The Hidden Fear:

You’ll never be able to manage your own emotions and/or meet your own needs.

What it looks like in relationships:

Your partner lost his job three months ago. He is under a lot of stress and even though he’s submitted several applications, he’s not getting interviews. You feel his pain and you want to make him feel better in some way. You decide that it’s in his best interests (and yours because hey, you don’t want to go down with this ship, right?) for you to scour the internet looking for the perfect position without asking him if he wants or needs your help. You beam with pride as you deliver a spreadsheet with a list of potential jobs you feel are perfect for him. Instead of getting the positive response and praise you expected, he is deeply hurt by your well-intentioned efforts and tells you firmly that you’ve crossed a boundary. When he expresses how he feels, you feel guilty and ashamed for hurting his feelings.

How this habit serves you:

Empathetic, compassionate and kind, you have a rare gift for making people feel supported, seen and known. You not only see the pain in others, you feel it deeply as if it were your own. You were born with a natural ability to see yourself in other people’s situations. You intuitively know what needs to happen to assuage the discomfort and pain. Your internal moral compass guides you in everything you do and is misunderstood by others at times. In your family, it’s simply a matter of fact that you are the designated caretaker for anyone in need.

How this habit hinders you:

You run into trouble when you lose your sense of identity by getting lost in other people’s energy, emotions and needs. Quick to absorb every emotion vibrating around you, you often have a hard time identifying or addressing how you feel. Trying to alleviate heartbreak and pain in others comes at a costly expense to both you and the ones you are protecting. Absorbing and then feeling solely responsible to alleviate suffering can lead to complete exhaustion and a deep disconnection from your own emotions. This habit usually forms during the formative years, especially if you were raised to believe you are responsible for other people’s feelings or you were punished when you expressed your emotions.

What this habit can teach you about yourself:

Having empathy for others is healthy and helpful in creating strong bonds. However, when empathy turns to enmeshment in a relationship, you can lose your sense of self-identity, self-worth and purpose. Focusing on other people’s emotions helps you avoid your own emotions. But why would an empath be particularly prone to this habit? For starters, you may worry or be afraid that you won’t be able to manage or deal with feelings that arise once you open that door. If you allowed yourself to explore how you feel, you may discover the need for a big change that may inadvertently cause pain or suffering (ahhh… the very thing you try to alleviate). By avoiding your own emotions, you maintain a protective barrier that keeps you “safe” from making changes or dealing with how you feel. If this habit has been ingrained over a long period of time, a sense of apathy can develop in regards to your own emotions and needs making it difficult to know who you are and what fulfills you. Learning how to recognize what belongs to you and what doesn’t helps you turn your focus inward – so you become aware of how the pain you seek to alleviate in others may be mirroring something that needs attention and healing within you.

Deeper Discovery Questions:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being completely uncomfortable and 10 being “I got this,” how satisfied are you with your ability to assess and address your own needs?
  • Do you worry about other people’s feelings when making important choices for yourself?
  • Was it acceptable to express your emotions as a child? Or did you feel guilty, wrong or bad when you expressed emotions?
  • Do you find it difficult or uncomfortable to say no or decline requests?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very challenging and 10 being not challenging at all), how aware are you of your feelings?
  • Do you often feel overwhelmed or drained after spending time with others?

Self-Guided Exercise:

On a blank piece of paper, create 4 columns across the top with the following headings:

Issue | Mine | Theirs | Ours

For 5 minutes a day over the next 14 days, consider where you’re spending your time and your energy. List any issue you’re dealing with and without thinking about it, note whether this issue is truly yours, theirs or a shared responsibility between you both.

After 14 days, revisit this list and, from an objective point of view, assess where on and on whom you are spending unnecessary time and or energy.