Do you get exhausted around other people? If so, you’re not alone. Whether you’re an introvert, a highly sensitive person, or simply someone who feels other people’s emotions, sometimes being around others–even those you love–can leave you desperately reaching for the quiet sanctity of a bathroom stall. It’s common for people to depend on bathroom stalls as their “sacred shrine” of solitude. If you’ve ever retreated to a bathroom or private room during a social gathering and closed the door only to feel a sudden sense of relief in your mind and body, you may be known as someone who emotionally empathizes with others well.
According to Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, emotional empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling “in an instantaneous body-to-body connection”. It’s as if the other person’s emotions are contagious. Goleman says, “When people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions, it can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout.”
There’s an old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, which is also true when it comes to people burnout. It’s easier to not put yourself in a potential situation where you’re going to get burnt out than it is to try to be happy when you’re already burnt out from people. Here are three steps to ensure that you enjoy the time you spend with others and avoid situations where you won’t:
1. WHO – Identify the people who generally tend to suck the living energy out of you.
Let’s say, for example, there’s an old needy friend from high school who you’ve outgrown, but still keep in touch out of a sense of obligation or guilt. You can release them, knowing that neither of you are serving each other or the friendship. While you might think you’re helping, by allowing them to constantly dump their emotions on you, the truth is you’re enabling them to remain stuck in their habitual patterns of emotional distress.
If you’re unsure whether the individual(s) is important in your life, then ask yourself the following question: “Would I deeply care if this person didn’t visit me on my deathbed?” Yes, it sounds morbid, but imagining yourself on a deathbed will help clear up a lot of uncertainties and eliminate those who aren’t as important to you. But if the concern involves your children or other loved ones who do add meaning to your life, the tips below will help you manage those needs.
2. WHAT – Identify the circumstances that generally lead you to anxiety, stress, and being emotionally overwhelmed.
If the circumstance is unavoidable, pay attention to the subtle signs of impending burnout. If you’re visualizing an escape hatch magically appearing underneath you or the sudden spontaneous combustion of the person in front of you, it’s too late. You want to be aware of slight shifts in your energy before it overwhelms you.
You can do this by constantly checking in with yourself and how you’re feeling. Take what author Tara Brach calls a “sacred pause” and reconnect with that within you that’s present and mindful. Doing this throughout the event helps you remain grounded in your own energy so you’re not mindlessly swept away in other people’s energy and end up feeling like you were hit by an emotional Mack truck by the end of the night.
Find ways to take mini solitude breaks so you can recharge. For example, if you’re at a dinner party, volunteer to wash the dishes or clean up. It will give you quiet reprieve to be in your own blissful head space, replenish you for the rest of the evening, and also endears you to the host.
3. WHEN – Identify the times when you have less patience, tolerance, or emotional resilience.
For me, when I’m hungry, I get “hangry” (hungry + angry = hangry). My blood sugar goes down and my hands start shaking. Physiologically-speaking, the brain perceives this as a life-threatening situation and when you’re in physical survival mode, checking in with your emotions is the least of your concerns. So when I’m “hangry”, I know that my emotional tolerance is lower and I make it a point to stay away from people. In recent times, I have learned to cope with my hanger by carrying snacks around.
Some other common times include when you’re tired, in a hurry, on a deadline to get something done, or going through your own emotional challenges. If you’re experiencing any of these, don’t put yourself in a potentially draining situation. For example, if you know you turn into a tired and grumpy pumpkin around 10 pm, don’t plan to stay out later than 9:30.
Set clear boundaries and stick to them. Instead of carpooling, drive yourself around so you have control over when you leave. If you’re on a deadline for a project and someone calls to talk, tell them you only have 10 minutes and will call them back later if needed. The guilt you may feel for not being there for someone is far better than the frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion you’ll feel if you don’t stick to your boundaries. With practice, the guilt lessens and the other person learns to independently deal with their own issues without using you as an emotional dumping ground.
Be open with your loved ones and don’t expect them to be mind readers. In the same way that some sponges absorb more than others, everyone’s emotional absorption capacity is different. Know your susceptible levels and express them in advance.
The bottom line is to identify the people, circumstances, and timing that often lower your emotional tolerance and avoid them if possible. If it’s not possible, set clear boundaries and have regular self check-in’s throughout the event so that you don’t get to the point of burnout. That way when you do accept a social invitation or spend time with others, you can actually enjoy yourself.
Featured photo credit: Mike Wilson via unsplash.com