Keeping Empathy In Check

Last month, I discovered that June 9th is Empathy Day and today it is trending on Twitter, because we should all harness this inner empathy that we have, right? We should all be more in-tune with each other’s feelings and emotions, especially at the moment, right?

I am also seeing posts on social media about empathic overload, parasympathetic stress, and general exhaustion… and I’m feeling that too.

Being empathic is a funny beast. I believe that we all inherently are, to some level, empathic. But for some of us, especially those of us that fall at the more sensitive end of the spectrum, our levels of empathy can sometimes be a little too much to manage and can sometimes even feel more like a curse than a blessing. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that we need more kindness and understanding going forward, using the word ‘empathy’ as a way to propel us to this point seems a little too far, especially when those of us who are empathic can often feel overwhelmed or burnt out by it.

For a long time, a very long time, I kind of just took my own empathy as something that simply was. I am empathic, just as someone else might be classed as adventurous or studious. It was a personality trait that I had, I couldn’t exactly switch it off and so I just went about my business wearing my empathy on my sleeve. And so often I would feel so tired, I would feel heavy, I would feel sad with no apparent cause, or frustrated, or just very jumbled…

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have understood that I wasn’t only observing what other people around me were feeling and therefore sympathising with them, I was feeling it too, quite literally.

There was a moment when it clicked for me. I walked into a room where two people were having an argument without words. You know the type. There were no raised voices, there was no apparent anger at all, but you could hear it in the tone of voice, the words used… I entered that room and my mood changed, like flicking a switch, and I instantly felt my energy shift. I knew then that this sudden dip in my mood was not because of my own emotions. I had instantly, on walking into that room, absorbed some of the energy from either one or both of those people – and it was not comfortable. I couldn’t stay in there, this feeling did not belong in my body and I did not want it to be there.

After that moment, I began to notice more how my mood would shift around certain people and, perhaps even more importantly, I began to notice the energy of other people and how it impacted me. Most people have a pretty neutral energy I find, it’ll change depending on circumstance of course but on the whole, it makes things very straightforward. However, some people can have very powerful energy – and this isn’t always a good thing. It may all sound a little far fetched at this point, but I have met people before who have had very confusing and chaotic energy, these people are not bad to be around necessarily, but I find that I do become quite tired after spending time with them. I have also met a couple of people that have very dark energy, and these people I do find it hard to spend time around. Around people like this, I usually get a headache and a real heaviness in the back of my head. It will quite often feel like someone has pulled the rug from underneath me and I get the feeling that I would rather be anywhere else. It is not comfortable and it will usually leave me exhausted for days afterward.

I don’t know, at this point, whether this is an empath trait, a thing that most people feel, instinct, or just an off-shoot of being at the more sensitive end of the scale when it comes to my surroundings. But I do feel that how we pick up on and perceive other people’s energies does link into how just being close to or around someone can impact our mood, and to an extent, our own energy.

Is it any wonder then that, at the moment especially, there are people who feel completely exhausted and burnt-out, but with no apparent cause? In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I felt like I was just wiped out. I didn’t feel like I could settle to anything, my thoughts felt jumbled and I struggled to make decisions. I was suffering from empathic overload. The whole world was experiencing a form of collective trauma. Suddenly everything that everyone knew – our routines, how we shopped, what we did when we left our homes, our children’s schooling, our jobs – were all thrown up into the air. Overnight we had to adapt, we had to get our shit together so that we could, at the very crux of it, survive. Here in the UK, we saw how this virus was affecting Italy and Spain and we were told that we were a few weeks behind these horrifying death tolls, we knew that this unstoppable force was coming. We watched as people panic bought toilet rolls, as governments who should have been keeping us safe floundered amongst the panic. We worried about older relatives and friends and our jobs and what this all meant long term and we did it all whilst suddenly having to be alone with our thoughts, without the distraction of work and routine.

And then the shocking images of George Floyd being murdered, and the realisation that systematic racism exists even within our own homes. That no-one, even if you consider yourself to not be racist, is truly not racist. To witness and hear what generations of people have been through and to have to hold yourself and your own culture accountable for centuries of pain and hurt and torment and know that what you feel right now does not even compare in the slightest possible way to what millions of people feel every day, is really, really hard.

