When we sense suffering and feel compassion, we are using our natural instinct to empathize. Empathy includes not only the willingness to understand, but actually co-experience the pain of another, which is why people cringe or divert their eyes when witnessing others suffer. Instinctively, we feel another’s pain due to our innate ability to feel compassion unless circumstances lead us to deaden our heart connection. Humans are born naturally empathic and must be trained to behave otherwise. Empathy is how the human heart tracks another’s emotions.
Psychotherapists and mind/body/spirit practitioners recognize that emotions move between people and teach their clients about effective boundaries. Cognitive strategies are frequently used in the field of psychology, but were unproductive with my highly empathic clients because unwanted energies and emotional contagions from others continued to stick to them like lint on Velcro. Without clear boundaries and a way to discern if the emotions we feel are our own, originate from others or the surrounding environment, every emotion we experience will be processed as our own. Mood swings, psychological imbalances and emotional storage problems can occur due to permeable boundaries. Unfortunately, when we suffer, self-criticism follows and judgments from others complicate matters.
Life has enough challenges without innocently adding the dilemmas of other people to our own. Absorbing emotions and moods for assessment purposes and misdiagnosing mine from yours is a significant problem for highly empathic people and can cause chronic imbalances. Emotional information travels between people like static electricity. Our trusty sensing mechanism acts like a pair of shoes shuffled on a wool carpet. Serious shocks develop when we are unaware that our assessment tool attracts stray emotion like a lightning rod attracts electricity. People become ill and wonder why their moods vacillate back and forth.
After experiencing success helping numerous clients, including many suffering from immune disorders, I developed the Somatic Empathy Theory. Highly empathic people are often misdiagnosed with mental illness, but they have something important to teach us about human connection. Boundary awareness, emotional cleansing and discernment strategies are fixes people can do at home without professional assistance.
An ongoing honest communication between our mental and emotional reactions to our surroundings is often solved by somatic awareness. Our body is a reliable source of accurate information from the outer world. Bessel Van Der Kolk recognized this phenomenon when he named his groundbreaking book about trauma, The Body Keeps Score. Accurate information about the subjective nature of our inner reality and outer world is crucial for survival. Discerning fact from fiction is often felt as a visceral gut reaction. Physical sensations are often more reliable sources of information than our emotional reactions and cognitive explanations. A collaborative relationship exists between our mind, emotions, body and spirit, which energize the wheels of creation through empathic connection.
Moment-to-moment recognition of our personal reactions and subtle changes within our mental, emotional and physical body need to be stabilized like a three-legged stool. Donald Kalcheid in his book Trauma and the Soul mentioned how ancient societies recognized and now modern psychology recommends that we have one eye looking inward and the other outward. Our outward eye examines the hard edges of external reality and expectations, while our inner eye mines our invisible, subjective experiences for truth. Transforming illusion and transcendence requires binocular vision in life and, of course, in fairy tales.
In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West had one eye, “as powerful as a telescope” keeping her abreast of the activities of Dorothy and her companions. Unfortunately, her blind eye apparently never looked inward because she lacked empathy and like a bully, victimized others. Glinda the Good, on the other hand, embodied compassion for her people. Perhaps through inner work she maintained clear emotional boundaries, did not rescue Dorothy and modeled heightened human potential. Binocular vision allows the creation of a living third potential, which allows our human and spiritual nature to unify once we discern the subtle emotional shifts between self and other. Towards this effort I have created the following theory about how emotional energy moves between people and is registered as somatic empathy.
Somatic Empathy Theory states that emotional energy moves between people and attaches to us like lint on Velcro. When we scan the environment for accurate information for safety and security considerations, ambient emotional energy is absorbed into our physical body. These transfers occur with or without our awareness due to mirror neurons and the universal nature of our human empathic abilities. Everyone is born empathically connected to another’s felt experience unless circumstances interfere with or enhance our somatic empathy.
