Tired. Exhausted. Fatigued. These are descriptions that friends, colleagues, and clients are sharing with me. This malady surpasses the physical and has sunk deeply into the marrow of the mind, heart [emotions], and spark [spirit] of many of us.
This fatigue is due, in part, to our empathetic natures. As an empath, we vicariously experience another’s feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. Unable to break free of the arousal of empathy, we create an endless loop that unconsciously wears on us. It exacerbates our feelings of exhaustion and thoughts of unease.
To break this endless loop, we make wake up to our empathetic arousal. When we are aware, we are able to discern what is ours and what thoughts and feelings are another’s. Only then can we move from the arousal of empathy to the calm of compassion.
Empathy. While putting our self in another’s shoes is a pathway to understanding their suffering, unless we are carefully mindful, their feelings hook us. We risk becoming overwhelmed. Unable to find respite from the barrage of emotion, we get stuck in a state of emotional arousal. Becoming unstuck and moving through the arousal to calm requires awareness, courage, and understanding.
Awareness. Being caught in the emotions of another is a result of our loving and generous nature. We feel someone suffering and do not want another to go through this time of despair alone. We emphasize with them. Once aroused by their suffering, it becomes difficult for us to disengage from the frenetic emotions.
In an emotionally aroused state, we may be shocked by the depth of what we are feeling and be unable to discern the source. Without proper energetic protection, our emotions blend with theirs. We may believe what we are feeling is ours. Without a clear understanding of the emotion’s origin, those emotions burrow deeply into our mind, spark, and heart. Once they attach, our ability to think clearly and respond is diminished.
When we are aware, we notice physiological and psychological cues that alert us to how external influences impact us. We may have a burning sensation in the pit of our stomach; our chest may be tight. We may be overwhelmed with sorrow or feel discouraged. Being mindful of the sensations in our body empowers us to identify what is ours and what is another's. We awake to the potential of another’s emotions to debilitate us. Once awake, our courage empowers the shift from being a vessel for the emotions of another to being an alleviator of suffering.
Courage. Compassion requires the courageous choice of empowerment over enabling. This choice calls us to share compassion in ways that are not warm and fuzzy. Rather, compassion says, “I cannot change your circumstances, but I can help you shift how you respond to them.” This is the I love you enough of compassion that begins with courageous self-compassion which is the gateway to outward directed compassionate action.
Being brave is acknowledging that while we cannot fix anything, we can be a fellow sojourner on a path rife with suffering. We recognize that we are not meant to digest suffering but to be a lighthouse shining compassion into the world. That beacon, our light, is energized by courage and guides us to understanding.
Understanding. More than just knowing the whys and the reasons, understanding allows us to hold the other gently as they experience their own suffering. Our listening and compassionate response gently guide them through the obstacles suffering presents. We practice self-compassion as we navigate fully aware of our own strengths and limitations. With understanding, we balance self-compassion with compassion for another.
When we are aware, courageous, and understanding, we vicariously experience the feelings of another, but those emotions are unable to hook us in a state of arousal. We realize that empathy is not meant to be a dam for our compassionate essence. When we are mindful, the arousal provides the initial boost of energy that powers compassion’s flow. Empathy is a precursor to sharing compassion. Empathy is a call for us to be aware of the need for compassionate presence.
Our challenge is to transform the energy of our empathy into the power of compassion. In this transformation, the energy of empathetic arousal spirals through us and toward the suffering. Being empathetic is a gift that when shared appropriately propels us into compassion’s presence. It powers the transformation that comes from compassion. Moving from empathy to compassion, we become compassion agents, warrior healers who are compassionate action in a world of suffering.
Vanessa F. Hurst, ms, is a Mindful Coach, Compassion Consultant, Professional Speaker, and Author who weaves her inner wisdom into all she touches. Contact Vanessa @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her books are A Constellation of Connections: Contemplative Relationships and Engaging Compassion Through Intent & Action.