Absorbing Other People's Lives

IMG_4828One of the most common symptoms of relationship anxiety – and anxiety in general – is taking on others’ stories as your own. You’ll be moving along just fine in your relationship and then you’ll hear about your friend’s husband who cheated on her or another friend who developed a crush on her co-worker or someone else who developed a life-threatening illness and you’ll spin out in a tizzy of, “What if that happens to me?” The next thing you know you’re in a full-blown panic and then the protective projections start, where your defenses of, “I don’t really love him” or “I’m not attracted enough” or “What if I die?” jut up to fortify your heart and try to keep you safe.

There are many root causes to the tendency to absorb other people’s lives. Let’s examine a few:

1. You’re a highly sensitive person:

If you’re a highly sensitive person – and the vast majority of people who find their way to my work tend to be on the sensitive-anxious spectrum – you are naturally wired to be more sponge-like than the average person. While someone else with a hardier temperament can hear a painful story and let it roll of her back, you are neurologically wired to take on other people’s pain. Does this mean you’re destined to a life of over-active empathy? No, but it does mean that you have to work very hard to recognize this tendency and then take the actions that will help you temper it, which means developing a stronger sense of self.

This is also why it’s important to stay away from the news. You’re too absorbent and, especially until you develop a stronger sense of Self and fill your well, you will be too porous to fend off the negativity. It’s also important that you guard your downtime and ask yourself if signing onto Facebook – a cesspool for comparing yourself to others – is a loving and nourishing action.

The quick-guide to breaking through and recovering from intrusive thoughts is to recognize that they are flares from your inner self inviting you to attend to the more vulnerable realm of feeling. So the question to ask that breaks through the hamster wheel of manic thought is, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” Even if you can’t name the feeling, just placing your hand on your heart and inviting your attention to shift from your head to your body can help you create new neural pathways that will encourage you to connect to the underlying feeling. If you can then let yourself feel it and breathe into it, the thoughts will disintegrate even more.

2. You tend to externalize your sense of Self:

We are culturally conditioned to abdicate our intrinsic knowledge of our needs, preferences, and rhythms very early in life. We’re told that “other people know better” and learn at a young age to distrust even basic needs, like when we’re hungry or our natural sleep rhythm. We also learn to believe that our self-worth is a function of externals: looks, achievements, clothes, degrees, what your partner looks like, and how much money you make. When you believe that your sense of authority, agency, and self-worth resides in other people’s hands, it’s a natural extension to believe that their life is your life.

The antidote is to to learn how to repair your damaged self-trust by embarking on a dedicated journey of self-discovery, where you remember – or learn about for the first time – how you’re naturally wired, reconnect to your intrinsic sense of self-worth, and connect to the crystal compass that allows you to make decision and navigate your life according to your terms as opposed to comparing yourself to someone else’s idea of what you “should” be doing or feeling or experiencing. When you re-wire your inner navigation systems, you can hear a story about someone else’s life and think, “Oh, that’s their story; it doesn’t have to be mine.” You can also connect more readily to the underlying feeling that hearing the story evokes, thereby connecting on a heart level with compassion instead of usurping the story as yours.

3. You had an enmeshed relationship with one of your primary caregivers growing up, most likely your mother:

For many people who take on others’ lives as their own, the common theme can be traced back to an enmeshed relationship with their mother. This means that you likely had a mother who didn’t have a full well of Self and so looked to you to fill it. Your pain became her pain; your joy was her joy. You were, in essence, her Self externalized into the body of you. For example, I’ve heard many stories about mothers who became sick for weeks when their daughters broke up with a boyfriend, reacting to their daughter’s life as if it’s happening to her. This may sound extreme, but it’s just one example of the consequences of an enmeshed primary relationship. Later in life, you re-enact this template and take on other people’s stories as yours.