People are suffering everywhere right now. Watching the news is really hard, even scrolling through social media is hard because you want to be able to help in any small way you can but all you can feel is this pain, that doesn’t even fully belong to you. It is overwhelming, it has a physical effect on our bodies when our cortisol levels raise, and we can find ourselves trapped within the ‘fight or flight’ trauma response – and usually within one of the lesser-known variations of that; freeze.

That, to me, is my definition of empathy and recently I heard it summed up perfectly by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“Empathy is “You’re suffering, and now I’m suffering because you’re suffering.” So now we have two people suffering and nobody who can serve, and nobody who can be of help, and if you knew how your empathetic suffering actually makes you into another patient who needs assistance, you would be more willing to dip into compassion. And what underlies compassion is the virtual courage, the courage to be able to sit with and witness somebody else’s pain without inhabiting it yourself so much that you become another person who is suffering and now, there are no helpers.”

I do not want to be someone that freezes in the face of someone else’s pain, but there have been times throughout my life – including very recently – where that is what I have done. Many times over the past few weeks, I have thought back to this passage of text and this interview in general and tried to face things with compassion, rather than empathy. Because empathy can become so strong that it destabilises us and renders us useless in the face of someone else’s struggles. I do feel pain for others and I do feel very overwhelmed with everything that is going on in the world right now, but I do also have the power to step back from it. I have the power to limit my news intake and I have the power to choose what I read and when I read it.

We so often hear analogies along the lines of ‘you cannot save anyone else unless you put your own breathing apparatus on first’ and (whilst I disagree with the whole notion of ‘saving’ people) this is absolutely true. Because what good is all of this desire to help and be the light within someone else’s darkness, if you are suffering as much as they are to begin with?

It takes courage and it takes strength to hold your own behaviour up to the light and examine it. And I am not saying that empathy is ‘bad’ – I firmly believe that it is a good thing to be able to empathise with someone else and to be able to help them from a place of kinship and understanding. But there does become a point where it can become too much and we can become unstuck. Do it too often and too intensely and you end up exhausted, do it without even realising, repeatedly, and you end up with burnout. Do it with one person within a relationship and you end up on a codependency spiral where you reach the point of only being ok, if they are ok. Like anything – including the good in this life – it is good to keep in check and use in moderation.

And for everything else, there is compassion.

The Perils of Writing What You Know (& The Perks)

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This already feels like a bit of a weird post, so bear with…

I have been blogging now for just over a month but I have been writing for years, I’m 34 and I think I wrote my first (questionable) piece of fiction before I entered my teens. I have always enjoyed writing, putting words down onto paper; creating new worlds and characters to inhabit them. Even when I am not writing, I am imagining; whether through the words of someone else, or just by myself. Reading and writing has always brought me great comfort, even in my darkest moments.

A few years ago, I joined a site where I could be completely anonymous. The nature of the site wasn’t based upon writing, but I posted my words there nonetheless and people liked them! This was the first real validation I had received outside of close family and friends. I wrote fiction and I also wrote about my own mental health – and I received comments and loves and private messages thanking me for being brave (when I felt anything but). People commented on how I had helped them, or how I inspired them. I received support on my bad days and on my good, I was able to encourage and support others. There was a nice little community feeling and for a while it was fantastic. The Blurt Foundation posted a series of Instagram ‘prompts’ – initially for pictures to be posted on the platform, but I shared the list on this site and people joined in with their writings, sharing stories of their own struggles with mental health with complete openness and honesty whilst supporting those that had also decided to join in. New friendships were formed, it was a really positive experience and it got people talking about mental health which is so very important.

However, for reasons unrelated to writing, my relationship with the site was never a completely comfortable one. On one hand, the anonymity allowed me to be completely open, but in being completely open you can become quite fragile. There were times, when being on the site consumed most of my time, there were relationships formed there that weren’t entirely healthy and there were times when for my own mental health I needed to step away. This was a pattern I got into throughout the years, but last year I stepped away and I never went back.

Around the same time, I also had a really difficult discussion with a family member regarding the therapy I was due to start in the winter – something that I had written got brought up in this conversation and I had the overwhelming sense that they believed that writing about my experiences and then sharing it was wrong. For months after that, I didn’t write – I couldn’t write.

I had not only lost my place to share it and feel connected with people, but I had also lost my confidence. I joined Fiverr briefly and wrote short stories for people, but there was no real pleasure in it, I wasn’t writing anything that felt true to me. It felt empty and hollow and when I got commission emails through I felt deflated, where once, I would have felt excited.

