Unhealthy Empathy – Feeling the Pain of the World

Connie Habash (author of Awakening from Anxiety) reminds us to be compassionate towards ourselves because self-care isn’t selfish.

woman with hands over her face in overwhelm

It seems that the world around us is filled with problems and suffering sometimes – fires, floods, earthquakes, war torn countries, climate change – not to mention the pandemic. As naturally empathic and caring people, we may feel the pain of the world in our own heart and body. This can cause overwhelm and anxiety, and it’s not a particularly healthy or helpful response. Here’s what you can do to remain compassionate and also feel sane. [ excerpted from Chapter 7, “Feeling the Pain of the World” in my book, Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life]

As spiritual folks, we deeply care about others, whether human or in the natural world. Empathy comes naturally to us – that ability to understand and even feel the emotions of others. We hear of the suffering of people in Afghanistan or Haiti, dolphin, rhino, and gorilla populations dwindling, rainforest devastation, massive wildfires, earthquakes in the Pacific rim, and the war-torn Middle East, and it touches us so deeply that we may fall apart. Just reading those words was probably more than enough to evoke a worried look on your face and the anxiety to build.

But feeling the pain of the world doesn’t serve anyone. While it is important to have compassion and empathy, it’s also important to keep ourselves protected from emotional overload and compassion fatigue, which can be debilitating. If we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by the suffering of others, we won’t be able to assist them or effectively serve our purpose in the world, and it can hinder our own spiritual awakening. 

The Challenge of Being Empaths

For those of us who are empaths – people who naturally pick up on the emotions of others – the unconscious tendency is to run the pain of the world through our own nervous system. We might even believe that it is the “more spiritual” thing to do: to deeply understand and connect with others in pain. We believe we can handle it, but then wonder why we feel fried and freaked out. 

There’s a difference, however, between feeling compassion for the suffering of others and confusing it with creating our own suffering. If we wear ourselves down, even make ourselves ill by taking on the collective pain, is that really spiritual? Are we truly helping anyone? Is it bringing us more inner peace —or increasing our anxiety? This is unhealthy empathy. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence asserts in an article in The Washington Post that “those who regularly prioritize others’ emotions over their own are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety or low-level depression.”

Let’s not confuse service to others and the planet with absorbing all the negative energy around us in an effort to care, understand, or help out. All that does is increase our feeling of overwhelm and despair. Let’s also be mindful not to confuse the emotions of others with our own. That’s another aspect of unhealthy empathy; inability to discern our emotions from others’. When we take on the pain of the world, we may be unconsciously processing emotions that don’t belong to us through our own physical and energetic bodies. This creates psychological confusion, causes us unnecessary suffering, and even creates physical problems, like illness or chronic fatigue.

A Different Response – Compassion

A different response than empathy is compassion. Compassion allows us to recognize someone else’s pain, attempt to understand it, and express our caring in some helpful way. It doesn’t mean to put ourselves through exactly what that person or animal is feeling. As a spiritual practice, compassion should empower us to take helpful action to alleviate the pain—and for that, we need to feel strong, centered, and calm within.

When we take on the pain of others, we’re reacting rather than responding. We are feeling the emotions as if they are our own, allowing them to trigger our own issues in addition to the suffering we see around us. This is reactivity, not higher consciousness.

In order to respond, rather than react, we need to be aware of what happens in us when we’re exposed to an upsetting situation. We have a number of thoughts that might arise, like “How terrible! Something must be done! I can’t stand this. I have to do something now. It will be horrible if it isn’t stopped. I don’t know what to do – it’s hopeless.” Naturally, this brings on fear.

The compassion we feel transforms into fear of what is happening, which triggers our anxiety and the fight/flight/freeze/faint response within us. It can incapacitate us (freeze or faint), cause us to withdraw (flight), or create an overreaction that may attack the problem in an unhelpful way (fight). Now, this becomes our issue of fear, rather than focusing on what is helpful to the situation.

Notice if you have an anxiety reaction to someone’s pain, whether a close friend or an animal you saw on a YouTube video. Ask yourself if your reaction is helpful to the situation. What would be the most helpful response, if you weren’t triggered into anxiety? 

Karuna and Upeksha

Karuna, the practice of compassion in yogic philosophy, is said to maintain serenity of mind when faced with others who suffer. But you won’t be able to access that serenity if you use compassion to create fear, worry, and overwhelm in yourself.

Additionally, compassion shouldn’t disempower the one who suffers, or you. See the situation as one that can be healed or transformed. Trust that your response matters, even if it doesn’t “fix” it completely. Let whatever you can offer be enough. And don’t create more suffering in the world by taking it all on, energetically and emotionally, and then feeling like you will fall apart. That doesn’t help anyone.

The practice of Upeksha, even-mindedness (which we explored in Chapter 4), can assist in being compassionate from a more centered, calm, and courageous place. When we see suffering, especially a global situation like human trafficking, for example, there is also a judgment. This is wrong, the people who perpetuate this are horrible, etc. We may even be right about that. But if we buy into those thoughts, it can take us into an anxiety-reaction, and we may become less effective in creating the change in order to “right those wrongs” and end the painful cycle. We do not need anxiety as the motivator and juice to impel us to take right action.

Try to notice the situation from the even-minded clarity of upeksha. It’s true, this is causing harm to others, and I want to make a difference. I feel called to some sort of action. From a deeply caring place within us, we see what can be done without attacking those we see as perpetrators. Upeksha helps us to shift out of attacking those who have done the harm to healing and empowering those who are suffering. We can find our own empowerment within as well, by not allowing this situation to perpetuate more suffering by amplifying it within ourselves.  

Explore your thoughts, beliefs, and reactions to the pain of the world on a deeper level. You don’t need to fall into the unhealthy empathy trap and take it on as your own. Shift out of anxiety and into a healthier approach. Take the empowering step to respond with compassionate care and understanding, practice even-mindedness to keep yourself even-keel, and then discern the most healing, helpful action you can take. 

And remember to be compassionate towards yourself, too.

Want help with releasing unhealthy empathy, releasing anxiety, and feeling calm again? Check out Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life!

Awaking from Anxiety by Connie Habash

Awakening From Anxiety

A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life

Competent, spiritual people suffer from anxiety and depression too: Spiritual people often find that their own expectations of living a life dedicated to a higher power makes them more susceptible to high-functioning anxiety. Sometimes, traditional relaxation techniques either do not work, don’t last, or, in some cases, actually increase their anxiety.

The missing keys to managing anxiety: Psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and interfaith minister Rev. Connie L. Habash shows us a way to transform our perceptions using mindful awareness, in order that we may live divinely inspired lives. In over 25 years as a counselor helping spiritual people overcome anxiety, Rev. Connie has taught that it takes more than chanting mantras, stretching, or relaxation techniques to calm anxiety. It requires a transformation in perception, moment-to-moment body awareness, and a conscious response to thoughts and emotions.

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