The healing work is to learn how to fill your inner well of Self so that you know who you are and learn how to create a loving and solid boundary around yourself so that you don’t absorb others’ lives. With those two healing actions in place, you’ll be able to hear a painful or scary story and respond from an empathic yet unwaveringly clear place inside of you. You are solid inside: the waters of your inner well are deep, warm, and clear. You are connected to your body as a source of guidance and wisdom. You are like a cat in the wild, trusting her step and ready to explore with great curiosity all that this world has to offer. This is what it means to know yourself, love yourself, and trust yourself.

If you’d like to fill the waters of your well of Self and create a stronger inner and outer boundary so that you can live your life from a place of clarity and strength, please join me for my third round of Trust Yourself: A 30 day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt, which will begin on Saturday, March 14th, 2015.

37 comments to Absorbing Other People’s Lives

  • ColoradoGirl

    Love this.. You nailed this one on the head.. These are so many of the struggles I’ve had/have. Thank you!

  • Christine G

    Sheryl,

    Just moments ago I was sitting in a warm bath in an attempt to calm some pre-sleep anxiety I was experiencing. From the bathroom I heard the chime from my phone that signaled I had received an email. It was one from your site notifying me that your Trust Yourself course was now taking registrants. I could not believe it when I came here and read the accompanying blog entry above. While trying to ease my mind only moments earlier I had identified the source of my anxiety as me feeling like a failure because I did not realize my true passion for design while in college, where I could have taken better advantage of the resources offered, like many of my colleagues. I was comparing myself to their Facebook lives and successes.

    I found your website a few weeks ago and it has been nothing short of a miracle for me. I stumbled upon it while searching for answers as to why I kept doubting my very healthy and loving relationship. The doubting thoughts still creep up (way less frequently thanks to you!) but now I find myself able to step back and look for the true root of my anxiety. In most cases I believe it stems from my complete lack of self trust, the comparisons I make to those around me, and my feelings about my self worth.

    My question is that I am currently expecting my first child by the end of the month. Do you think the course would be too time consuming for a new mother? Would I be better off waiting for the next course when I may be able to devote more attention to it? All though I am 100% confident the course is worth every penny, it is an amount I am not comfortable spending if I am unable to meet the time commitment.

    Again, thank you so much for providing such an invaluable resource. I hope to eventually invest in more than one course. I think I can learn and grow immensely from your experience and live a more balanced, mentally healthy life. I wish I could put into words just how much peace and comfort you have brought me through your perfectly timed words.

  • RicaRu

    Wow, the piece about the relationship with our mothers really struck me. I am finding more and more that a significant amount of my struggle has to do with my mother, our relationship, and her lacking sense of self (or at least what I perceive to be the case). My mother left my father when I was 21, after they had been married for 35 years. They were high school sweethearts. As soon as my brother and I were out of the house, my mom began envying my college lifestyle, resenting my dad, and she left believing that she would be happier. And here we are almost 5 years later and I don’t honestly believe that she is any happier. All the while, she still seems to be envying my life – there has almost been a weird sort of role reversal where I feel like I am offering her guidance in life, where I feel like it should be the other way around. A huge part of my relationship anxiety relates to my fear that I will end up with the same fate – feeling like I made a mistake by getting married to the first man I ever loved or otherwise taking the path I have chosen to take. My mom and I are similar in a lot of ways, and, sadly, this terrifies me.

    Sheryl, when you say it is common for relationship anxiety to be related to an enmeshed relationship with the mother I imagine this falls right in line. But how do we overcome this relationship when it still exists?

  • Lea

    Oh Sheryl, how we missed you 🙂
    Talk about reading my mind 🙂 It’s exactly what I’m experiencing all the time. Last night my fiance told me that his friend was getting divorced because he had cheated his beautiful amazing wife and mother of 2 ( she’s only 26). I immediately put myself into her shoes and envisioned myself being like that. I even made a comment like: “Well, if you don’t marry someone the risk of being hurt like that is minimal…” It’s so hard Sheryl, I cry, I have nightmares, I feel like I can’t enjoy a minute of my engagement. It’s time to set the date and start planning the wedding but the moment my fiance mentions it I start panicking. I feel the fear and anxiety in my throat and it doesn’t let me enjoy the moment, it just gives me reasons why not to do this. I can’t imagine how my fiance feels watching me struggling with the same thought – should I marry him or should I ran away….. If I were him , I would have left myself long time ago. It hurts, it sucks and yet I can’t seem to be able to get out of this circle. Some days are better that the others but never goes back to the happy time before the proposal. I’m so scared!!!

