Last year, I went to India after two years of living here in the United States. This is the first time that I have stayed anywhere other than in India, and this shift of living in a new country has also shifted my perspective in many ways.
One of these is the way in which I understand my sensitivity.
Learning To Live In A New Country
Here, in the States, I live in a suburb in the heart of Silicon Valley, where I sometimes find the quiet too much and then think nostalgically about India. There, I lived in the heart of New Delhi, India’s capital, where the noise and the bustle were often too much for me.
This time during my stay in my parents’ home in Delhi, I notice things about my sensitivity that I never had before. I am no longer submerged in my environment. I have a different experience to compare it with.
A day here starts with the ringing of the bell. My parents are part of India’s educated and fortunate upper-middle class. Like millions of other such households, the machinery of the house runs with the help of several pairs of hands. All through the morning, the bell rings as the daily packet of milk is delivered, the neighborhood dhobi (washerman) comes to pick up more clothes for ironing, and a lady comes in to clean the house. Such help is unthinkable in other places in the world, but here in India, for many middle-class households, this is the norm.
What is also normal are power outages that can last for hours (where people who can afford it switch to generators or inverters), no automatic hot water, and long lines for everything you can think of. Every day, so many different lives touch our own little lives, and there is little of the efficiency of America.
I interact with more people here in a day than I have for weeks before in America.
And it is normal that I would. After all, Delhi is the second most populous city in the world, with an estimated population of more than 25 million people. It contains more people within its sprawling, sweeping boundaries than cities like Shanghai, Mexico City and Sao Paulo.
In a city like this, you are part of an overwhelming sea of people. When you go outside, your senses are inundated by every kind of stimulation possible. There are people getting into your space constantly, taking the local metro is a mini-battle, and traffic jams can last for hours.
To say the least, it is a challenging place for a sensitive person.
And what if you are a sensitive person who also absorbs other people’s feelings?
This time in Delhi, I notice the mini-interactions and transactions I have with people throughout the day. I feel their curiosity, frustration and worry jumping out at me. My boundaries are permeable, not very solid. I get overwhelmed in crowds. I just want to stay inside.
It’s not just because of the sensory stimulation, which is part of it too, but the overload from all the emotions that I can feel and experience as if they are my own.
It’s no wonder that at different times in my life, I have coped in unhealthy ways. I have avoided people. I have avoided things. I have felt buffeted by other people’s emotions, so it seems like my center is not inside me, but somewhere outside.
Even now, when I walk into a room, I am most aware of what everyone else is feeling, and not really aware of what is it that I feel. It’s no wonder that people who have this emotional sensitivity find it debilitating at times.
It makes us feel engulfed in certain relationships. It means we need a lot of time alone. It means that we hate going out in crowded places where we have no personal space and where everyone’s energy seems to be knocking us out.
The Struggles And Soul Gifts Of An Emotional Empath
I read something recently on Anna Sayce’s’ blog (Anna works as a teacher of intuitive development) that put the challenge of being an empath in a way that connected some dots for me. For all people, Anna says, there is a close link between our struggles and our soul gifts.
This is what Anna says about empaths: “On the upside, these people were born with the ability to experience what life is like for another person. They make great mediators because they can see two sides of a story and can switch their point of view easily. They are the ones who are good at caring for and looking out for others. But they can sometimes have so much compassion and understanding that they might not always look out for their own interests sufficiently. Or they might be easy to exploit. They may fail to care of themselves while taking care of everyone around them. Most often, they may feel like their sensitivity is a burden.”
Strangely, for me knowing and accepting that the gift comes with the challenge is a bit of a relief. Maybe, things were hard because it is a struggle to figure out how to move from getting swept up in a storm of feelings to moving through them.
Becoming A Skilled Empath
As I have started exploring ways to become a “skilled” empath, I am walking the same path that maybe you are on as well. I am picking up ideas and turning them over, and seeing which ones work for me.
If you are an empath, you might have found (like I did) that one thing that is often mentioned online is shielding or protecting yourself so that you don’t pick up other people’s stuff. To do this, you can visualize yourself wrapped up in pink or white light, and that is supposed to help you stay protected.
While I know people I respect who do this, this exercise has never resonated with me because the subtext seems to be that we need to “protect” ourselves from something out there. That only encourages a feeling of distrust in the world.
It seems to say that I am weak and that I need constant protection.
Still, I do believe in the power of visualization. If you feel drawn to it, this might be a good beginning exercise. I think what might work here is simply the directing of intention. Even though we don’t often do this, where we choose to focus is where our energy goes.
As an empath, we are hyper-aware of others, so intentionally pulling back focus to ourselves in any way helps us feel more in touch with ourselves.
For me, the important idea here is directing our attention to our own experience. Thinking “What do I feel?” and checking in with ourselves instead of getting swamped by the other person’s feelings is one way to stay inside our own skin.
Also, anything that helps us stay present – in our bodies and out of our minds – is helpful. One exercise that I like is by Sonia Choquette who says that when we want to come back to the present moment, it can be as simple as looking around us and saying aloud (not in our heads, but out loud) everything we see around us for four or five minutes.
So, I can look around and say that I am in a room with a framed photograph of a leaf, a bamboo that seems to be growing too big for its pot, and a half-eaten chocolate Yan-Yan box. Paying attention to the things around me helps me get out of my thinking and feeling state. It helps me notice where I am.
It can be as simple as that.
The Importance For An Empath Of Accepting Emotions
Maybe, part of learning to use our empathic gifts is also about accepting that we do feel deeply, and letting ourselves feel whatever it is that we do feel.
A lot of sensitive people cry very easily.
Of course, there are many injunctions and prohibitions against crying publicly. But even privately, we often have very little permission to cry. We feel that we might upset someone who feels responsible for us and takes it personally. We think that we are already emotional people. We don’t want to spiral into over-emotionality.
But something that Dr. Judith Orloff says about the healing benefits of tears might give us some permission and some insight. In her book, Emotional Freedom, she discusses how tears help us. They protectively lubricate our eyes, remove irritants, reduce stress hormones, and contain antibodies that fight pathogenic microbes.
In fact, our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous and emotional. Reflex tears allow our eyes to clear out irritants produced by smoke or exhaust. Continuous tears are produced regularly and contain a chemical called “lysozyme” that functions as an anti-bacterial and protects our eyes from infection.
And emotional tears have their own specific health benefits.
Dr Orloff talks about the biochemist Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis who discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, while emotional tears also contain stress hormones that the body wants to discard. Other studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural “feel-good hormones.”
You have probably also had the experience where you felt better after crying. For an empath, it was not a spiral downwards or identifying yourself as a victim. It felt like a relief as pent-up feelings flowed out. You were left feeling lighter, at ease.
Stemming the flow of such tears would just mean that your emotions are getting backed up. There is no way for them to be transformed. There is no way for them to be released.
As sensitive people, we have to let go of the beliefs that are projected on to us. Crying does not mean that we are weak. The weakness comes when we don’t do something about the things that bother us, the things that bring us to tears.
Being out of touch with feelings is not a strength. It just means we have low self-awareness. It makes us brittle. It makes us weak.
I should know. As a person who feels a lot, I have dealt with my ability to feel others’ feelings in every way possible. At different times, I have been different people. I have turned towards people, and away from them. I have helped people, and have numbed out and turned towards myself. I have pushed feelings down, and I have also let them push me.
In the end, I think that doing what I can, little by little — engaging with the challenge, fighting with the monsters — may one day help bring the whole gift to light. On your journey as an empath, I hope you find that too, and that you go on digging till you have unearthed your treasure.