Do you find yourself feeling pulled in unhelpful ways into the dramas and heavy energies of others? Or do they seem to evoke feelings of dis-ease, sadness, anger, fear, a trembling in your body, or even a sense of leaving your body? Do you have questions about how to protect your energy or set energetic boundaries with others?
I hear such concerns frequently from clients and students. It is no wonder: our world is filled with a great deal of confusion and chaos. Individuals and whole cultures carry unhealed wounds from millennia of violence and abuse. Many of us live daily with chronic stress and worry. Many struggle just to survive. Many of us come from families which have lacked a basic understanding about how to navigate interpersonal relationships in healthy and balanced ways. Some of us have been the target of various forms of abuse, whether verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, and/or spiritual.
As a healer and spiritual teacher, I know that whenever I find myself triggered into heavy, uncomfortable states by another’s words, actions or even unexpressed feelings, it often means there is something inside of me which needs attention.
I also know it is time to be kind–to myself first of all. When pain arises, I seek to step into the deep sea of compassionate insight into what ails me. In doing so, I then can understand what ails another and seek to help or to step back with lightness and love. This ability is particularly relevant as we enter the holiday season and engage more intensively with family and friends.
Now, before I go further into this very complicated and rich topic, let me add this caveat: I do not, in any way, intend to set a bar so high that, if you do feel pulled into the pain and heaviness of someone else, whether family, friend or stranger, that somehow you have failed or, worse yet, are “wrong.” Relationships are complicated. Our family histories varied. You may continue to be the target of someone else’s conscious or unconscious actions which do harm to yourself or others. A parent or sibling may be an alcoholic or a rage-aholic. Under such circumstances, it is understandable if you feel momentarily or for a longer period of time, captured. It is important to recognize the truth–what I call “things as they are”–and to acknowledge that in the face of some challenges, the best you can do is to tread water. Be kind to yourself. Do not add onto the pain caused by another, judgement towards yourself.
Life is messy. This is true. So, I offer these insights with gentleness, so they become an elixir of sweet medicine to assuage, cleanse and clear the pain.
You can work with these situations and those which are less egregious to find your way into a deeper sense of freedom. This may take a few days, several months or even a lifetime. The point is not how much time it takes, but that you are making the effort, you are seeking a goal. Hold yourself throughout with kindness and compassion and trust that the movement of your life is always and ever, perfect.
So, how do you navigate these situations?
Many spiritual paths offer various solutions to this problem: fill yourself with light, call upon the help of angels and archangels, ask God/Spirit for protection, among others. The emphasis is on protection–setting an outer condition or boundary, or calling on something outside to create a barrier. This is all well and good.
Indeed, I myself have various ways of creating an energetic buffer intended to keep my boundaries firm and to prevent what does not belong to me to enter into my field–mind, feelings, body, energy. It is important to keep myself clear and compassionately detached. This is important as a healer and spiritual teacher for many reasons, not the least of which is the necessity to stay disentangled from my students’ and clients’ stories and pain so I can be a clear-eyed partner in seeking the pathway to resolution. Such boundaries are also important to maintaining healthy, fulfilling friendships and family relationships.
But, I also know from personal experience that developing outer forms of protection are not enough. You can build up energetic or literal walls around you (such as staying in your house and never going out)–and still feel negatively affected by the heaviness and pain of others and the world.
Ultimately, such outer protections will only be as effective as the degree to which you have healed your own pain and inner conflicts. You will only feel infected by the pain of others if you have an affinity with their hurt and heaviness of heart.
The word “affinity” is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary online as “a close similarity between two things, or an attraction or sympathy for someone or something, esp. because of shared characteristics.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines “affinity” as: “an attractive force between substances or particles that causes them to enter into and remain in chemical combination….a likeness based on relationship or causal connection.”
What this means to the issue of how you are affected negatively by the pain and problems of others, is this: if you have an unhealed pain inside, or you yourself are carrying anger, grief, sadness, or fear, then when you are around someone with the same inner climate, you are more likely to feel and even take into yourself what is theirs. Your “chemistry” will begin to mix.