    • Sam

      Hello Lea,

      I’ve totally been there, where you describe your current pre-marriage feelings. For myself, it was a horrible fear of reliving my previous marriage/divorce which was full of lies and anxiety…that my current relationship would fall in that same course and that I should be on constant guard and locked in fear of something I didn’t think was actually happening and couldn’t put my finger on how to control the downspiral that I was experiencing. There was fear and anxiety just before the marriage when it was such a lovely feeling prior to that. I took Sheryl’s conscious weddings e-course and that anxiety cleared up and allowed me to feel normal and good and move forward. I’d strongly suggest that you take that course, wish you luck! Sam

  • LaChika

    Good timing… Being absorbed or absorbing others’ stories became quite prominent in the past 4 weeks or so. And only a few days ago I realised that I was so engrossed in them as it was emotionally draining… Soooo glad someone like Sheryl sees this in people cos I was feeling really lost in the beginning…

  • mac

    i find my sensitivity embarrassing. I work with my ex, we ended abruptly and it was painful for me. He didnt do anything wrong, yet his silence and lack of emotion towards me i find very hurtful. It has been nearly 4 months yet i cried again when i saw him the other day after a month away from work. I feel this never helps, i tried so hard to be strong and remind myself that breaking down over this will get me nowhere. Yet the tears fill my eyes like theres no tomorrow and i hear the conversation we had when we broke up all over again. I want to move on, i just dont know how to.

  • Ryan

    Thanks for this clarification of what is happening in comparing ourselves to others and internalizing it. I know I’m a highly sensitive person at this point. I’ve internalized many other things from violent and sexual thoughts, usually triggered from the news or graphic movies. I would take on whatever happened and obsess over if I would do the same! It was terrifying and felt like I was going crazy. After therapy and counseling, I feel much more in control when a potentially scary image or story comes across the screen or the page. I can look at it and say, that is someone else’s story, not mine. Now that I’m in a serious relationship it makes sense why I would freak out when I hear about someone cheating or divorcing. I never knew it would carry over like that. It took me a few months to believe this is what was happening, but when I finally did, it was a huge relief. I still have these moments of intense fear, but they tend to subside quickly with some tools I’ve learned here on your blog and through counseling. I share this for anyone that reads, that there is a lot of hope through work and self discovery. It’s a lifelong process though. I started mine about 7 years ago, and continue to work daily at it. Most days are better than I ever imagined. But with transitions, deepening relationships and curveballs life throws, I now expect to have moments where the work will be more than other days. The main point is that you don’t have to let fear and anxiety control you if you’re willing to do the work. It’s scary at first, but it’s scarier living life in constant fear and anxiety. It will subside though!

    • That’s exactly right, Ryan! Thank you for sharing here. Your insight and comments are greatly appreciated.

    • Katers

      I very much agree with you, Ryan! I have struggled with internalizing emotions/energy/thoughts from others since I was little. I avoid graphic and violent movies, video games, news, even books because the imagery and feelings stay with me for a long time. The first time I noticed this I was in 9th grade, we watched a MacBeth movie in class and there was a brief rape scene (it only lasted about 2 seconds, occurred in the background during the final scenes) and it was the first time I’ve ever seen sexual violence. But for me, it wasn’t an ‘ew, that’s disturbing’ moment, it stayed with me for a long time. I just kept thinking what it must be like to be that woman, and then my thoughts and imagination went off. I wouldn’t say that my “virgin eyes” were traumatized (well, maybe they were I don’t know), my feelings were different that I couldn’t explain until now (I also don’t have history of sexual abuse, I had quite a normal and happy childhood). However throughout my life I have struggled with absorbing people’s feelings, I thought I wasn’t being a good friend/daughter/girlfriend/person if I couldn’t literally be in their shoes. I believe this tendency has led me to be ‘inauthentic’ and lose my groundings, sense of self, and therefore allowed myself to be taken advantage of in relationships, with ‘friends’, and in the workplace. Anyway, all of this along with obsessive worrying let me to start my self-improvement journey in ’09 when I graduated from college. Thank you Sheryl for your always insightful posts and for generously sharing your wisdom. When I became engaged and married, your blog and book Conscious Bride has helped me tremendously. I’m going to enroll in the Trust Yourself course now!!

