The dinner party brimmed with champagne and chatter.
But I was plastered to yet another tale of heartbreak.
My colleague poured out her stories of betrayal and trauma—and I sucked them down loyally. After a bit, she found that she felt much better–miraculously better, in fact.
She skipped off for drinks; drinks with umbrellas!
But I staggered away, lurching and nauseated from the toxic cocktail of her woes.
I’m not a lush or a masochist; I’m just an empath, someone who takes on other people’s feelings. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are one too. You might find that people often confide in you. Your family and colleagues might be drawn to your kindness, your compassion. Those are wonderful qualities, and they look fabulous with your earrings, dahling.
But if you don’t know how to draw some loving boundaries, you may find that instead of whirling through your days feeling bright and nimble, you’re slogging through a thick soup of someone else’s drama.
What’s an empath again?
An empath is someone who instinctively, sometimes even unconsciously, can enter into the emotions and experiences of others. It isn’t quite the same as being compassionate or kind. You don’t so much understand what someone might be feeling so much as actually experience it along with them. It isn’t something you try to do deliberately; you can just tell from subtle inflections in body language and tone what someone is really feeling. Sometimes you’re amazed that other people can’t sense these things, because it’s so easy for you to step into other people’s shoes and empathize with their emotions.
Everyone has some capacity for empathy, but if you’re highly empathic you might not know how to turn it off when you want to. That’s how you end up weeping at telephone commercials or listening to Great Aunt Ethel’s surgery story…again. It’s why your blood pressure rises when your boss throws a temper tantrum and you sometimes feel desperately sad around someone who’s grinning like a Prozac ad.
It can be disconcerting to think of someone else’s emotions wreaking havoc on your own. But if other people’s feelings keep knocking you off-kilter, you’re not crazy and you’re not “too sensitive.” You’re just an empath!
In fact, once you stop knocking back every shot of emotional drama that comes your way, you’ll find you possess a potent gift.
Empathy isn’t an airy-fairy concept. Scientific breakthroughs demonstrate that all humans have mirror neurons that let us viscerally experience the sensations we observe in others. (My highly unscientific theory is that if you studied the brains of empaths, our mirror neurons would look like disco balls, merrily magnifying the pain and emotions of those around us.)
But for some of you, you don’t so much have a capacity for empathy as much as you have so much empathic radio equipment that you’re smacking yourself in the face with it, Edward Scissorhands-style.
As empaths, we have the capacity to pick up a lot of what is happening around us. (It’s a killer superpower in business because it means our bullshit filters are excellent and we can read subtext like a lit major.) And, we have the capacity to help, to heal, to serve, and set beautiful things in motion… but only if we don’t get washed away by other people’s emotions.
Instead of simply taking in whatever happens to be around us, which can lead to choking and drowning in your own empathy, you want to learn how to be discerning. You only want to tune into channels that nourish you instead of deplete you. But let’s be honest– it’s hard not to just feel sort of jerked around by it all, or even shredded by it, because no one teaches us how to do any of this!
So today I’m going to give you a visualization exercise you can do anywhere, any time, that will help you stay calm, strong, grounded, and clear. (No matter what the people around you are feeling.)
What you will discover is that people are starving for this sort of clear presence. They don’t really want to be spraying their crappy energy at you – they don’t mean to make you feel bad— they just feel terrible and don’t know how to feel better. This exercise will help you become a refuge for others while also protecting, strengthening, and nourishing yourself.
For this image, you’re going to engage your imagination and pretend to become a tree. Try and be like a kid and really let yourself just pretend. Take about 60 seconds to close your eyes and let the image below grow really vivid, and let yourself feel the sensations in your body. This will help you anchor in this image so that you can call on it the next time you need it.
Feel yourself become sturdy and tall, like you’re a tree. You’re going to send your roots down, down, down into the ground. Imagine them growing out of the bottoms of your feet. Send down those roots, down and out, and feel them spreading and branching and gripping the earth firmly.
Notice how grounded you are when you send your awareness down into the earth. And, just like a rooted tree, realize that you can pull up from the ground every kind of nourishment that you need.
You can bring up water. You can bring up nutrients. You can bring up fire. You can bring up wisdom. Go ahead and bring up anything you need from the earth.