I did start the therapy though. On my second session I took my therapist a folder full of things I had written over the previous ten years – not all of it, but a carefully curated selection. I think anyone that has been to see various doctors and therapists can understand the frustration of going through the same (sometimes very difficult) stories. In my third session he told me how impressed he had been with some of my writing, he also asked me who I was writing to? I didn’t have an answer for that.

The sessions continued over the course of the next few weeks and in one of them I told him that I hadn’t written anything for months. He took this in (as therapists do) and then about twenty minutes later he asked me what my dream was, what my ideal life looked like.

“Well, I wouldn’t have to go to work…” The words escaped my lips before I had even really thought about them. Work is a weird thing for me; it is a challenge every single day. Not because of the work, but because of the toll it takes on my mental health. It is a catch 22 – I have written about it briefly here – but I know that ultimately work is healthy.

“If you were a writer, you wouldn’t have to do the job you do”

I laughed at the prospect, a writer! I hadn’t written anything of note in the last four months. “I’m not a writer…” I said quietly. “Writers write.”

You write! I was blown away by some of the things you wrote, there is real talent there…”

“Was.” I corrected him. “There was. I don’t know what to write any more.”

“Then write anything. It doesn’t have to be mind blowing, it doesn’t have to be heartfelt, it doesn’t even have to be shared. It can just be words, on a page.”

I went away and mulled this over for a few days, Friends gave me encouraging advice but still, blank screens and crisp white pages gave me the shudders. I had heard of a journaling challenge created by Michelle Chalfant who I had been following on social media after discovering ‘The Adult Chair’. It was a month’s worth of prompts designed to get you thinking about your emotions, your triggers and your reactions. I had downloaded them and looked at them briefly – but the first one, was simply ‘You’. That was pretty daunting…

I considered setting up a completely anonymous WordPress blog if I was going to do this journaling challenge. I didn’t really know anything about WordPress but I figured it couldn’t be that hard; it also gave me a good excuse to procrastinate, I was absorbed in fonts and colours and themes… writing? Ha!

But one day, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. So I started on the first prompt… and after that first initial paragraph, it flowed. It flowed with honesty, it flowed with heartbreak and beauty and all of those things that makes writing so satisfying. But it was honest; very, very honest. I couldn’t put it online, not where people would actually read it.

(I have covered some of those very honest subjects since, but all in one go, it was a little overwhelming.)

I also realised very quickly that I didn’t want it to be ‘a secret’. So, I went through some older writings and posted them on my blog. I made an Instagram page, I made a Twitter account. I linked my Instagram to Facebook and invited friends who I knew would get it.

I had a blog…

Shit, I had a blog. I would have to write stuff! On one hand, this was super exciting, I finally had a place to share my words again and the people that had read what I had posted so far were very encouraging. My friend had also decided around the same time to set hers up too, and another friend that had not long finished uni was making noises that he wanted more of a presence online to promote the nutrition work he was now qualified in; we went and had breakfast and joked that we were becoming ‘influencers’ as we snapped pictures of our breakfasts and talked filters and hashtags, before deciding that we wanted to create a post together about the links between mental health and nutrition. This all felt really good, really positive. I had written some new stuff, I was really enjoying the process of writing and sharing it again.

I think the act of sharing it, for me, is very important. I don’t fully know why, but it feels like it gives the writing a sense of purpose – and especially with it being largely about mental health, that purpose is all about demystifying a topic that is not talked about enough. To have a mental health condition, any mental health condition, can be terrifyingly isolating. Over the last few weeks, I have begun to realise that the answer to my therapist’s question, was me. I was writing it to me, but not the me now; the teenage me who faced bullies every day and didn’t know how to fight back, the me who felt I had let everyone down by not being ‘strong enough’ or that ‘being too sensitive’ was a huge character flaw. I was writing for the younger me, the child me, the teenage me and I was also writing for the adult me who ten years ago forced herself into work every day whilst surviving on nothing but coffee, extra strong mints and insomnia.  I was writing for the girl who was so terrified to put food in her mouth that impassable, yet invisible, lumps formed within her throat. I was writing to a woman who always felt cold, always felt scared, and always felt overwhelmed. I was writing to the person who didn’t know how to get all of these words out, to the person who had all the words but they formed an incomprehensible, jumbled mess within her mind. I was writing to the girl that just needed comfort and that needed to feel less alone – because I knew that even though it felt so incredibly lonely, there were thousands upon thousands of people who felt the way I did.

