Feeling Other People's Pain


How do I deal with feeling other people’s pain?

This month’s Ask a DEI Professional question is about a struggle with hyper-empathy. Our questioner writes:

For highly empathic people, how do we process the pain we experience when we hear about other people talk about their pains whether it is in a conversation, a play, a movie etc.? Sometimes it is just so painful.

I think about the six Empathic Mindfulness practices. Are there ones you would have found more helpful than others in your experience? I’ve tried Conscious Complaining, which helped, and I would imagine the Rejuvenation and Resourcing would too. Would love to hear our DEI teachers’ experienced. Thank you very much.

Thanks for your question! We have replies from two of our Dynamic Emotional Integration® Professionals.

Jen Asdorian answers:

Photo of Jennifer Asdorian, a smiling woman with green eyes and light brown hair.
Jennifer Asdorian

I personally relate to this question, as I have had a hard time separating myself from another person’s painful, vivid, or intense stories. I would find myself in a conversation and swept away into their stories. I would not notice until I was away from the conversation, and then I’d find myself fatigued or drained. I might also have a lingering preoccupation with what was expressed.

As I was practicing bringing this pattern into my conscious awareness, I relied on Grounding and Defining Your Boundaries. Both brought awareness of where I was in space, what my internal capacity was at any given moment, and the separation between my experience and the other person’s.

As my skills with both of these practices grew stronger, I could use them when I would find myself in an intense conversation with a friend or at a contentious work meeting. I got to the point where I could do both of these practices in 3 seconds.

How to Ground Yourself

When I noticed that the intensity of a conversation increased, I take a quick moment to feel into my body – feet on the ground, back leaning up against the chair, shoulders relaxed (Grounding). Then, I will imagine a boundary all around my body. I brighten it with a color or an element – like green fire. I might even picture the person’s words popping like bubbles at the perimeter of my boundary (Defining My Boundaries).

I notice that these internal imaginal practices gave me enough distance to observe the person, listen to their story with care, and not become unified with their story. Over time, I also found that I had a better ability to decide ahead of time if I wanted to engage, and how deeply. My sense of my inner capabilities improved, and I could make more accurate decisions around being social, how often, and for how long.

These two practices continue to be very helpful to me when I’m faced with intensity or overwhelm.

~Jen Asdorian

Bobbi McIntyre answers:

Hello!

Great question! It’s easy for a highly empathic person to reach out and feel deeply for others. We are encouraged to do that by positive feedback, through social conditioning, and through the plots of TV shows and movies. I have found several things that have helped me.

Photo of Bobbi McIntyre, a smiling woman with brown eyes and brown hair.
Bobbi McIntyre

In the moment, when I’m connecting with someone and feeling their pain, I use Grounding to help me return to myself and distance my heart from their pain.

In DEI, we teach that grounding means feeling stable, calm, relaxed, focused, and integrated. I take a gentle breath and let it out with a sigh (quietly if it’s an in-person experience). Sometimes I place my hand on my heart or rub my arms to help me stay grounded. It’s a skill that comes easier through practice. I have practiced grounding while watching TV shows or in a crowd.

Are there any activities, places, people, or animals that are naturally grounding for you? They can help you learn what grounding feels like to you.

The Importance of Boundaries

I also use the tool of Defining My Boundaries while I’m focused on feeling the calm, quiet place of grounding. I envision a brightly colored boundary of about an arm’s length, surrounding my body.

This boundary is made firm by your free-flowing anger and shame. Your soft anger helps you observe and react to boundary violations that come from the outer world, and your soft shame helps you avoid boundary violations coming from you.

By setting boundaries, I can listen to the other person’s story while standing firm from feeling their pain as my own. Being able to recognize the difference between your own pain and the experience of feeling the pain of others is helpful. Once you feel quiet inside and grounded while setting firm but loving boundaries, you can focus your attention on the other person without taking on their pain.

Avoiding Enmeshment

If I am still feeling their pain as my own after the interaction is over, sometimes I will use Conscious Complaining as you did. Or I will take a vigorous walk in nature, play with my dogs, put on wild music and dance, or practice another skill, Resourcing.

I use Resourcing a lot. Not only in situations like you posed in your question, but if I can’t fall asleep at night due to a pit in my stomach, I will pendulate between my stomach and another part that feels relaxed and easy. Recognizing that not all of me is knotted up helps me relax.

So, for me, Grounding, Boundaries, physical release, and Resourcing are the way I handle feeling the pain of others. It takes practice, but I’ve found over time that I’m better at recognizing what is mine and what is someone else’s. Then I can use my skills to be empathic without being enmeshed.

~Bobbi McIntyre

In this video, Karla talks with other DEI professionals about how they use resourcing for support with anxiety:

We hope this is helpful!

Thanks so much for your question and for working to welcome and understand your emotions.

Have you ever felt a similar struggle to what our person asked about above? How did you deal with it? Share your thoughts and comments with us below!

Each month, we’ll choose a question or two for our licensed Dynamic Emotional Integration® professionals to answer right here on our Empathy Academy blog. Do you have a question about empathy or emotions? If so, click the link below to send us your question.

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