  • Jer

    Again Sheryl, thank you so much. Too anyone thinking of doing any of Sheryl’s courses, it would be the best thing you could give yourself! I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today only for the work I have done through Sheryls course. I am not 100 percent there yet but it takes time, but I know I’ll get there some day. .

  • Hailey

    This article really hits home. I used to do this all the time with my last relationship, and thank goodness not so much with the current one I am in. I would see an affair on a show and think “Gosh, what if I do that? Why would I even think that, do I want that!?” And it’s really quite tiring. It also makes you less capable of helping friends out when they need relationship advice. On a different note, why is most of the work on this site centered around when marriage is finally brought up? I find that my anxiety and rOCD stuff kicks in right when I decide (with a clear mind, no anxiety) that my boyfriend is someone that I can see my whole life with. I absolutely love this site, it’s my saving grace, but I find myself substituting the words “engagement” and “marriage” for “my own six month long relationship” and “fiancé” and “husband” for “beginning stages, in some aspects, boyfriend”.

    • Kris

      i can totally relate to this – see the post I made below. Didnt realize I could directly reply lol

  • Sheena Marie

    Hello Everyone,

    I’m not sure if this comment fits right in with this subject, but I feel like it is pretty relevant to any subject regarding what we are calling relationship anxiety or rOCD.

    Can anyone tell the difference, when they are watching their thoughts, kind of the blurry head you feel when you are in an anxiety or OCD mindset? I’ve been in nearly constant rumination for 3 months and because of the lack of clarity and ungrounded feeling I have, I often dismiss it as OCD. Although, feeling like this is uncomfortable and it recently feels like numbness and less like anxiety.

    On a positive note, I just wanted to say through daily meditation and working ourselves into our body (as elusive as it sounds) is where we can start to actually feel ourselves again regardless of our ultimate answers to the pertruding questions I think this is the goal.

    Obviously, I’m still experiencing numbness, indifference, fuzziness, etc., but I’m still here and committed to what it takes.

    Anyways, I sympathize and admire all the people who are going through this. You must be strong. Lots of love to you. Lets stick together and raise ourselves higher, but we’ve got to relax into it, which can be hard for us, but possible.

  • Rebecca

    Question about #3- I recently became a mother and the part about being enmeshed concerned me. My twin girls are 3
    Months old, and I take great joy in their joys and when they are sad it makes me sad. Could you clarify what you mean? Isn’t some level of that being maternal?

    • Being connected to your babies is VERY different from being enmeshed! You don’t have to worry about that for many, many years. Children need us to be attuned, empathic, and deeply connected to their emotional states. It sounds like you’re right on track :).

  • Katherine

    Sheryl, thank you again for your work. It is a constant comfort. Even as I continue to learn about myself and work through anxiety from time to time, I know I am so much stronger because of the tools you have given me. I was already well aware that I am an HSP, but reading the first section of this post is still such a huge comfort. I feel as though you know me personally and are describing me better than anyone else could, and possibly even better than I could explain myself. It is a glorious thing to feel connected to and understood by others.

    I took your Trust Yourself course last summer and it was great. I am currently working through the video modules of Finding Your Happy Life on MindBodyGreen, and it is a great reminder of all the work I have done and all I have left to learn about myself.

    Thank you for being a kindred spirit.

