We’ve all been there. You’re out in the world, at work, wherever, and you suddenly find yourself becoming very emotional for no reason. It becomes difficult for you to function, but you’re out and about and don’t have the time or privacy to do anything about it yet. This is overactive empathy at its worst and most inconvenient; when it sneaks up on you when you’re in the middle of something.
So what do you do when this happens?
I will share some helpful tips that you can use to deal with a sudden influx of emotions when you logistically can’t take the time to really sit down and handle it. These three tips to deal with overactive empathy on the fly are simple and quick enough to do, even in public places, and should help to get you feeling good enough to get through your day until you can get home (at which point you will need to take some extra steps to get grounded and let that shit go).
1. Understand that the emotions you feel are probably not yours
If you are out and about, feeling fine and minding your own business and you suddenly become emotional out of nowhere, this is almost always a sure-fire indicator that your empathic radar is going off and that you are picking up on the emotions of somebody else. Naturally this can be frustrating, because your body and brain don’t understand the difference between your own emotions and those of somebody else. But it can also be relieving in a way.
Once you have made the realization that the emotions you feel do not belong to you, you can rest assured knowing that you personally don’t have any emotional issues you need to deal with. It is just your natural empathy telling you that somebody else is in distress. I know it sounds counterintuitive to be relieved when you know that you feel fine but somebody else doesn’t, but it is not our job to fix everybody’s emotional problems, and you will drive yourself crazy trying to do so.
So my best piece of advice here, since you’re out in the world and don’t have much time, is to acknowledge that your empathy is talking to you, you personally feel fine, and whatever emotion(s) you feel are not yours. So simply let it go. Like I said, it’s not your job to fix anybody, so don’t hold on to emotions that are not yours.
2. Take some belly breaths and get grounded
I talk a lot about grounding on this site because it is the absolute best way to deal with overactive empathy in general, and as such is also one of the best ways to deal with overactive empathy when you’re out in the world. Grounding is something that can be done anywhere on the fly and discreetly, so you don’t have to worry about looking too weird when you’re in public and other people can see you.
A great way to ground yourself in public is to do belly breathing. One thing I’ve noticed in working as an acupuncturist is that a lot of people breathe very shallowly. I think it may have something to do with constantly being stressed over a prolonged period of time, but it is not a good habit to acquire. Oxygen is an amazing thing and taking full, deep and complete breaths can go a long way toward making one feel grounded, centered and energized with life-giving oxygen.
How to do Belly Breathing
Belly breathing is simple to do, it just takes a little focus because if you have been breathing shallowly for years and years, you will need to retrain your muscle memory. It may feel awkward at first, but eventually it will start to feel more natural. In order to belly breathe, it helps to actually place your hands on your lower abdomen, because you will need to breathe in deep enough to expand your lower belly. If you’ve ever watched a baby sleeping, they do this naturally as they haven’t been alive long enough to let the stress of life make their breathing shallow yet.
So once you have your hands (or just one hand) on your lower abdomen, whenever you take your next breath, focus on pushing your belly out as far as it will go. You want to really expand your abdomen with air to get the full effect. Likewise, when you exhale, you want to really focus on pushing all of the air back out of your abdomen. It may also help to close off the back of your throat slightly to create a sort of “wave” sound when you inhale and exhale. This is called “ujjayi” breathing, and is a popular way to breathe during yoga practices.
Practice belly breathing for as many breaths as you can. It gives you something to focus on and will instantly get you grounded, which will always take the edge off of empath overload. Belly breathing can be practiced anywhere, at any time (just be careful if you are driving), and is a discreet way to get empathy in check while you’re out and about.
3. Take 5
Sometimes even all of the grounding in the world won’t help to put emotions and empathy in its place, so when this happens, it may be necessary to just let yourself feel the emotions to get them out of your system. Emotions are fleeting, like clouds in the sky, so if you learn how to properly handle emotions and not suppress them, they will simply run their course.
So if you’ve attempted grounding and belly breathing and it’s just not working, my advice is to take a 5 minute break. Slip away to the bathroom, a closet, anywhere you can get away to for a brief moment of privacy, and simply let yourself feel the emotion(s). The trick here is to feel the emotion without letting it overcome you: you are out in public, after all. If it is sadness that you are picking up on, letting out a few tears could be very beneficial. If it is anger that you are feeling, marching/stomping in place really helps, as physical activity is a great way to burn off anger.
The point is to feel the emotion just enough to let it flow through you and then let it go. It wasn’t your emotion in the first place, so feel it, get it out of your system and let it go. Try doing more belly breathing once you have done this and it should be more effective if you were having problems before.
The Bottom Line
These tips are great when you are first learning how to get a handle on your empathy, but as you progress on your journey you will find yourself not needing them as much. You will naturally start getting to the point where you just aren’t so affected by overactive empathy as you used to be. So keep at it!