The Empathetic Emotionally Sensitive Person (With Boundary Issues)
Do you ever feel what other people are feeling, even if your own personal circumstances do not match? Some might say that I am an "empath." I say that I am someone with Borderline Personality Disorder who has to be careful not to take on others' emotions as my own.
Today was very draining. Nothing really happened to me, per se, but a number of my coworkers were very stressed out about meeting a deadline this afternoon. I haven't noticed this happening in a while, but today I felt as if I were taking on their emotions.
As a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, I sometimes have difficulties with boundaries. This shows up in many ways, including becoming so empathetic or sensitive to others' emotions that I begin to experience them as well.
This happens to ordinary non-bpd individuals as well all the time. Think about when you watch a movie or a commercial where the character is saddened and starts to cry. Many people become empathetic and will also cry. For a few moments, they identify with and share the emotion that is being portrayed by the actor.
For me, as an emotionally sensitive individual, when this particular symptom shows up, it can be as if everyone around me represent the actors in a commercial, and I am bombarded and overwhelmed with experiencing their emotions, whether I am actually involved in their situation or not.
Today, for example, I could overhear several of my colleagues in the next room stressing out over the details on something that needed to get completed today. While they were doing their best to engage in teamwork, I could literally feel the tension as they snapped at each other, some swore, others raised their voices. I felt so tense and in a bad mood, even though my work was only slightly affected by the project. Sure, I could have been adversely affected just by being exposed to their behaviors, but it was more than that. I was feeling the type of stress that I imagined each of them must feel. I made my perception of their experience into my own.
I noticed I was clenching my jaw and that my facial expression was a mix of apprehension and anger. (I keep a mirror at my desk now so that I can be aware and notice, as we are taught in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). Although I started out my day in a good mood, I was now feeling upset, bitter, sarcastic, and, well, "jerky."
One of my coworkers (not one involved in the project) came through my office and noticed I was stressed. He began to talk to me about his cats. My whole demeanor changed as I told him what's been happening with mine. I was sitting up, relaxing, smiling, and laughing. I caught the shift. I actually thanked him for bringing up his cats with me and told him that the conversation turned my whole afternoon around.
When he went on his way, I knew I had to use my DBT skills to get a hold on my emotions. I practiced Opposite Action by half-smiling. The last thing I felt like doing was smiling, but I did it anyway. It helped.
I also put on upbeat, positive music and sang harmonies to it. This helped as well.
I took a break and went for a brisk 2 mile walk out in the sunshine. I had time to think about what had taken place. The good news is, I didn't make things worse, and I had the chance to observe my response.
In that way, it was still a good day.
Do you ever intensely experience others' emotions?
Thank you for reading.
The author wrote this blog post several years ago. She is now in RECOVERY from BPD and thriving as an emotionally sensitive person. She teaches all she learned in her live, weekly, global ONLINE classes. Learn more and sign up for a class at DBT Path.