A fortnight ago I had a week where I started off on Monday feeling great, by Wednesday I felt exhausted and by Friday I crashed out of anxiety and into an empty, hollow place where I felt totally powerless. I couldn’t figure out why, as personally it had been a good week for me. I’m usually busy and optimistic but I became inactive and simply stopped.
At the weekend I dragged myself out for a long walk in the countryside, after much cajoling from my husband. I checked the news on my phone once before heading out, felt on edge and promised myself I wouldn’t check it again that day. I walked for about 5 hours then headed home sore footed, exhausted…and calmer than I’d felt all week. Calm enough to see why I’d felt like the plug had been pulled on my energy and mood.
We’d had a particularly bad week of news in the UK: An increase in Covid infections, a fuel supply crisis, an extraordinary rise is the cost of gas, food prices increasing, a cut to Universal Credit and the end of the furlough scheme. It was bad news everywhere and in your face. I found myself feeling deeply troubled as I wondered how all this would affect people, especially those on low incomes. I was once in the position of living off part time, minimum wage pay, where you’re only ever one missed pay packet away from eviction, and ‘stressful’ doesn’t begin to describe it. All I could think about during that bad news week was how this could be the death knell for many people who were already struggling. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the worry was eating away at me and burning up my energy until I reached empty.
Empathy is a good and powerful thing. It nurtures compassion and helps us to connect with other people. But when it leads to spiralling anxiety about things that are beyond our control it stops being helpful as it blocks action and drains our inner resources. If you’re especially empathic you need to protect your energy without shutting down your special ability to connect and help others to heal.
A metaphor often used for finding this balance is helping someone get out of a hole they’re stuck in: Getting into the hole gets you both stuck, whereas if you stand outside the hole you have the ability to go and find a ladder to help them climb out!
How to protect your energy without sacrificing compassion
When you feel ground down by bad news in the media or by other people’s problems you need to become present in order to gain a better perspective of what you’re experiencing. Consciously doing these two things helped me when I felt like I couldn’t absorb any more:
Presence: Do something that takes you away from the situation you’re reacting to and back to yourself. Walk in nature, exercise, meditate, create or anything else that changes your context for a while – the longer the better. This will give you the distance you need to deal with what’s happening. You may struggle to find the energy to do this, and you might feel selfish doing it, but I can’t emphasise how important it is to do this. You have absorbed everything you can absorb, so think of it as getting out of the misery puddle so you can dry out.
Perspective: Having got some distance you’ll be in a better place to recognise what you’re feeling and what’s caused those feelings. It’s like taking a boat trip and looking back at the land; it looks very different from the sea than when you’re walking on it. Over time you’ll get better as spotting this before you feel overwhelmed by the misery you’re witnessing, as you’ll be able to spot when your emotions suddenly do an about turn. From this calmer perspective can you have any impact on the wider situation? Worry helps no one, neither you nor the people you’re worried for. Find what, if anything, you can do to help but recognise that this situation isn’t yours to fix, and in the end there might be nothing you can do to make a difference. If you have a lot going on and are struggling to figure out what you can or should do try working through this 7 step process for clearing your head when you feel overwhelmed.
The ability to feel deep empathy for others is a gift, but you can’t help anyone by climbing into the same hole as them. You can help heal the world better and care for your own health and wellbeing if you practice stepping back and recognising where you end and everyone else begins. This is what being an empowered empath is about: Owning the strengths that increased empathy brings you but also taking responsibility for stopping it from taking over and draining you.