The Day I Learned How To Stop Taking On Other People’s Feelings

You know how Oprah has that “Aha Moment” section in her magazine where people talk about an event or moment that was the catalyst for huge change in their lives? I had one. It broke open my world view up to that point—we’re talking like, decades of world view, here—and changed my life. 

School drop off was rougher than usual that morning. It was snowing, and my two girls were extra tired and cranky while getting ready for school. My oldest daughter’s holiday show was the night before (I need to pause for a moment here and ask: why on earth do they have these things on a school night?). My husband, Dan, and I were also tired, too. 

I’m going to pause the story for another moment here: For those of you who know don’t how bad it is getting young children any where on time (try before 7:15am), it’s like trying to give a cat a bath. Or like going to a loud, sugar-themed children’s birthday party at 9am with a hangover and no sleep. Or like being trapped for hours on an airplane with a seatmate who whines to you about the awful injustice of having to wait. 

Parents, please feel free to back me up on this. It’s awful. 

Anyways, we are running late. We arrive at school, and Dan gets into an argument with my youngest, Charlie, while hurrying her to get out of the car. Charlie is tired and miserable, and is also a child who loves to dwell with the drama of her emotions. She is taking her sweet baby time and won’t listen to his coaxing or instructions to get out. Wanting to speed things along, I turn to them to ask what’s up, and she jumps out to me, and everything is fine, or at least I thought it was. 

Dan is angry. He’s visibly pissed and shows this by rolling his eyes and shaking his head at me. The reason for his anger is unbeknownst to me at this point. But, if I had to guess, he was mad either at: A) Charlie, for being a grumpy brat and not listening to him, or B) Me, for interrupting him as he’s having a teaching moment. Hard to say which, but for the sake of story progression, let’s go with a little of both.

Do I ask him what’s wrong? No, because we are late, and rushing across the crosswalk to get the kids to school on time. I figure the priority at this point is to keep things moving. My oldest is terrified of getting a demerit for being late, because in her six year old mind, it means she is going to the principal’s office and getting kicked out of school.

Yes, we’ve talked to her about it, and yes, she is still determined to live her life by the rules. How is this child mine? I digress. 

I let out a sigh of relief after we drop off the oldest at her school on time. However, Dan hasn’t brought up what he’s mad about–he’s still visibly shut down and pissed–and now I’m annoyed, too. As we walk over to Charlie’s school, he walks quietly behind me and Charlie and doesn’t play tag with her like they usually do.

We drop off a happy, unaware, and unconcerned Charlie, and Dan continues his stoicism on our silent walk back to the car. My tired, grumpy self thinks: Whatever. You’re an adult. If you have something to say, say it. 

I check in with myself and how I’m feeling, something I’ve been working on as empath for a while now (more on that later), and I realize why I’m so annoyed. I am actually holding my breath. I am waiting to get into the car and be yelled at like a little kid who did something wrong once the doors are closed and no one can hear us. 

What!?! 

The more I think about it as we sit and drive to Dunkin Donuts in silence, this is what I comes up:

In my household growing up, my family went to church every Saturday. My dad was the pastor of the church we went to, thus, leaving him busy at “work” all day while my mom was left with corralling the three little kids. If we did something bad or misbehaved in church, we wouldn’t get taken downstairs or out of the sanctuary to be punished. Oh no. Instead of dealing with whatever happened in the moment, my parents would wait till we got into the car and we were out of the parking lot to unleash their anger. 

Little me hated it, and I’m sure my older sister and younger brother didn’t enjoy it, either. The car ride after church was like being in a miniature moving torture chamber. I would run through the things I did that day in my mind, and hope to God that I didn’t do anything wrong. I even hoped that my siblings didn’t either, because it was painfully tense and uncomfortable to have to listen to it even if it was for someone else. It still felt like it was happening to me. 

On those Saturday after-church car rides, I felt trapped and helpless. I couldn’t walk away if I was uncomfortable, I couldn’t get up and go in another room to process it. I had to just sit there in the car, stewing in everybody’s grumpiness, till we got home and could separate and deal with our emotions the way we needed to.