As a species, humans need to develop more empathy for one another. But first, we need to get our own house in order before we can recreate oneness collectively. Like the sun evaporating the morning mist at dawn, love, peace and harmony will burn away illusion. However, our newfound equanimity can be fleeting if our empathy is boundless and we inadvertently vacuum the suffering of others into our body. Love and empathic connection are fearless medics and often rush to human suffering to offer aid and assistance. Unfortunately, without awareness, emotional debris attach like Velcro. Discerning love from illusion often resembles a nonstop Whack-a-Mole game, where mastery just leads to additional challenges and more complexity. Somatic Empathy Theory provides an opportunity to balance love and illusion with appropriate self-esteem, emotional hygiene and clear boundaries.
Connecting Not Attaching
Everyone is born intuitive, but heightened forms of empathy, which sense the emotional states in others accurately or energetic shifts over great distances occur regularly. Unfortunately, sensory reception does not necessarily lead to mental detection or appropriate action. Most people are rational and question gut reactions, while animals are more instinctual. For example, when the Indonesian tsunami hit on December 26, 2004, most people did not run for safety until the wave arrived, but prior to visual confirmation, elephants screamed and then ran for the safety of higher ground.
Intuition is a sixth-sense sensing ability and a heightened form of empathy, which every human possesses to varying degrees. Emotional contagions, which include cognitive, emotional, and somatic information, inundate our senses every day. Discerning intuition versus reason, fact from fiction and mine or yours is not an easy proposition, a challenge the Greek philosopher Plotinus addressed during contemplation (called meditation today). Plotinus suggested we access our intuitive/spiritual abilities in the following way: “You must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.”
We access the emotional tone around us naturally by extending our awareness into our surroundings as an unconscious habit. Like a 360-degree vacuum cleaner, we suck odds and ends from the environment into our five senses for review. These scans obtain useful information allowing us to feel safe and secure. This innate ability to sense our environment is remarkable and its accuracy can be spooky. For example, children of dysfunctional families empathically sense the mood of mom and dad so they can know whether to hide, avoid or interact.
Trace amounts of the positive or negative moods of others or the ambient emotional energy from our surroundings are absorbed physically in our body from these scans. Some of the emotional material will come from others or the environment, and unfortunately, most of us mistakenly believe the deluge we feel is our own. When things “feel off,” we assume the negativity originates within and our mind creates a story to explain what’s going on. Our brain will come up with reasons why we feel the way we do, but this assessment will be inaccurate on occasion…adding to our stress.
Since highly empathic individuals tend to have the courage of a lion, absorb negativity like the Tin Man, and have an irresistible urge to help others like the Scarecrow, we gravitate to the healing arts due to our compassionate hearts and extraordinary talents. Empathic people benefit groups in countless ways due to their tireless dedication to the whole. Highly sensitive individuals readily embrace suffering which is not their own, thus allowing them to connect deeply to anything or anyone with compassion.
The importance of accurate assessments, mood regulation and cleansing strategies for foreign emotional contagions cannot be overstated. Despite our earnest intentions, we can haphazardly fall into a pit of despair, a primary love template or a dysfunctional paradigm unless we learn how to discern yours from mine. Transmutation skills are greatly enhanced through boundary awareness. And yet, on the flip side, the benefits of being empathic are amazing once we use our intuitive talents to master illusion.
Emotional contagions and unconscious Velcro tendencies can compromise our emotional wellness in the following ways:
- Like a spreading pathogen, our emotional hygiene becomes contaminated.
- Permeable boundaries attract emotional debris, if unmonitored; symptoms generally associated with mental and/or physical illness can develop.
- Problems occur when we are unable to protect or cleanse ourselves from emotional contagions.
- Chronically owning the emotions of others will affect our physical health.
If you are interested to learn more about the Somatic Empathy Self-Test and Somatic Empathy Solutions, please read my book The Promise of Wholeness: Cultivating Inner Peace, Mindfulness and Love in a Divided World, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2019). I also have my Somatic Empathy Theory: Self-Test in another article in my blog. Look it up and take the self-test to see how empathic you are.
 D. Kalsched, Trauma and the Soul: A Psych-spiritual Approach to Human Development and its Interruption (London: Routledge, 2013), 6-10.
 Maryann Mott, “Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming?” National Geographic News, accessed at http://www.dormanhigh.org/UserFiles/dorman_h/Documents/English/Denise%20Madonna/Did%20Animals%20Sense%20Tsunami%20Was%20Coming.pdf