I Feel You

“Never turn a single drowning into a double drowning.” (First Rule of Lifeguarding) Mirroring As infants, we lack the neural circuitry to regulate emotions for ourselves. We rely on the adults who care for us to scoop us up when we are in distress so that we can mirror their mood state, heartbeat and respirations. We calm as they calm. (If they don’t calm, it makes it really hard for us to learn self-regulation.)   This is the heart of empathy: Picking up on what’s going on with someone else and approximating it in our bodies.   There’s the Rub This is also where we get tripped up and harmed when we are empathic with others. We think we are feeling what they are feeling.   If we were truly “taking in” someone else’s feelings, we would then be a victim of those feelings. We can’t control what others are feeling, (though sometimes we try!) This leaves us thinking we are at the mercy of someone else’s mood states, the way we were as infants.   Good News! The good news is that our brains typically create the basic structures needed to do our own self regulation at around two years old. From that point on, while we still need other humans to help us identify and find constructive ways to express our feelings, we are no longer at the mercy of other people to help us develop that circuitry.   That means that the feelings we feel in response to someone else’s emotions are entirely our own approximation of what we sense in others. We have a sensation and it taps the web of our gut brains, lighting up anything that seems similar. Now we have half a clue about what might be helpful to that person. Yay, empathy!   What’s Mine is Mine This also means that we are not feeling the other person’s feelings, but rather, our own. We do have control over how much attention we give those feelings and when. They pop up so that we can care for others. We then need to care for ourselves.   Caring well for others requires us to hold all of our assumptions with an open hand. What the other person feels might be a lot like what we feel. It might also be totally different, or even merely importantly different. Staying curious and humble helps us connect to that person and offer them care in a more profound way. Instead of trying to fit their experiences into what we already know, we are free to expand and grow as we seek to understand what the other person is feeling.   Double Drowning I’m told that the first rule of lifeguarding is “Never turn a single drowning into a double drowning.” An effective lifeguard either stays tethered to safety, or minds their limits when they go to rescue someone. If they push beyond the point where they can still swim back to safety, they will not only fail to rescue the other person,they will also drown themselves. An effective lifeguard minds their own boundaries first so that they can properly gauge what they can offer the drowning person.   When it comes to being empathic with others, the same rules apply. If we don’t stay attentive to what belongs to us and what belongs to the other person, if we don't set limits when we start to lose clarity, three things happen:  
  1. We aren’t very helpful to the other person.
  2. We take in undifferentiated swirls of emotion that harm us, and keep us from truly addressing our own issues that got tapped in the emotional mirroring.
  3. We get depleted over time and either physically deteriorate (as stress diminishes the telomeres that hold us together on the cellular level,) or become emotionally brittle and/or burned out, (“compassion fatigue.”)
  Loving Powerfully The flip side, of course, is that when we do keep clarity, we have the freedom to really be there for another person and to remain consciously empathic throughout our lives. There’s a certain irony to it: We care most effectively when we allow experiences to tap into our emotional web, but then create just enough distance that we can use the care and wisdom we find without getting it all tangled up in our own stuff.   Setting limits on connection helps us connect better.     ***************************************************************************************     Calling all empaths! I’m considering doing a virtual group designed to help empaths protect and maximize their gifts. If you are interested or would like more information, please contact Tiffany today.