Empathy is a terrific skill to have, but too much of it can leave you overwhelmed by others' negative emotions. Here's how to stop absorbing what others around you are feeling while still being an understanding fellow human being. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
It's in our nature to empathise with others. In The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal explains that empathy is an instinctual behaviour researchers have observed in social animals, from primates to mice. We've likely evolved our ability to empathise, de Waal says, due to parental instinct: Parents, whether human or mouse, need to be tuned into their offspring to both bond with them and understand when they're distressed. (That's why babies' cries can be so agonizing for us and their giggles so infectious.) Empathy is what makes us sneeze or yawn when someone else does and unconsciously mimic others' body language and facial expressions. Our brains are hardwired for it.
We don't just catch others' yawns, though. We catch their moods. That's great when your friends' happiness boosts yours, but exhausting when your boss's anxiety, your co-worker's grief, your partner's stress, or even the Starbucks barista's cranky demeanour infect you. Secondhand stress (or anger, etc.) can be just as subtle yet as dangerous as secondhand smoke. Harvard Business Review says:
As the research has become more sophisticated, we see that the negativity we "catch" from others can also impact every single business and educational outcome we can track, and most recently has been shown to impact us down to a cellular level, shortening our lifespan. According to Before Happiness, companies like the Ritz Carlton and Oschner Health Systems, aware of the impacts of secondhand stress, have started instituting "no venting" zones for their employees when around customers or patients. A patient seeing a nurse seething with stress or complaint could catch the contagion as they evaluate the care they receive — not to mention the fact that positive mindset is continually associated with positive health outcomes, as outlined by Tom Rath in Wellbeing.
So what can we do about it, short of ditching society to go live in a hermit hut? As someone who considers herself a highly sensitive person (I'm as thin-skinned as they come), I've found it takes both clear boundaries and a mindful shift in perspective to protect myself from others' emotions.
Label What the Other Person Is Feeling
My husband sighs a lot. He sighs when the dishes fill up in the sink, when the DVR cuts off the last few minutes of a show (curse you, DVR!), and sometimes apparently for no reason. Each time he sighs, it's like a trigger for me to instantly feel deflated and frustrated. I asked him once why he sighs so much and he said he didn't know, he just automatically does it. So now whenever he sighs I just say to myself "he's sighing because he's frustrated" or "he's sighing because he's tired" or "he's sighing because it's a weird habit" and then I sigh too and feel better.
The act of labelling an emotion distances you from it and gives you a moment to pause your reaction to it. It works for dealing with your own negative emotions, for responding to children in their meltdowns, and for dealing with everyone else. Plus, by saying "he" or "she" is feeling X emotion, you're stating that someone else is feeling it, not necessarily yourself. Language becomes a barrier between the feeling and your thoughts and makes those feelings less overwhelming.
Limit Social Media and the Negativity Surrounding You
Today we're dealing not just with information overload, we're dealing with emotional overload. We know when our friends on Facebook are feeling sad, hungry, pissed off, and more than 30 other emotions the social network would like you to share with others. Twitter is a firehose of emotions too — especially when tragic news stories unfold and every friend's or stranger's heartbroken response adds to your own grief. A Pew Research Center study found that people who learned on social media that an acquaintance got a pay cut or demotion felt 9% to 12% higher stress (the higher number was for men). Women who saw that someone close to them was mourning the death of a family member reported 14% higher stress than other women. We're connected to more people than ever, and whether we're conscious of it or not, they're influencing our lives and feelings every day.
So be more selective with your social media and media exposure. Unfriend those Facebook friends who only post terrible passive-aggressive quotes aimed at their exes. Limit your news to The Onion. Don't read internet comments (unless you're on Lifehacker. We have nice comments. Usually).
Similarly, if you're regularly around negative people or chronic complainers, you'll have to either learn how to deflect their negativity (nod and let it go out the other ear) or reduce or eliminate the amount of time you spend around them. It's hard when you work in a toxic environment, your family constantly stresses you out, or you have to break up with a friend, but you're no good to anyone else (especially yourself) if your emotions are constantly being sabotaged by someone else. I didn't realise it at the time, but when I moved away from — and consequently lost touch with — an angst-filled friend, my life became so much calmer.
Build a Wall of Positivity Around You
You might not be able to block out everyone else's negative emotions, but you can bolster up your positive ones. I know it sounds hokey to practice gratitude and positivity, but if you make it a routine, you'll boost your happiness. I try to "count my blessings" daily — especially every time I find myself bawling over someone else's hurt (parents losing a young child, another mass shooting). It honestly helps. It makes me remember and also feel the good that exists in the world even while waves of negativity are rushing at us.
HBR calls this a way to "inoculate yourself" from secondhand stress and offers another recommendation for building your immunity to it, taking care of your own well-being and self-esteem:
Build natural immunity: One of the greatest buffers against picking up others' stress is stable and strong self-esteem. The higher your self-esteem, the more likely you will feel that you can deal with whatever situation you face. If you are finding yourself being impacted by others' moods, stop and remind yourself how things are going well and that you can handle anything that comes your way. Exercise is one of the best ways to build self-esteem, because your brain records a victory every time you exercise, via endorphins.
Inoculate yourself: Inoculate yourself before going into work or stressful environments. For example, before we start our morning, the very first thing we do is think of three things we are grateful for that day. In this TED talk, you will learn the five positive psychology habits that help inoculate your brain against the negative mindsets of others: 1)writing a 2-minute email praising someone you know; 2) writing down three things for which you're grateful; 3) journaling about a positive experience for two minutes; 4) doing cardio exercise for 30 minutes; or 5) meditating for just two minutes.
Also, spend more time with people who are truly positive and joyful. Not that everything and everyone has to be (rah rah) "everything is awesome!" all the time, but being around uplifting people will recharge your negativity-fighting batteries. When I'm having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day — usually exacerbated by dealing with people — my kid's bubbling over laughter while watching inane and annoying Minecraft mod walkthroughs on YouTube re-center me.
Turn Your Empathy into Compassion
Finally, work on transforming your empathy into compassion. They might seem like the same things, but there are important differences. Neuroscientist Dr. Tania Singer and her colleagues found that different parts of the brain are triggered when we share someone's pain (empathy) or when we want to respond warmly towards their suffering (compassion):
[I]it is crucial to distinguish between empathy, which is in itself not necessarily a good thing, and compassion. When I empathise with the suffering of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suffering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else's suffering, we do not necessarily feel with their pain but we feel concern — a feeling of love and warmth — and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.
I think of people like Mother Teresa and others who work with the destitute, healthcare workers, and those involved with disaster relief efforts — these people must be using compassion to stay emotionally strong and not buckle in the face of so much suffering. Remember that people in pain don't want you to feel their pain, they just want you to be there for them. You don't have to feel what someone else is feeling in order to care about them or help them, you just have to understand it.
Wired reports that Singer is using techniques, such as meditation, that center on the Buddhist notion of loving-kindness, to train study participants' brains to shift from empathy to compassion. It's the art of "detached attachment": Being attuned to and concerned about others' suffering without taking it on for yourself.
You don't have to meditate to stop other people's emotions from rubbing off on you. You just have to be aware of your own energy and the way others can subtly influence you — and then adopt some strategies to prevent or lessen it. Empathy, again, is a wonderful skill that the world could use more of in general, but it's also something to keep in check, for your own sanity and others'.