The Adventures of a Reluctant Empath, Part Deux

Just because you can feel emotions outside of you doesn’t mean you gain amazing insight into the world around you. In fact, it’s often even harder to know exactly what I’m feeling now, than it was before I started figuring out what was going on with my empathic senses. My current emotional state can easily get blended with those I’m sensing around me, and if I’m not careful, I can read things wrong or act completely out of character.  Hesitant can feel apprehensive. Happy can actually feel smug or self-important at it’s core. Lately I’ve been working really hard at filtering my own emotions out from those I empathically sense, and it’s had both good results, bad results, and laughably hilarious results.

It doesn’t really help that I was previously in a very monogamous relationship for a very long time. When you’re together with someone that long – and particularly when you’re both empathic in nature – you can get used to sharing emotions and it seems more a gift than a curse. “If you’re sad, I’m sad”. “I can feel the love in the room.” You’ve probably heard a few of these clichéd empathic quotes already, and that’s what I’m talking about. If you’re really connected to someone you end up sharing their emotions, for good or bad, and don’t notice it so much. That’s love, right?

But when you’re not romantically connected to anyone anymore after a long relationship, it can get awful confusing when you pick up ‘background emotions’, unconsciously assign them to yourself, then take on their baggage. I never really realized it until a year or two after my breakup. And this in particular has caused me quite a bit of confusion of late.

A great example would be a recent dinner I had at a local restaurant with a friend. We were having a great conversation, upbeat and positive, until a family sat down at a table nearby. The two children were playing with each other and having a good time, but it was obvious that their parents had recently argued, or were still in the process of a big one. They fake-smiled and carried out idle chat well, but I could feel the annoyance and animosity between them like a cold sponge in the room. I did my best to ignore them from that point forward, which wasn’t difficult as they weren’t talking much aside from interjecting into their children’s conversation here and there. However, within 5 minutes I started to feel agitated and annoyed, and my own conversation started to get a bit brief and clipped, less casual and comfortable.

I can safely say it was not my conversation causing that shift in mood. We were both in great spirits until the family arrived. But I was clearly getting annoyed for some reason that wasn’t obvious to my company, and it was affecting my own situation.  She asked if everything was OK, if she’d said something that bothered me. I apologized profusely, said I wasn’t really sure but was feeling a bit anxious for some reason, so we asked for the check to go for a walk and some fresh air.  We’d gotten about a half block away when I realized simultaneously that both a) I felt much better and relieved once we got outside, and b) I’d left my phone in the restaurant.  I went back in and asked the server if she’d found the phone, and she went into the kitchen office to retrieve it.  And it was then that I noticed I felt that same anxiety again – I was standing right next to the family’s table, and their unspoken annoyance.

It was when I looked again at their stoic, rock-like faces that I realized I was feeling what they were feeling. And as soon as I left again I could feel the annoyance draining from my body quickly. And from that point forward, the conversation was pretty much dominated by my experience. How easily I ‘soaked up’ the negative feelings from the table nearby, and let it affect me.

Wow.  I had no idea things could shift this quickly, and unconsciously.

Another time I was in a horrible mood. I’d had a huge argument with my ex and it didn’t end well. I was fuming and mad, and really just wanted a little down time away from people in general.  I walked around the corner to the sea, and sat on a bench just next to a large vacation rental building with balconies overlooking the beach.  I didn’t really want to deal with humans, so turned my back to the building, buried my head in my hands, and stewed. But within about 20 seconds of sitting down, I felt this uncontrollable urge to laugh. But I was still angry, and now a bit confused as well. The giddy, giggly feeling didn’t go away.  A mother and daughter started walking up the sidewalk towards me – and then I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and started laughing uncontrollably.

They must have thought I was nuts. A unstoppable case of the giggles just hit me out of nowhere, I kid you not.  And shortly after that, I heard the sliding glass door of the apartment behind me whoosh open. Out came about 4 twenty-something women, clearly having just smoked an astounding amount of pot (given the smell), all giggling hysterically at each other.  They saw me giggling too and then burst into all-out laughter before making their way to the beach and down the coastline.  And as they did, I found myself feeling a bit spent, remembering being angry just a minute ago but instead mostly confused about the fact that I felt like I’d been laughing along with them.  On the plus side, I wasn’t as angry anymore.

That encounter really stuck with me. I hadn’t heard the girls laughing inside until they came out, but it was eerie how close my random giggle-state meshed with theirs as soon as they stepped outside. Could I be affected by strong emotions near me – right through a thick barrier of concrete, glass, insulation and wallboard?  It sure seemed so.

It made me really think about how often I might be affected by emotional situations like this without realizing it.

I can think of a kajillion times over the last decades that I’ve had an odd mood swing while out in public. In many cases I just soldiered up and dealt with it, suppressed the negativity.  However, soldiering up and suppressing my emotions hasn’t been a very good way to deal with the problem. By ignoring what I’m feeling I just go numb, and find that I don’t feel anything at all.

Shit. That’s not what I want either.

My therapist had a good point- perhaps I should simply take note when my mood changes drastically, question my emotional state more often?  That might make it more of a conscious effort when I feel extreme emotions suddenly.  Fair enough.

So lately, I’ve been working on this. When I feel differently out of nowhere, I simply ask myself how I was feeling a half hour ago.  When I look back like this, it’s become increasingly easier to identify the times I may be affected by external emotions.  In most cases I felt fine earlier- or just differently.

And when so, I then ask myself if anything’s happened since to change my mood.  In most all cases, nothing of significance has.  Then it’s usually just been a matter of changing my environment – moving around, going outside, taking a break, changing my current situation – and seeing if the mood swing passes. And what do you know- it nearly always does.

How was I feeling ten minutes ago?  Such a simple question to ask, but for empaths – it’s an important one to ask often in order to start filtering out external influences from our own emotional state.  I sure as hell don’t want to let the world color my feelings anymore.  And I definitely don’t want to negatively affect others around me.