So, back to the present car ride with Dan. I try and alleviate the quiet tension by asking about his schedule that day or about upcoming trips. He keeps his responses short and we stop for gas, while I sit and wait awkwardly, wondering if I should just leave him alone. After that, we talk about dry cleaning, and arrive home. 

Dan immediately heads off to do laundry before starting his day. He comes back up a few minutes later, gives me a peck on the cheek and starts work like it’s any other morning. And I stand in the kitchen, and stare at the spot he was just in, at a loss with what to do with myself.

My chest feels tight, and I can’t concentrate. I feel unresolved and frustrated. Was I the only one there that morning? Was I the only one upset? I can’t remember what I am supposed to be doing now, and I even if I did, I doubt I would be able to do it. I take huge sip of Dunkin Donuts coffee, when it hits me like a toddler running full speed into your legs.

I remember something I talked to my therapist about a few weeks earlier: as an empath, I experience feelings the strongest through other people.

So…WAIT.

Is it me that is actually frustrated? If so, what am I frustrated about?

No. Nothing. 

I’m not frustrated. He’s frustrated. I have no clue what he’s feeling right now, but I’m taking on his feelings as if they were mine. THEY ARE NOT MINE. 

The way he feels is his responsibility. If he’s having trouble or feeling some type of way about something, he needs to speak up, and thus, deal with with his issues. Not me, because as of right now, I don’t know what the problem is and so there is nothing to deal with. 

And just maybe he has already dealt with his issues, so great for him! Maybe he’s decided it’s not important, and let it go. That’s for him to decide. Not me. 

It’s not my business. He didn’t talk to me about, he didn’t make it my business. I did, therefore I am in the wrong here. 

And standing in the kitchen that morning, I realized, if I keep doing what I’m doing—feeling his frustration and taking it on as if it’s mine—I will feel horrible and unresolved all day. Because I can’t resolve someone else feelings. Taking them on as my own doesn’t help the other person, it certainly doesn’t help me, and nothing will get] fixed. 

Then I thought: what am I feeling?

Happy. I am happy because even after a rough morning, I got the kids to school on time. The snow is beautiful. The sun is shining. I actually don’t have anything I have to do today. 

Physically, I feel good. And with no one depending on me for the next few hours, the day ahead is mine. I get to choose what I want to do that day. And who isn’t crazy thrilled for a day like that and excited about it? So yeah, definitely not frustrated.

This was a mind-blowing moment for me. I felt free. As a empath, I’ve always worried about other people’s feelings over my own. I have felt them so strongly that I got confused, and assumed they were mine, thus wrongly crossing boundary, taking them on, and making them my responsibility to fix.

No one asked me to do that. People rarely do, because hello, it’s a job! Managing other people’s stuff requires an education and license, and people should get paid for it (shout out to my therapist). I picked up on everyone’s junk, and never learned or felt like I had permission to pick up on my own (cuz OMG, that’s so selfish, right? And Jesus doesn’t want us to be selfish!*). 

I was so overjoyed, that while my eyes filled with those happy, I-just-got-out-of-prison tears, I sat down and wrote out my “Aha Moment” so that I’d never forget it. I even sent it to my therapist, singing her praises and thanking her for working with me and thus getting me to this point of changing such a debilitating mindset.

This momentous moment where nothing actually happened—other than me consciously, intentionally, and visibly separating my feelings from someone else’s—was fantastic. You couldn’t make a movie out of it or anything, but this kind of moment needs to be shared, you guys. And if Oprah says it is so, then it’s basically Biblical and possibly against the law if you don’t.

I feel lighter, freer and more like me than I’ve ever felt (through someone else *wink wink*) in my entire life. 

————

*He doesn’t want us to be selfish, true. But little me listened to adults use the idea of Jesus to emotionally manipulate in situations they didn’t know how to deal with themselves. 

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