Why Do I Feel Deep Emotional Pain for Other People’s Misfortunes?

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Reader’s Question

Why do I always feel deep emotional pain for another person’s misfortune, whether I personally know that person or not?

Deep sadness and anxiety come with this emotional pain, when I “feel” for what the other person is feeling or going through, or what the other person is going to have to feel or go through. This usually leaves me stagnated, and both mentally and physically exhausted.

I’ve tried to “shut out” other people’s misfortunes (their pain or sadness, etc.) from my mind many times, but can’t. I avoid phone calls and the news on both the internet and television, and I ask my friends not to share with me sad news about animals or people that I don’t personally know.

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you are a natural empath. That is a great strength. However, you are discovering some of the disadvantages that come with that strength. You may find it useful to consider what all therapists need to learn about themselves: it is necessary to have boundaries of steel in order to prevent the pain of others from crossing that unseen barrier and becoming our own. And this needs to be accomplished without becoming cold, callous, or withdrawn.

We accomplish this in a couple of ways. First, we recognize that when this happens, the pain of the other has reactivated some unresolved pain or conflict in our own life. At that point, the task is to take that into our own therapy and explore why we are vulnerable to that particular stressor. Second, once we are clear that the story we hear from another is not reactivating our own pain, but we are feeling it for them, then we call this countertransference, and use it as a tool of empathy. That is, we become our own best instrument. We can say with some confidence that the other person is projecting this feeling onto us, and then we can reflect that back to the other. We can say things like ‘all of a sudden, I’m feeling ____ and I’m wondering if that’s how you’re feeling’.

The key is to be well-enough analyzed ourselves so we can make the initial distinction between reactivation and countertransference. Since you have the gift of empathy already, it seems incumbent on you to get the help anyone would need to be able to make this distinction.

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