How to Stop Absorbing Other People’s Emotions

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Do you feel like you absorb other people’s emotions?

If you identify as an empath or a highly sensitive person, you might be wondering how to stop absorbing other people’s emotions. But what does that mean, exactly? We often talk about empathic traits as a double-edged sword. On one hand it’s a gift to be able to feel another’s emotions, to better understand where they’re coming from. On the other hand it feels overwhelming when we don’t know how to stop absorbing other people’s emotions.

In a coaching context, clients are almost always focused on the negative aspects of this. But I often find that “being an empath” is held up as an almost supernatural ability (or curse). I’m not convinced.

How to stop absorbing other people’s emotions and energy

Is it even possible to absorb other people’s emotions and energy? Maybe, but not in a way that we’ve been able to quantify. Regardless of the answer, what’s important is what’s helpful. We miss the mark when we assume turbulent emotions are other people’s fault. What we’re really doing is avoiding managing our own inner world. By throwing our hands up and saying we’re “just really empathic” we don’t need to take responsibility for ourselves.

And that’s where I think we actually miss a really important opportunity. In a sense it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not that we can absorb other people’s emotions and energy – what matters is what we do about it. 

Ultimately, it comes down to our thoughts, no matter the circumstance. We can always choose our thoughts intentionally in any situation, which directly impacts our emotional experience.

Follow the clues to find the “thought of origin”

I used to think that anytime I felt an emotion I couldn’t explain, it was because I had absorbed it from someone nearby. Most of the time, however, I was actually highly observant and moving from circumstance to thought to feeling so quickly that it inevitably felt supernatural.

For example, in my early twenties when I first sought out energy healing it was in response to what felt like a truly out-of-control experience of absorbing the emotions of my intense male coworkers. I felt exhausted and physically ill constantly. My manager would walk into the conference room, quietly sit down, and ask the team about a deliverable. I would immediately feel like I was going to throw up and was completely on edge. The feeling started when he walked into the room, so I must be absorbing his energy, right? There must be something going on in his world that he was rudely pushing onto me energetically.

An alternate theory

Maybe that’s true. But what is much more likely is the following: My manager walked into the room. And I subconsciously noticed he was walking differently, more nervous, rigid and upright. I could tell something was wrong. Coming from a client meeting, he was frowning as he sat down and radiated that anxiety. 

I had a (very quick, unconscious) thought about what that must mean. For instance, I’d done something wrong or was about to be discovered as inadequate. I felt nauseous in response to my own thought about myself noticing the circumstances around me. Society conditions us (especially women) to believe that if something is wrong it’s probably our fault.

So it’s easy to conclude from the outside that I’m just very empathic. In the full-speed version all we saw was that I felt fine, my boss came into the room, and I didn’t feel fine anymore. And again, I’m not saying we know for sure that’s not true. After all, a lot of things are true before we can prove that they’re true. But it’s worth investigating the thoughts that go with the emotions.

If you can’t identify the thought, it will feel like wizardry. But the thought is there, you just have to slow down long enough and practice paying attention. Having command of your inner world and the thoughts that create it will provide the shielding you really need. Even more than just visualizing white light around yourself or removing yourself from the situation. Those are totally valid short-term coping mechanisms. Ultimately though, mastering your mind is the long-term solution.

Sometimes you still just need a break

I need a lot of alone time, especially after peopleing for an extended period. My guess is you do too, if you’re reading an article about how to stop absorbing other people’s emotions. Being tired after being around people for an extended period is a real thing if you’re an introvert. But you’re not tired (or insert any other emotion) because of other people’s emotions. That’s the most important takeaway – you’re still in charge of your own experience.

In the mindset coaching world, we work with a technique called distancing. It helps us recognize that our thoughts are not always facts, and our emotions are not permanent. But we’re not always ready to do that work in a moment when we’re feeling really overstimulated or sensitive. In fight-or-flight mode the prefrontal cortex shuts down and with that, our cognitive flexibility and control. The time to engage in rational analysis is not when the prefrontal cortex is offline. Sometimes you just need to ride it out until you’re in a more resourceful place. I pulled together my favorite activities to help with riding out difficult emotions, and hope you find them helpful! These are all literally things I have in my bag when I travel.

The benefits of being sensitive in an insensitive world

Once you learn how to stop absorbing other people’s emotions (which we now know means learning how to stop attributing your emotions to other people and start recognizing that they are linked, always, to your thoughts) you can enjoy the benefits of being more sensitive and empathetic.

You show up with more presence and compassion when you’re attuned to the emotions of others. When you can identify emotions more quickly using very subtle clues, you can avoid misunderstandings and de-escalate potential conflicts before they get out of control.

When you get really good at putting yourself in other people’s shoes and understanding how they feel, you’re better equipped to combat issues that matter to you. It’s harder to tap into the massive energy needed to make lasting change in the world if you’re constantly overwhelmed and feeling out of control.

Believing that you’re not able to control your emotions and energy is very disempowering and extremely draining. No one can show up fully when they’re exhausted. And that’s what it’s about at the end of the day – showing up better, making the world better. So pay attention to the narrative you have in your head.

You don’t need to learn how to stop absorbing other people’s emotions

You just need to learn how to manage your mind. Here’s how to get started with the basics. Any time you feel an emotion you don’t quite understand, treat it like a game and try to trace back the “thought of origin” before giving your annoying coworker the credit.  This will help you better understand the connection. Over time, you’ll learn to choose new thoughts on purpose so that you can better regulate your emotional experience.

If you don’t know how to slow down long enough to catch a thought, I suggest writing things down. Journaling is absolutely the most common thing everyone talks about doing and almost no one actually does consistently. There’s no way to get the benefits without doing the work. Even 5 to 10 minutes of free writing will reveal thoughts you didn’t realize you were entertaining on a subconscious level. I can pretty much guarantee your emotions will start to make a lot more sense.

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Emily is a mindset coach and writer specializing in the habits of Millennial and Gen Z high achievers in the areas of money, relationships, lifestyle and travel.

She holds the PCC designation with the International Coach Federation and has been featured in multiple media outlets.

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