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When You Can't Turn the Empathy Off

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Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. 

I’ve written before about how depression has helped me become a better person by creating a deeper understanding of other people, and a greater ability to empathize with those suffering. There are many times, however, when this good quality can turn inward and become self-destructive. 

I have the tendency to soak up other people’s sadness like a sponge. I just can’t turn it off. And once that sadness settles in my soul it builds a house and lives there. Can you relate? 

How do you get to a place where you can engage with people in a way where you don’t appear detached and heartless, but also protect yourself from going to that dark place yourself? Here are a few things that help me, maybe they will help you as well.

Talk with a professional. They are trained to not only be good listeners, but to also educate you on how you can help yourself. My psychologist uses a cognitive-behavioral approach, and it’s helped me identify when my mind is going to those sad places — and gives me ways I can redirect those thoughts in a compassionate way. He has also helped me identify what many of my triggers are so that I can better prepare myself when I know I’ll be facing a difficult situation.

Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness isn’t magic, but it can help you deal with your emotions in a way that helps you stay in control of them, instead of them having control over you. When I feel myself spiraling out of control with anxiety, sadness or the dark thoughts of depression, it helps me take a moment to step back and analyze those thoughts in a calmer frame of mind. Sometimes simply being aware of those emotions is half the battle. 

Get active. When I get down, I isolate myself and can end up spending the rest of the day in bed. While it rarely “cures” me, a nice quiet walk can help lift the fog in my mind. Science shows that being physically active can also trigger the release of endorphins in your brain, which is a natural way of getting a pick-me-up. You don’t have to run a marathon, simply do what you can and go from there.

Journal. Writing down my thoughts helps me to get things off my chest in a healthy way. If you don’t have anyone you can talk to in the moment, consider writing or journaling your thoughts and emotions. The idea might seem silly to you at first, but we all need ways to express ourselves, so you’ll never know if it will help you unless you give it a try. 

Those are four ideas to try when you just can’t turn the empathy off. Each by themselves might not help a lot, but when you combine them together they can make a big difference. There are many other things that can help, so please share your thoughts and what works for you.

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Originally published: November 14, 2016
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