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Can you feel too much empathy?

Taking control of your mood state is an act of self-care

I was recently on a call with my sister, and she had nothing but bad news. She told me about people in our family feeling ill and being hospitalized. We discussed estrangements, mental health struggles, and financial problems. There was a lot going on with my family. And I felt all of it.

The people in our lives, although unintentionally, sometimes bring us pain. My sister and I shared a similar sadness about our aunt’s progressive illness. My body physically started to ache when she told me about a complex, ongoing argument between family members. The mental and physical illness that plagued my family began to weigh on me. It was a heaviness on my chest. I felt tightness in my temples.

Our sense of empathy may go a little too far if it gets to the point that we feel ourselves falling apart. It is okay to want the best for the ones who we love. It is not okay to lose ourselves in that hopefulness and leave ourselves feeling a sense of hopelessness when “the best” for everyone doesn’t happen.

Over many years, I have learned to give myself permission to feel whatever it is that I feel. If I am angry, I allow myself to be angry. If I feel sadness or sorrow, I acknowledge that that is okay. More importantly, I’ve learned not to absorb the emotions of others, and quite frankly, to limit my sense of empathy. And when I know that I can’t, I limit my time with people whom I suspect will bring me too far down. For example, if working on an important project, I take time to myself to just work on that project unless there are any emergencies. It would be a disservice to myself if I always made myself available to bad news that could leave me feeling sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness.

While some may argue that it is selfish to shelter myself away from loved ones with perpetually bad news, I would counter and reframe it is as self-care.

Limiting the negative is one way to be mindful about the potential thoughts that we allow to enter our minds. We should consider how speaking with a certain person often goes, how we feel after we speak with her/him, and do we have the mental bandwidth and time available to effectively manage those feelings. The resources just aren’t always available. In those moments, we have to make tough choices. That may sometimes mean choosing your own well-being instead of entertaining a potential source of negativity in a situation that is not an emergency.

Whether we call this being selfish or practicing self-care, limiting negative interactions is important to maintain a sense of emotional balance and peace. We choose when we want to allow other people to affect our mood states, even if that means carefully selecting when we make ourselves available to our loved ones.

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the mindful comedown.

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