“How do you feel?” is more than a pleasantry for empaths: it is a crucially important question. Ask yourself how you feel, and allow yourself to give any answer you want. Don’t censor your emotions based on how you think you “should’ feel in a situation. If you learn to respect your emotions, they can become a powerful source of understanding.
Empathic Self-defense is a general name for any technique designed to help empaths defend themselves against overwhelming emotions and people who project their emotions violently (with or without realizing it), and to help keep themselves healthy and sane in the process.
Empathy, especially in highly sensitive individuals, can start out being as much a curse as a blessing. As an empath, it can be easy to feel weak, especially without the ability to control it. With uncontrolled empathy, one can easily feel overwhelmed by emotions from another person or by exposure to an intensely emotional environment. Particularly for children (who are more likely to feel helpless about absorbing emotional energy from others, even if they understand it), having empathy can be a traumatic experience even though it can also be a saving grace.
Trauma from uncontrolled empathy can take a variety of forms, from engendering superstitious beliefs and adherence to various ineffectual techniques to a total (or near-total) shutdown of the person’s energy sensitivity as a self-preservation mechanism. Empathic self-defense can help to restore the confidence a person needs to deal with that trauma and reopen themselves to empathic sensitivity.
The essence of Empathic Self-defense is allowing people to express emotions and emotional energy through you rather than at you. With some practice and the right mix of self-control, self-knowledge, re-direction skills and empathic awareness, the emotions that used to hit you hard will pass you right by.
Empathic self-defense can include both material and spiritual techniques, and some that function on multiple levels. In my Empathic Self-defense workshop we cover breathwork, meditation techniques, energy shields, and a technique I invented called Assess, Identify, Clear.
I teach Empathic Self-defense classes every few months or so, but here are two techniques which you can practice on your own to give you a better sense of the nature of Empathic Self-defense.
Breathwork: Breathe abdominally through the nose whenever possible. In stressful situations, use autogenic breathing. Begin autogenic breathing by breathing in through your nose to a slow count of four, feeling your lower belly expand. Hold for a slow count of four, and then slowly exhale through your lips for a count of four, letting your belly deflate. Hold empty for a slow count of four and repeat the process. Breathe in through your nose two, three, four. Hold two, three, four.
Instant Meditation: Imagine an orchestra tuning up: all of the different parts are doing their own thing in a peculiar kind of cacophony, where you recognize all of the pieces but they’re not cooperating. The meditation begins with a rustle and a drawn-out note, and then the conductor raps his stick against the lectern and silence pervades. After a moment of silence, you may continue your thoughts as normal -- hopefully with a calmer, more cohesive mind.
If that imagery fails you, try a similar thing with a movie instead of an orchestra: the thoughts which are distressing you are the advertisements and previews, which play out amidst talking, cell phones, etc. Then the screen changes, everyone quiets down, and there’s a moment of silence while the screen is still gray before the intro to the movie begins. Stay there for a few minutes (this is not meant to be a prolonged meditation) and then resume your normal thoughts.
Additional Resources (in no particular order)
Elise Lebeau is a professional counselor for empaths and intuitives who feel lost and confused.
Sylvan Tomkins was the originator of Affect Theory. Shame and Its Sisters is a good introduction to his work; and although his four-volume magnum opus, entitled Affect Imagery Consciousness, is written in a clunky, unnecessarily verbose, outdated academic style, it contains some of the smartest things ever written on emotional expression -- if you can get through it. I recommend only reading the first two volumes and the first part of the third one, at most. The fourth volume deals with Tomkins’ outdated approach to the process of thinking and imagining, which is unlikely to be interesting to anyone who isn’t already an old-school psych geek.
The Affect Theory Reader can be a good resource for more modern approaches to Affect Theory, if you are interested in approaching it from a modern psychological perspective instead of slogging through Tomkins.
Suzette Haden Elgin is the grand dame of Verbal Self-Defense. Her book, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense has been a classic for decades. A somewhat simplified version of her approach is available in her “How Stuff Works” article.
The Gift of Fear is an excellent book for learning how to use basic empathy as a survival aid. In spite of a problematic chapter on dealing with abusive situations, this book is highly recommended by and for individuals who have had to (or continually have to) use empathy -- spiritual or otherwise -- to deal with unpleasant emotional situations.
Karla McLaren has written an excellent book on the common human experience of empathy called The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. Although she avoids and sometimes denigrates the spiritual aspects of empathy (McLaren is a former New Ager who has since gone materialist), The Art of Empathy is a good book for spiritual empaths to read: if nothing else, it can give you some solid ground for communicating your perceptions to non-spiritual folks -- and regardless of her beliefs, McLaren is an astute observer who has some smart things to say about empathy and humanity.