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Beware of taking on other people’s anxiety

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Beware of taking on other people’s anxiety

Sometimes, we take on other people’s emotional overflow like a sponge absorbing a toxic spill. If you take on other people’s stuff, you may have no room left for yours. This can contribute to you getting overwhelmed and anxious relatively easy.

You may have absorbed other people’s anxiety if:

1. your parent’s didn’t take care of their own anxiety when you were young,

2. you mistakenly think compassion demands you take on other people’s emotions, and/or

3. you don’t have a good system for protecting yourself from other people’s emotions.

Is your parent’s anxiety living on in you?

If your parents didn’t deal well with their own anxiety, not only were they not good role models for dealing with anxiety in a healthy way but chances are that the child you absorbed their anxiety.

Getting filled up with your parent’s anxiety leaves little room for you to contain fear, anxiety, nervousness, or worry of your own.

Twenty years later, you can still be lugging around their emotional stuff.

Do you think compassion demands you take on other people’s emotions?

You may be absorbing other people’s anxiety because you imagine that it is your job as a compassionate person to take on their stuff so they have less to carry. There is a better way of being compassionate. A way that helps them release their emotions but you don’t take it on yourself.

Compassion is caring about people’s difficulties and demonstrating that caring through action.

Compassion, like all attributes, can be taken too far and become unhealthy. Taking compassion to the point of absorbing other people’s emotions is taking it too far. A healthy level of compassion acknowledges the boundary between yourself and others.

How to protect yourself from other people’s stuff.

I’ve helped lots of people successfully create an emotion protection device.

Luckily for me – and for you – I had a counseling professor who passed on to her Masters in Counseling students a trick that she developed for avoiding absorbing clients’ emotions. As you can imagine, counselors deal with a lot of heavy emotions when they are helping people. If they absorbed their clients’ emotions they wouldn’t last long as professional listeners.

The trick she taught us is to imagine a container for peoples’ emotions to go into. That way, they get to give off their emotions but you don’t take the emotions on. You simply imagine rerouting their emotion into the container.

I have taken the professors’ container idea and come up with another type of protection mechanism which could be described as an emotion barrier.

Here are 2 emotion protection mechanisms you can use to reroute people’s emotions:

1. An emotion container.

2. An emotion barrier.

An emotion container

The key to an emotion container is that it is something other than you.

I call my imaginary emotion holding container a “cement bunker.” (I don’t really know why I call it that, but I do.) It is invisible, and defies gravity. It can be anywhere I want it, any time I want it. It has a lid and a bottom and there is a slit of an opening between the lid and bottom. (As you can see, I have a vivid imagination.) The bad stuff can get in but it can’t get out. It’s an incinerator—it destroys whatever goes in there, so the emotions can’t hurt me or anyone else.

I actually don’t need it much when I work with clients because I just know how to not take on their stuff, but I have used it a few times in my personal life and it has worked beautifully. One time I was confined to a car with a person who was ranting about something and I felt like “I can’t take this anymore!” I engaged the cement bunker, imagined his angst going into the container, and voila, much to my relief, I felt totally at ease while he continued to rant.

One of my clients that I taught this trick too was a sweet young mother who I was helping with anxiety. She had an out-of-control mother-in-law who loved calling my client whining and complaining about all the awful things she felt other family members perpetrated.

My client wanted to be there for her mother-in-law but was always totally worn out after these phone calls and found that she had trouble clearing her mind to focus on being a loving and attentive mother to her young children.

The next appointment after I told her the imaginary emotion container idea, she was excited to report that now when she talks to her mother-in-law on the phone she imagines the woman’s voice coming out of the phone and going into a “basket with a lid on a shelf.” She can now listen to her mother-in-law, not take on her stuff, and be totally her loving self when the call is over.

It was win/win. She feels she can now be a listener and at the same time not get weighted down by the other person’s emotions.

An emotion barrier

The emotion barrier idea is to imagine a device that is directly protects you from other people’s negative emotions. The key is that you want to block the painful emotions but let the good stuff in.

A massage therapist client was feeling overwhelmed by her clients’ painful emotions. Lots of people share their personal stories while they are getting massages and my client wanted to offer an environment that welcomed that, but it was wearing her out. When I mentioned the emotion barrier concept to her, she immediately lit up and joyfully exclaimed “a semi-permeable membrane!”

She pictured surrounding herself with a semi-permeable membrane bubble. I don’t know how much you remember about the biology of a cell, but our body’s cells have a semi-permeable membrane that lets the good stuff in but keeps the bad stuff out. It’s perfect as an emotional barrier because you can imagine letting the good emotions in but keeping the bad ones out.

Other clients have imagined a Plexiglas shield that they can position to zing away potentially destructive-to-them emotions.

Hopefully describing all that helps you come up with something that you can experiment using as a mechanism to protect yourself from taking on other people’s emotions.

Now let’s turn to what to do about the angst that you have already taken on.

Releasing the anxiety you’ve absorbed.

Chances are you are just now becoming aware of the idea that you can and should protect yourself from taking other people’s negative emotions, so you are probably lugging around some anxiety that isn’t yours.

If you notice that you have taken on other people’s anxiety, it may be helpful to imagine releasing it.

Here’s a visualization that can help you clear out other people’s stuff that you have absorbed:

1. Close your eyes.

2. Take a couple of deep breaths.

3. Imagine you can scan your body for other people’s anxiety/tension.

4. Notice where in your body you feel that tension.

5. Imagine you could look there where that tension is. What do you see? (It could be anything.)

6. Now, imagine that tension released. It might be released all in one go, or dissipated, or broken down. It might be simply released or it might be destroyed. You can keep that part of the emotion that gives you wisdom and understanding—so the emotion can fulfill its job of giving you information—and let go of the rest.

This visualization can be useful for releasing your own stored emotional burdens too.  

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  • Ann Silvers
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