Let me give a simple example which has nothing to do with trauma from the past. Let’s say you have had a very stressful day. It started out with not sleeping well because you were worrying about a big test you have to take. You got up feeling tired, anxious, and a bit cranky. You go to the kitchen to make coffee, only to discover the coffee-maker is broken. You don’t get that caffeine hit to break through fatigue and give you energy to face the day. Then, your husband comes into the kitchen and he starts talking to you about a bill you need to pay, but which you have a disagreement over about when and how to pay it. You get back into a bit of an argument which can’t be resolved because both of you have to get ready and leave for work. By the time you get into the car, you are even more cranky. On the way to work, as you drive on the highway, someone cuts in front of you while yelling at you in an angry way out their side window. You have had it! As he drives away, you begin to yell angrily at the person in the car even louder than he was! Then you feel even worse. You feel like his anger has met and escalated yours.
You can see here how your own stress, fatigue, frustration, and anger meets the same energy in the driver. You don’t know what kind of morning he has had, or if he has some deadline or personal pain which has caused him to be in a hurry and angry. What is nevertheless true, is that the two of you intersected at the point of your mutual frustration.
I have found myself being very reactive to other drivers’ actions and feelings both legal and illegal. I have also been in a situation with another driver doing something illegal and potentially dangerous to myself and others, but I have not gone into a reactive, negative, angry story. I have simply moved through the moment and let it go as quickly as it arose. It all depended on what was in me at the moment: was I stressed, hurting, angry, sad, afraid? Was I happy and content?
The same dynamic can unfold in more subtle, emotional, bodily, and energetic ways. For instance, perhaps you are on the phone with a friend who is distressed about her break up with her boyfriend. She is talking at length about her anger. She also cries on and off. You suddenly find yourself feeling her pain inside of yourself. Your solar plexus and heart center begin to tighten and your mind becomes a bit foggy. You are feeling angry, too–maybe, confusingly, even towards her. Nevertheless, you try to listen as compassionately as possible. You offer her a few words of reassurance and support. You both then hang up. However, for a few hours afterwards, your friend’s words are still circling in your mind. You are still feeling tense and angry. You can’t get her off your mind.
You know that your friend’s distress has somehow entered into you and is causing a disturbance.
This is the time to step back and self-reflect. What has happened? If your own energy and emotions were free and clear, you simply would not pick up her heavy energy. You would move on as soon as the conversation was over. You would be fully engaged in your own life and energy.
There are many possibilities for the affinity:
There may be a great deal of pain and conflict with your friend or family. As I said above, this discussion is not intended to set up an expectation that you should be able to have complete equanimity and clarity when spending time with others who have been or continue to be difficult and abusive. If this is the case, then a different application of intention and healing is needed.
But, if this is not the case–if you are picking up or feeling affected by another person’s heaviness and pain–then there could be many reasons for your distress.
If you previously experienced a messy break up, it is could be that the way your friend’s distress bled into you means you still have some unresolved pain from that event. Or that there has been some other betrayal in your life which still needs transformation and resolution. Maybe your father divorced your mother or had an affair.
Sometimes the affinity is more subtle. Perhaps you don’t have a similar story of a hard break up or betrayal that you know of. There can be deeper, invisible reasons for the “attractive force” between you and your friend. They can be a betrayal in your family lineage which was never resolved, but which has still been held in the collective memory, often unconscious or semi-conscious. Or there might even be a story consciously held in secret by your parents’ generation or before, which nevertheless has had a subtle impact your psyche. Or there is another lifetime in which there was a betrayal.
The web of affinity can be deep, mysterious multidimensional, and complex. In research studies on transgenerational trauma, it has been found that the children of survivors of trauma may often themselves develop symptoms of PTSD, including having memories which do not belong to them, but to their parents’ or grandparents’. Intergenerational legacies of unresolved trauma can then intersect in complex ways with our personal lives and histories, and hence, with others outside ourselves and our families. The science of epigenetics has found that trauma can be passed from mother to infant in utero.
What do you do when you are so triggered or feel flooded or overwhelmed by another’s pain and problems?
First, be careful how you label or immediately judge the other person: Don’t say, “his negative energy.” This, in a sense, makes him out to be somehow bad. All human beings–all of us–move through our days in a always changing soup of heavier to lighter emotions. Instead, then, say, “I feel affected by his pain or suffering. I am feeling something stimulated inside of me.” This opens up the heart of compassion to him and, by extension, to yourself.
