In our weekly Psychological & Spiritual Therapy column, therapist Jack Surguy is offering professional advice to The Mindful Word readers for all those questions and problems you have wanted to discuss with someone qualified and caring.
If you would like Jack to assist you in any areas of your life and relationships, fill out this form. He will respond to your questions through this column, normally published every Tuesday.
I’ve always “absorbed” different emotions and feelings from others. I’m starting to find much interest in it.
I’m going through a journey of grief at this time, after losing my 16-year-old son and then my husband a year later. During this time, I’ve found a deep interest in intuitive healing. I’ve done it and want to learn more.
I’m now able to leave behind the negative feelings I “absorb” and replace them (in myself and others) with joy and release or healing—but how do I know if this is real?
Kalena, Female, 51, U.S.
Thank you for taking the time to submit your question. Before I address it, I’d like to first express my condolences to you for the unbearable losses you’ve experienced.
I’d also like to express my gratitude and respect for you and your commitment to trying to relieve the suffering of others, as well as your desire to replace suffering with joy.
In your question, you stated that you’ve always “absorbed” different emotions and feelings from others. Near the end of your question, you also stated that you’re now able to leave behind the negative feelings you’ve “absorbed” and replace them with joy, release and healing within yourself and others.
You then question how you would know if these experiences are, in fact, real. Here, again, let me express my respect and admiration for you, just for having the courage to ask this question. Your question suggests that you’re dedicated to the pursuit of truth and authenticity. That seems to be a fading quality in the world today.
Though I don’t know exactly what you mean when you say “absorb,” I believe I have a good enough understanding of this to address your question. I do believe a process can occur in which one person can be said to “absorb” the feelings and emotions of another person.
In scientific literature, researchers have been investigating a phenomenon called “emotional contagion.” The theory maintains that in some fashion, one person’s emotions and related behaviours can directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in another person. In other words, some people appear to not only recognize another person’s emotional state, but actually feel similar emotions within themselves.
There have been several explanations put forth to try and explain this process. Whatever that process may be, what’s more and more scientifically accepted is that some people are much more aware of and connected to the emotional states of those around them than others.
This, of course, has both positive and negative consequences.
One of the most important positive aspects of this process lies in the ability to emotionally connect and bond with another person in a deep, profound manner. This doesn’t mean simply feeling sorry for someone. It means being able to literally feel, in the moment, what the other person is feeling.
This promotes a sense of being understood, which is an extremely important and essential component of healthy psychological and emotional development. In fact, research tells us that when someone truly feels understood by just one person, the risk of suicide and potential violence is significantly lowered.
However, one negative consequence of this process is that many individuals who are more naturally adept at connecting with the emotions of others can feel emotionally fatigued and overwhelmed at times. This can result in “compassion fatigue,” in which a person is just too tired to meet the needs of others and therefore becomes withdrawn and socially isolated. In light of my research, my guess is that you’re naturally adept at not only detecting another’s emotional state but being able to experience that state as well.
Now, if you’re like most people, you’ve probably tried to avoid suffering and pain as much as possible throughout your life. In fact, those who seek it out tend to be struggling with other emotional difficulties. Nevertheless, the most extreme, excruciating and unbearable suffering a person can experience ended up brutally devastating and forever changing the world that you knew.
As I wrote in a recent article, my son’s 17-year-old best friend committed suicide while in school. The young man was my son’s friend and longtime wrestling partner on the school’s team. One day, he went into the locker room next to the wrestling room and hung himself. My son’s world, along with the world of his friend’s family, was radically changed—shattered—in just a few moments. The intense pain in the parents’ eyes was unbearable.
You’re very familiar with the intense pain and suffering that comes with the loss of a child. However, you were also forced to endure the pain and suffering that comes with the loss of a spouse or significant other, approximately one year later. This pain and loss, again, leaves a person feeling lost and alone in a suddenly very cold, cruel world.
When losses like that occur, oftentimes people don’t just lose a loved one, they lose meaning in their lives and often feel an emptiness that permeates throughout their very being.
Transforming toxic material into growth-promoting material
Without delving into the pain, complexity and confusion that you undoubtedly experienced (and continue to experience, I’m sure), you described yourself as “going through a journey of grief.”
