In this excerpt from her book Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much, Colette Baron-Reid details what it is like to be a deeply empathic person, and explains the pros and cons of feeling others’ emotions as your own:
Empathy is much underrated. From childhood, we learn that brute strength, toughness, and smarts are what we need to succeed and be happy in life. We rarely celebrate sensitivity, or the beauty of caring deeply. Too often, sensitivity is seen as a weakness, something to be ashamed of (and more so for men than for women, which is why sensitive men have it especially rough).
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But being empathetic—feeling others’ emotions as your own—can give you a deeper understanding of others and greater compassion. If you’re highly sensitive and empathetic, your friends probably would say you’re the one person they can always count on to know they’re sad when they’re pretending everything is okay. You can probably sense feelings others don’t pick up on. That sensitivity enables you to “read” situations very well and respond accordingly. Your actions and decisions take into account the hidden reality of people’s emotions. You might find that people seem instinctively drawn to you, and random strangers may even tell you their troubles. I have a friend who is hopeless at directions, but whenever she’s in New York City, strangers push their way through crowds to ask her to point them to Broadway. She just gives off an approachable and kind energy—and then she has to admit that she has no idea whether she and the stranger are facing north, south, east, or west.
Your intuitiveness and sensitivity may make you an excellent healer, teacher, and counselor. You may play that role in your relationships—the “unpaid psychiatrist” of all your friends or the harmony establisher in your family. Or, you may actually work in the helping professions as a therapist, nurse, doctor, social worker, acupuncturist, executive assistant, or in human resources, and so on, or perhaps you work in a creative, artistic field. You probably see other people in shades of gray rather than black or white, and you don’t overidentify with one separate group. Ultimately, feeling “too much” can be quite an asset, personally and professionally. Take a minute to feel how wonderful that is.
And when you feel more intensely than others do, you can truly revel in shared experiences, like concerts, picnics, or spiritual gatherings. You don’t just have fun on these occasions. You feel sheer joy filling every pore in your body, and you soak in the pleasure of everyone around you. Heaven!
But let’s face it, there’s a down side, too. If you feel too much, even happy experiences can quickly make you feel overstimulated or hyper, which can trigger anxiety because that sense of excitement seems out of your control. You start feeling ungrounded and anxious, and begin looking for a sanctuary from all the hoopla. You have to develop coping mechanisms. It’s all too much.
You may even have begun early in life sensing the world too much as unsafe so you spend most of your life isolated from others. I know some empathetic people who completely numb out and shut down, unable to feel anything at all because it’s too scary. To heck with feelings—you might have even developed a very strong personality to ensure that you can control who connects with you and who doesn’t. And guess who needs to always be in control of that dial, more than likely on the “Don’t come near me unless I say how, when, and exactly for how long” setting? There’s a whole spectrum of coping mechanisms that people who feel too much engage in to avoid the onslaught of feelings picked up like lint floating through the emotional environment. You may cope by having your “radar” constantly on Alert to ensure that the vibes you pick up are turned right down or off, even if they are wonderful and meant to be comforting. Don’t hug me, don’t touch me, don’t stand so close to me! You’re not having any of that!
On top of that, the vibes you’re feeling aren’t always pleasant, anyway. People’s anger easily rattles you, even when it’s just a shouting match on a reality TV show. When someone is callous or insensitive, you feel uneasy. This is true even if the person’s behavior isn’t directed at you but, rather, at someone else. If you hear about people or animals suffering, you just can’t bear it. Grief or anger settles over you like a dark, heavy blanket and it dampens your mood for hours, even days.
Is it possible that loving and caring for others, being generous and open-hearted, can make you fat? Consider: why are so many nurses overweight? As they take care of the sick, who is taking care of them? How are they processing what they see, experience, and feel all day long as they work their high-stress jobs? In his book Microtrends, Mark Penn points out that African-American women are three times as likely as any other subgroup of Americans to be overweight. The women most likely to be morbidly obese are the caregivers in their communities—the full-time grandmothers, the nurses and nurses aides, the church volunteers, and the teachers. Maybe it’s just a matter of eating too many fattening foods on the go, but maybe it’s also that these women are taking on the weight of their overburdened communities.
What if, instead of beating yourself up for being overweight, you appreciated your kindness, sensitivity, compassion, and generosity? What if you made a commitment to show yourself and your body the love you show to others? What if you came out of isolation and allowed yourself to feel? What if you stepped back from your emotions and your persistent inner critic, and instead told yourself, You are a treasure. I am so honored to know you, to actually be you.
This is what you need to start doing. It may be uncomfortable at first, but with practice, you are going to become kinder to yourself. That alone will be a strong foundation for bringing your body back to its optimum health and weight. Love thyself. Love thy body. You will be amazed at how much power you have to change what you wish to change when you start with love.