Why it is that us empaths seem to take on draining negative emotions, but don’t seem to feel an equivalent benefit from positive ones?
As an empath, I often become exhausted around other people. I also experience anxiety and depression when there are too many negative circumstances in my life. But recently, I began to wonder why empaths take on negative emotions more easily than positive ones.
When a member of my family is upset, I experience emotional pain, too. I’m sure most people feel the same. We would move heaven and earth to make our loved one feel better. However, we often don’t experience good feelings in the same way.
I am happy when my loved ones are happy, but I don’t experience the emotion as fully. Rather than feeling uplifted by joy, I tend to feel only relief and mild satisfaction. It’s almost as if I can tick worrying about them off my ‘to do’ list for the time being and get on with something else.
In trying to find out why this might be, I discovered that our brains have an inherent ‘negativity bias’.
What is negativity bias and why does it hurt empaths so much?
In an article published in Psychology Today, Haratroff Marano explains how we notice and react more strongly to negative events in our environment than we do positive ones. On an evolutionary level, this makes sense. We would not have survived as a species if we didn’t keep a look out for danger. Having a finely attuned ability to appreciate a gorgeous sunset is not much use if a lion eats us while we are watching it.
This negativity bias can affect our relationships, too. The negative emotions of others may have an impact on us, so we watch out for them. If someone is upset about something, we may be drawn into the situation and experience criticism or blame. So we are on high alert when we become aware of any negative emotions in the people around us. This makes sense because humans are social animals who rely on their fellow members of society for survival.
So, we empaths are often on emotional tenterhooks, highly attuned to everyone else’s emotions so we can spot trouble and deal with it before it becomes threatening.
But while this may have been a helpful adaptation for our ancestors, it can be damaging to us in the modern age. For starters, there are simply so many more people to deal with. It is no wonder us empaths need to spend time alone to recharge.
How to benefit from positive emotions
The good news, though, is that our brains are adaptable. It turns out we can teach even an old brain new tricks. This means it should be possible to retrain our minds to receive positive benefits from sharing good emotions with others.
With this in mind, I decided to look for ways to experience all the good feelings and emotions of others as fully as I do the more negative ones. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found work for me
1. Make a conscious effort to share the positive emotions of others
When anyone comes to me with a problem, I always make a cup of tea and sit down with him or her to talk it through for as long as they need. But when someone tells me good news, I tend to just give him or her a high five and move on.
Now I try to spend as much time with talking about the positive situation as I would a more negative one. I listen to all the details of my loved one’s news and soak up all the positive emotions. I have found that, as a result of doing this, people come to me with their good news more! Perhaps my loved ones subconsciously realized that they got plenty of attention from me when they were sad and less when they were happy. This may have led to them coming to me more often with problems than with things to celebrate.
2. Do practical things to support people in their celebrations
When we have a friend in emotional pain we help them in practical ways. We might send a card, make them a cuppa or give them a hug.
Recently, I have made a conscious effort to support my friends who are experience positive emotions, too. This increases their happiness and sense of self-worth and gives my happiness, a boost too. Now I send happy people flowers and cards, open a bottle of champagne and really notice and revel in all those lovely good feelings.
3. Focus on happy memories
Marano explains how our brain will react more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. For this reason, he says we should create five positive experiences to balance each negative one.
So, I make a conscious effort to think of happy things. I take time to look through photograph albums to remind myself of joyous occasions. Talking about happy memories with my family and friends also gives my mood a lift and staves off anxiety and depression. In addition, every time I think of something that gives me pain, I try to balance it by thinking of several happy occasions, experiences or things to be grateful for.
4. Balance negativity and positivity
In general life, I try to balance my activities as much as possible. If I watch a sad news story I follow it by watching stand-up comedy. If I know I will be spending time with someone who is down, I schedule a more uplifting activity for afterward.
While I still find it difficult being an empath, these strategies have been hugely helpful. I am less likely to feel overburdened and drained by negative emotions now that I consciously seek out more positive ones. Of course, we empaths want to be there for people when they are in emotional pain. This is part of what makes us who we are. But it is also wonderful to be the person everyone comes to when they have joyous news to share.