I read some of my older posts with a view to sharing them, and I wept. There was so much pain, and also so many times where it sounded like I had it all figured out – without having the foresight to know that another blip, another illness, a difficult workplace or new anxiety was around the corner. I read some words and felt embarrassment and I read others and felt awe that even in the midst of a deep, dark depression, I had written something that had encapsulated it all so precisely. I thought of sharing some on my blog and I thought of who would read it… the words were too honest.

My mood was slipping, there were days when it all felt too much; too overwhelming…

I didn’t know why, do we ever know why with depression? It could have been a number of ‘logical’ things; I am still, seven months later, adjusting to life without medication and trying to treat mental illness and fibromyalgia holistically (I do not have anything against conventional medication and I will be writing about this in due course), I have been more sociable lately and that, whilst lovely, always makes me very tired which makes me more prone to low mood. I am still in therapy, which can be very difficult at times. My dog is sick with an ongoing and seemingly undiagnosable illness… things mount up, but of course it really could just be that I was going through a blip and it would pass.

Or, it could be that suddenly I was being open about my mental health again, and honest – not only with my words, but also with my feelings. I wasn’t just bumbling through, carrying on regardless, I was thinking about them because I was writing about them. I also was beginning to follow other mental health bloggers on Twitter and Instagram, and whilst those communities are wonderful and supportive, it is all there.

It is, like many things that surround mental health, very contradictory. We need to talk about it, we need to get our voices and our stories and our support for each other out there – we need to be able to say when we are struggling and we encourage others to do the same, but in doing that it can all feel very… overwhelming. It can feel overwhelming for those of us that share because suddenly all of these thoughts that don’t feel like our own at times, but that definitely come from us are out there and it’s not just strangers on the internet that read it – it’s our friends, our parents and sometimes even our employers. I have spent my entire life feeling like I am too… sensitive/open/honest/experimental/generous/open minded/empathic and like I should always reel my behaviour in – and therefore sharing how I feel can at times be very, very difficult; as soon as it’s out there, I want to snatch it back in. I am an introvert by nature and pretty quiet and softly spoken; I am not one to get up on my soapbox or get in to big debates – but I do believe that conversations about mental health are so very important and as someone who has been there, done that, got the t-shirt and who keeps taking it back for an exchange, I need that to all be for something! If that ‘something’ is helping just one person, then I have done what I set out to do.

So… being a mental health blogger with a mental health condition (or three), is hard. It’s hard because amongst all of it you are on your own journey and you have your own demons to slay. It’s hard because you know only too well the pain that others are going through and sometimes, that pain can trigger your own. It’s hard because it means being open about an illness that feeds off of isolation and it’s hard because that openness isn’t limited towards strangers.

But it’s worth it.

It’s worth it because it starts conversations and helps people to feel less alone and less scared. It’s worth it because it can help me to believe that all of this pain was for something, and it’s worth it because it means I get to write about something that I feel passionate about once again. I have learnt a lot in a month; I have learnt that in general, my confidence soars when I am doing something I love. That not only do I write passionately about mental health, I can also talk passionately about it to people, in person. I have learnt that in sharing my stories it encourages people to share their own and to have difficult conversations with loved ones… but, I have also learnt that there is a flip side. The flip side happens when I spend too much time on social media, or too much time analysing what I have written. It happens when I follow people back without really looking at their profile and then wake up to a highly triggering picture, it happens when I forget to take care of myself amongst it all.

Put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others

I have learnt that there are days when I am going to have to remember that one.


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The Persistent Heart


Photo by Garon Piceli from Pexels

They warned her

Time and time again

‘Your heart is too big

… it’s not if it will break, but when’

And so quietly she whispered

She begged and she pleaded

‘Please heart, please shrink down

… they tell me it’s not needed’

But her heart continued to grow

Bigger than she could contain

‘Your purpose lies within me

… and love should not be tamed’

And so, the heart it won

And the girl continued to live

Her heart, it finally convinced her

That the greatest gift, is to give.


Thank you for reading 🙂 If you have enjoyed this writing, please feel free to come and join me on my following social network pages to see my new posts and daily musings:

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