This is a profound statement. What I take this to mean is that in some way, you’ve been able to process your loss in such a manner that it’s now viewed as a journey, a journey that’s undoubtedly leading you to new places and experiences. In other words, you’ve been able to take your loss and transform it into a source of inspiration that continues to promote and foster personal growth and development within your life.
There’s one sentence that I must question and offer a competing interpretation other than the one provided in your question. Near the end of your question, you wrote, “I’m now able to leave behind the negative feelings I ‘absorb’ and replace them (in myself and others) with joy and release or healing.”
I wouldn’t describe what you’re doing as leaving behind negative feelings, nor do I believe that you’re replacing them with joy. I believe it’s a much more profound process that is taking place. I’d describe the process as one in which the negative feelings that are absorbed are now being processed in such a manner that they’re being transformed into joy.
This goes way beyond simply throwing away and replacing. This is altering feelings in such a manner that they’re transformed into something new, which then promotes joy. In this radical process, toxic material is essentially transformed into growth-promoting material. I believe this process happens all the time, but unfortunately, we’ve altered our world in such a way that we rarely witness it.
“Shit” makes things grow
I witnessed this when I was a young boy helping on my grandfather’s small farm.
I was instructed, one day, to get a shovel and collect all the cow manure that was scattered throughout a large field. Once this unpleasant task was completed, I was utterly confused and disgusted when I discovered that the cow manure was going to be placed in a piece of farm equipment that would then scatter it over the plants in our small garden.
It was on that day I learned that smelly, disgusting, filth-ridden cow excrement was, in fact, one of the best fertilizers to use. Put simply and perhaps crudely, shit makes things grow.
I believe a similar process is happening within you. Again, you haven’t discarded or left behind negative feelings. Instead, you’ve taken metaphorical “shit” and are using it as fertilizer to help joy, release and healing grow in your life and the lives of others.
How do you know if this is real?
My guess is that some people may have responded with a skeptical look if and when you’ve told them that you “absorb” others’ feelings. When considered in this manner, I can understand why you’re questioning how real or authentic these experiences may be.
Please allow me to state what I believe you’re doing in a way that’ll help others, and perhaps you, too, better understand the process that’s taking place within these encounters.
As mentioned, research does indicate that some individuals aren’t only able to detect the emotional state within another, but their brain responds in a manner that actually produces a similar emotional state within them. This shared emotional experience often creates deep emotional connectedness and attachment or bonding.
The experience of being emotionally connected with another person, especially when experiencing severe pain and suffering, promotes a sense of being understood. This sense of understanding has been shown to decrease feelings of isolation and aloneness, and increase feelings of connectedness and emotional well-being. Furthermore, one person’s opportunity to share their emotional burden with another has been shown to lessen the suffering and intensity of that pain, as both people are now carrying it.
Your intense losses have inspired you to work with your pain and suffering in such a way that you’re much more courageous and willing to share in the intense emotional pain and suffering of others. Instead of pulling away and avoiding someone’s pain, you’re able to calmly and confidently connect with the emotional state of that person.
Remember, most people move away from pain and suffering, which often leaves people alone in dealing with their pain. Pain and loss no longer cause fear within you, however, so instead of moving away from it, you move towards it.
Again, this enables you to emotionally connect with another person through their pain and suffering. You’re not trying to get rid of it; in fact, you’re using it to connect. The person then suddenly senses that they’re not alone in dealing with their pain and they realize that someone does, in fact, understand them.
The feeling of being understood and emotionally connected to someone, without trying to hide our pain, causes increased feelings of emotional well-being and in many cases, joy. As such, in my opinion, what you’re doing is not only real, but can also be life-transforming for many people.
Thich Nhat Hanh on connecting through suffering
I’ll leave you with some quotes from renowned Zen teacher and practitioner Thich Nhat Hanh, who addresses this very issue in his book How to Love.
Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. … In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one. In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. … In a relationship, if you can see the nature of interbeing between you and the other person, you can see that his suffering is your own suffering. … With this way of seeing, you speak and act differently. This in itself can relieve so much suffering.