You can also release anything that you don’t want to be holding on to. Other people’s emotions, excess energy, jitteriness, fear– let it run down your roots and drip down into the ground, where the earth will turn it into beetles or flowers or something useful.
Now gently bring your attention up from those roots, back up through the trunk of your body, and feel how strong you are.
You can be a huge redwood. You can be a 50-year-old oak. You could be a sapling if you want, but since we’re working on strength and boundaries, I would choose an old, wise, strong tree.
Feel the girth and the sturdiness of your trunk and let your attention continue to travel upwards. Go as high as you want, and as you lift your attention towards the sky, I want you to imagine that you’re bringing yourself above the fray. Any irritations, any annoyances, any little nagging anxieties, leave them all down on the ground. I want you to go up, up, up through the clean air, and when it feels perfectly clear, and you can see as far as you want, let your attention spread and branch.
Feel yourself sending out strong beautiful branches that spread out and up, and as they get further out, they branch into smaller branches and twigs. Feel yourself unfurling leaves. You can feel yourself burst into bloom if you want. You can feel yourself grow fruit that’s ripe and heavy, if that feels good to you.
You are a powerful, beautiful tree. Feel your own tree-ness. Wave a little. (Don’t worry, no one is watching.)
When you deliberately embody a giant tree, it allows you to stay deeply grounded and connected to the earth and your own body while, at the same time, letting you operate from a place that is far above the daily chaos. And you’ve got that thick, mighty trunk to protect you from all of those little irritations down there. Imagine your bark is as thick and as tough as you want.
You’re still very much connected to the earth, but you’re also operating from a higher place where you can see farther. The air is clean and clear up there and you can feel yourself waving in the breeze. Take one more moment to let this image grow very strong. Then you can open your eyes and take it with you any time you want.
You might feel silly doing this, but the more you can let yourself FEEL like a tree, the more you’ll be able to call on that tree-like energy next time you need to stay calm and rise above the fray. (Rolling your eyes? Just try it for 60 seconds; it’s surprisingly helpful.)
I needed more than a bubble of light
You know, I spent so much of my life feeling raw and exposed. I didn’t know how to set boundaries of any sort. But it wasn’t for lack of trying! I read stacks of books on energy, boundaries, and all sorts of esoteric things. I tried to let negative energy pass through me without hurting. I tried to hold myself in a bubble of light. I tried casting circles.
What I didn’t understand was that I was trying to hold off big burly energetic thugs with little tiny pipe cleaner arms.I didn’t have any energetic MUSCLE.
I’m much, much stronger than I used to be. Some of that is from taking really practical action out in the physical world: cutting out scary movies, for example, and scary people.
Think for a moment about what practical boundaries you need in place in your life. Maybe you need to block someone on your phone or social media accounts. Maybe you need a better lock on your front door. A stronger email password. A tougher custody agreement. In extreme cases, maybe you need a bodyguard or a restraining order. (I hope not, dearheart. But even in these tough situations, it’s always best to face the truth head-on.) Maybe you just need some firmer agreements with yourself around your time and your commitments.
These practical external boundaries are important. But far and away, the biggest thing that has made the difference has been a commitment to strengthen my own emotional and energetic muscles one day and one breath at a time.
If you spend a few minutes each day “being” a tree, I bet you’ll find that you’ve built up some new energetic muscle before you know it. The key is to practice when you’re calm and safe– folding laundry, buying groceries, at home alone– before you try to practice out in the world. Don’t try and whip out your energetic boundaries for the first time when you’re facing a black-belt level situation, like an ex or an in-law or whoever really presses your buttons. Let yourself build your muscle gently, a little bit every day, so that when you need them, you have lots of muscle memory to call on. These practices are simple, but they’re incredibly powerful, especially over time.
So let yourself make like a tree and…(get out of here? anyone else hear that Back To The Future joke every time you hear that expression?) just kidding, let yourself make like a tree and instead of having to leave, you can stay gracious, grounded, and really really tall. Let yourself dig deep and wave in the wind. Let yourself blossom, if you like.
This is how we do it, secret mystic– roots in the ground, arms to the sky.