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 we cringe or divert our eyes when witnessing others suffer. Instinctively, we feel another’s pain unless circumstances lead us to deaden our heart connection. Humans are born naturally empathic and must be trained to behave otherwise.

The following theory is included in my book, The Promise of Wholeness: Cultivating Inner Peace, Mindfulness and Love in a Divided World. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,  (2019)

 “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.”   

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 are natural occurrences. Poor energetic boundaries can corrupt us physically by allowing extraneous emotional energy to enter our body. 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 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.

Emotional garbage from our surroundings will affect our mood and is a recipe for somatic disturbances over time. Highly empathic individuals frequently become awash in the emotional debris of others and are often unaware of why their moods fluctuate wildly. The following self-test can be a useful assessment tool.

Somatic Empathy Self-Test

There are many ways to connect with others without taking on their confusing and complicated emotions. Experiencing the pleasures and pains of all is a quality of an open heart, but protection from emotional contagions is necessary. It is a good practice to have one eye looking inward to get accurate assessments in each moment. Determining when something is yours or not reduces stress responses. The following self-test can help you determine if your emotions originate from outside sources:

  • Maintain baseline emotional awareness. Rate your average baseline mood on a scale from 0–10 and watch it with one eye like a barometer. Chose any number that feels accurate. Any significant numerical change can be assessed for empathy Velcro and addressed immediately.
  • Scan the horizon. For example, let’s say your baseline mood at a restaurant was a five before a couple started an argument in a nearby both. If your mood jumped up to a seven and returned to five after they left, your empathic awareness may have tapped into the couple’s conflict and their emotional contagions.
  • Notice your mood changes. In that moment, you can ascertain if the internal change is personal/psychological or has external origins. Hold the following intention for the issue, “If it’s mine let it stay and if not, let it go.” Then visualize a waterfall cleansing your body and/or a large drain underneath you removing emotional residue.
  • Assess what emotion moves or remains. Assess if your waterfall helped you return to your original mood or stress level. If your emotional baseline remains elevated, make a commitment to address your stress response or unresolved monkey. A quick physiological and psychological self-examination can help determine the origin of discrepancies.[1]

This somatic empathy self-test can help you rule out or realize how often another’s anxiety or a chaotic environment affects your emotional stability. Check how often your emotional state fluctuates throughout the day and try to determine why. Here is a list of possible somatic empathic reactions to emotional contagions adapted from Caitlin Matthews’s book, Psychic Shield:

  • Sudden depression, impending dread or groundless fear.
  • Vitality depletion, anxiety from unknown sources or soul disquiet.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, empty or hollowed out.
  • Ache in the solar plexus as if being sucked dry.
  • Wide mood swings or a lack of interest your daily routine.
  • A succession of low-grade illnesses, which never clear up.[2]

Watch your brain come up with reasons for these symptoms, which may or may not prove true. Assessing your empathic nature is the first step. If you deem it appropriate, implementing the suggested solutions and visualizations provided in my book is the second step. 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.

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[1] Previous trauma, unresolved issues and primary love templates also provide triggers, and this assessment tool does not address these circumstances. The psychological strategies to resolve previous trauma and victim/perpetrator paradigms require further self-examination than the suggested solutions for somatic empathy-related problems.

[2] Caitlin Matthews, Psychic Shield, The Personal Handbook of Psychic Protection. (Berkley, California, 2006), 40-41.