As women we tend to have a large capacity for empathy. Empathy is tremendously powerful in intimate relationships because it heals without the need to find a solution. Just the act of feeling understood can relieve worlds of pain in a person’s life.
But sometimes, if our own emotional boundaries are not strong, when we feel another’s pain, discomfort or difficulty- instead of holding a space for understanding, we take on their pain and allow it to influence and change how we are feeling and experiencing life.
This is where empathy can get unhealthy.
The truth is we are wired to always be receiving and internalizing the emotional landscape of those around us. In fact more than monitoring it, our brains are designed to try and mimic it.
This can get dicey when we have people in our life that hold a lot of intense negative emotions. They can begin to override our own emotional sovereignty and soon we become like a ship at sea tossed back and forth depending on what wave hits us next.
Empathy at it’s best requires us to have a clear boundary between what is someone else’s emotional truth and our own.
John Medina in his phenomenal book, Brain Rules for Baby, outlines the 3 step rule for activating healing empathy in your relationships.
While the following steps may seem overly simplistic because they can happen in a microsecond’s time, it’s important to distinguish them to see where in the process you get stuck.
Let’s say your spouse comes into the room full of fiery energy.
Empathy would go through these three steps:
1. You recognize and identify the change in someone’s emotional affect. “You seem angry.”
2. You “try on” the feelings you identified to imagine what the other is experiencing and explore why that may be happening for them. “It seems that Brian’s tantrums are really getting to you.”
3. You form a boundary that clearly identifies the anger as his not yours. Softly, “I see how angry you are. If you’d like to talk I’m here, but I’m going to first give you a little space until you are ready.”
Now the above scripted scenario can only happen when you are coming from a clear and calm place.
But so often not only are these interactions happening fast but we are dealing with our own stressed and noisy emotional landscape that we tend to stop at Step 1.
Your husband walks in. You read his anger. Your anger spikes too. And your internal dialogue has just run wild with how furious you are with his inability to handle his emotions better and not impact the family like he is.
Hmm. Sounds a little like a cat and mouse scenario, right?
Now instead of responding to his energy, you’ve reacted.
And in fact, more than reacted, you’ve allowed his energy to dictate your own. And on and on the spiral can go.
In a webinar I taught called The Radical Game-Changer (click here to listen to the webinar if you’d like- it’s a good one!), I share how we tend to first try and heal our lives by tending to all our outer connections.
We try to be a better wife, a better mother, a better daughter, a better worker…when all the while the common denominator in all of these relationships (you) is the place where the real work and healing needs to happen.
In three weeks from now, I’ll be leading the summer run of my signature course, Designed for Wellness. The course was created to help moms make the inside changes they need to get their own life and well being back on track.
My mission is simple.
Healthy, self-connected women = Happy, calm mothers
Happy, calm mothers = Loving, vital marriages
Loving, vital marriages = Strong, vibrant families
Strong, vibrant families = A transformed world
Guess who it starts with? You in?
What landed for you in this post? Do you find yourself succumbing to the energy and emotional landscape of those around you?