pain for the other, but I will be increasing my own suffering. Energy feeds on energy.
If my daughter comes home from a long day at school expressing negativity, if I feed on that, consciously or unconsciously, by being in any way critical, negative, or judgmental myself, I will only increase the dark energy that is now in the kitchen.
Instead, if I can give her love and sweetness, most likely that will be healing to her and the energy will shift to something that’s supportive and healing for both of us. That’s because love is all the soul seeks and when we can come back to a loving place, everything else in life becomes manageable.
When we drift from a place of love, kindness, wholeness, and forgiveness, we feel “out of sorts” and often express bad energy (anger, fear, complaining, etc.).
3. Don’t take anything personally.
One of the main reasons I came to see that I absorbed and hung on to other people’s dramas and intense energies is because I bought into their suffering at some level. But over time I realized that nothing means what I think it does.
I don’t have to force open the caterpillar’s cocoon to help it become a butterfly. I realized that the same power within me that has turned every difficulty and challenge I have faced into an ultimate lesson and blessing is in everyone else, too.
I have learned to trust that other people, even those I love the most, need to learn life’s lessons through their own experiences and insights.
I’m not responsible for fixing the energy or the situation. My only responsibility was and is how am I managing my own energy: am I adding goodness, love, and warmth to the space and people around me, or am I contributing to the creation of a frenetic and fearful environment?
4. Balance yourself.
The key to staying balanced for me is to continuously stay connected to my heart—my deeper, spiritual self—and when I stray from there by getting caught up in the voices in my head or the drama unfolding around me, to know the short-cut back to center.
For me, the most powerful way to do this is with a form of meditation that I call self-hypnosis.
This method helped me to heal so many aspects of my life, including my health, which had deteriorated at a young age, my weight, and food addiction issues as well as my relationships. Any type of meditation—and even just a few minutes of deep breathing—can help us center ourselves.
Being empathic and super sensitive to energy is not something that I can just decide to change, but I can become more aware of how it affects me.
The empowering thing is the realization that I can change my reactions and my own behaviors, no matter how overwhelming the emotions, my own and others', feel to me, in the moment.
Because 90 percent of the behaviors we do are habitual—meaning we are only doing them because we did them yesterday—we can literally re-train the brain to respond in a new way to the exact same stimuli.
I used to think my only two choices were to react to negative energy with negativity or to withdraw and detach. Neither option was conducive to building strong, supportive relationships or to my own happiness.
I now know that when someone throws me a stone, I can throw back a flower (as a wise spiritual teacher once recommended), and I can feel great about it!
I wouldn’t change my empathic nature even if I could because, on a positive note, it has helped me to understand people and open my heart to them—to realize that we are all on the same human journey together, seeking compassion and love, even if we’re not going about it in the most effective way.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and the blessing of empathy and feeling emotions strongly is the opportunity to connect to our deepest strength and transmit something greater that can bring healing to our self and others.