Second, become curious about what is inside of you. Remove your focus from the other person to yourself. Try to put aside the fear of feelings what is so. The truth of feeling is that it is like clouds passing in the sky. Emotions and thoughts move. When we touch in with lightness to inquire as to what is happening, energy naturally begins to change. What are you feeling? What emotions or memories have been stimulated in you? Maybe it is simply your love and concern for him which has caused you to take on some of what is his. If that is so, you can relax into your feeling of worry and concern–just feel with mindful awareness. Maybe tears will come or a softening of your heart. This can easily clear whatever you have taken on that is not yours.
Or maybe it is something inside of you calling for deeper attention. A bringing into awareness something in yourself which needs mindful focus, caring, clearing, healing, or all of the above. What is unhealed in you? What difficult events, memories, feelings from the past still haunt you? This may be a very overt, obvious reason. But it can also be very subtle. Perhaps you have done a lot of healing of past hurts and it has been a long time since you have felt any sting around them. You feel as if you have forgiven and moved on. But it can happen that a particular interaction or relationship can stimulate something still there–something which has yet to come to light. Rather than tell yourself the story that you have “failed” in this case, be grateful. Any opportunity to address with caring some imprint of pain, no matter how small, is a blessing!
Third, use practices to clear your energy, mind and heart.
Here are some ideas:
Breath of Life, Breath of Love: If you are in close quarters, such as an airplane, and it is not possible to move or leave, use the breath. Set an intention for your breath to move light energy in and heavy energy out. Do this as forcefully as you can. Breathe in through the nose healing light, breathe out through the mouth all heavy energies. Do so until you feel more clear. Give gratitude.
Shaking Medicine: You may do this inside or outside. Find a safe place where you won’t feel self-conscious. When you are there, say a prayer to Mother Earth for help taking this heavy energy out of you. Then, clap your hands repeatedly, while shaking your entire body, from head to toe, just like a dog shaking water off. Imagine all the heavy energy, the difficult emotions going into the Earth for healing. Shake! Shake! Shake! Jump up and down! Stamp your feet on the ground! Do this until you feel clear and energized. You may need to do this several times in a day or over a course of days.
Stone-Water Practice: Get two small- to medium-sized bowls and enough small stones to put in one of them. The stones can be from nature or you can buy tumbled stones from a store. Put them on a shrine or an altar in your home. You may even have a candle to demarcate this sacred space. Pray. Then pick up one stone from the left bowl and breathe into it all the pain and heaviness you are feeling, both your own and the other person’s–all words and stories stuck in your head, all the emotions, all the pain. Put the stone in the bowl on the right. Pick up another stone and keep doing this one stone at a time until you feel more free. Then take the bowl with the stones holding the heavy energy to the sink and run clear, cold water over them for a few minutes. Imagine all that heaviness going out with the water into Mother Earth.
These practices can be used in the moment when you feel the burden of your own and others’ suffering.
Keeping a regular meditation practice will also assist in staying clear and free. Different meditations can assist you in releasing heavy energy or simply staying in the place of the compassionate, neutral witness while allowing all that would normally capture you in a story or heavy feeling to pass through without stopping. I teach many of these meditations in my classes and healing sessions.
If the heaviness in your mind, heart, body, and energy do not move out relatively quickly, it may mean you need some assistance to understand the affinity–What is its source? How do I unwind it through awareness, self-reflection and changing a habit or pattern? What packets of my old pain are still stuck in me? What can I heal in myself? What do I need help healing?
If you get to the the point that whatever is within you is not shifting, shamanic energy healing is an excellent modality to help transform and remove the imprints of old pain, whether your own, your ancestors’, or from other lifetimes. The work can be done in person or by phone or Skype.
All of us are interconnected in a vast web of energy and light. Thus, may you remember when another’s pain and heaviness of heart penetrates you, that you have the power and choice to step into compassionate awareness and action–for yourself and another. Any clearing and transmutation we do in our own energies, will invariably assist others no matter how far away they are in distance and experience.