  • Lea

    Sam,
    Thanks for sharing your experience, it only proves that we all suffer from similar pain – anxiety and fear. As I said, I constantly fight against this pain and fear and sometimes I just try to push it away but then something like today happens. It’s been three months since I got engaged, so my fiance wants to start planning our wedding. I was talking to my mom today that I still feel anxious and she said that If I still feel that way than maybe I should think twice before I throw myself into planning.It was the last thing I needed to hear. She said that I should want this and I should be happy about it. I’m starting to believe that we have misalignment of values ( I’m bothered now that he hasn’t got a college degree, although he’s very intelligent and hardworking, and the fact that he was previously engaged…..I have to mention that people here still see this as if it is something huge )…….I do love him and don’t wanna leave him, but what if I wake up one day and realize that I’ve made a mistake ???
    Anyone can share their opinion ……Thanks

    • Sam

      Lea, I agree wholeheartedly with the replies to your post. I heard the same thing from my father (who was always very overprotective of me) when I showed anxieties and doubts a week before my marriage. Those comments do not help and only trigger more anxiety, even if they mean well. Everyone is different and everyone processes these major events differently. If you’re a highly sensitive person and/or one that experiences a lot of anxiety than your experience and feelings will be different, so try not to compare yourself to others or what ideals people hold onto. Also, when having anxiety, you’ll tend to overanalyze your partner and possibly look for an escape (which is really to escape the anxious symptoms), I wouldn’t dwell on that, that will come and go. I hope that you take her e-course though, it’ll clarify a lot of things for you and change some of your perspectives.

      Best wishes,

      Sam

  • Lea

    Oh, and btw, he’s an amazing man…caring,supportive, kind, funny and he loves me and respects me so much….

  • Ryan

    Lea,

    I suggest you read through many of the blog posts from Sheryl. She addresses your concerns to a T. I think everyone of us here struggles with the wake up one day and feel they’ve made a mistake. You’re not alone in that.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl, your my favourite person and you know why.. A blog like this is so close to home for me. My relationship with my mother hasnt been an easy one. We tend to clash because she likes to dominate and never admits she is wrong most of the time. Im a person where i admit to my mistakes and i sincerely apolgise. I am such an easy- going and comprising woman/ wife. Dont get me wrong Sheryl i dont have hatred towards my mum just alot of respect and love,even if we are not on the same page sometimes, i just listen and ignore her when shes rambling on about negative things that relate to my husband and family. What i do . instead of fuming with frustration is pause take a breath and change the subject. Unfortunately her sisters wear the pants in their marriages… But my dad wore the pants with my mother. I KNOW.. It must be difficult to be a parent. Only if you have difficult children. Me and my brothers were good kids.. Not angels but well mannered.

  • Chrissy

    Do you have any blogs on trusting your partner/relationship. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of anxiety about whether he’s going to dump me or not or if he’s cheating.

  • Kris

    Haley,

    In response to your post, I can TOTALLY relate to this as I too find myself substituting the engagement, fiance stuff, with serious boyfriend of over a year, etc. lol regardless, after taking the Open Your Heart course which was such a godsend as all of Sheryl’s work is, I realized that relationship anxiety creeps up during any transition. For me, it crept up when I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my boyfriend – 6 months in…

  • Katie

    I just wanted to share this article because I think it relates well to this one and what Sheryl teaches.

    colinbeavan.com/on_feeling_fully_human/

    • Beautiful. It seems that all teachers teach the same thing: learn to become more and more comfortable with not knowing and the knowing will slowly, like a cloud in the sky, appear. And then it will disappear. And then it will show up again, in a different way. There are no definite answers or formulas. Only softening the layers and layers of fear-and-ego-walls until we arrive closer and closer to who we really are.

  • Lindsey

    This article applies so much to me. I am CONSTANTLY comparing myself to others and when anything happens to someone in a relationship that is negative, I immediately become triggered and start down an anxiety spiral. I don’t even have to know the people. When I see a story of a celebrity split, I start to fear “They can’t hold it together, maybe I can’t either!” This has been a problem with me for a long time, and I’m having a really hard time separating my reality from other people’s realities. I’m sure most of it comes from my core belief that I have very little self worth, and why would my marriage work if so many others can’t?

  • Lea

    I’m scared that nothing is right anymore. My fiance was supportive in the beginning but now he’s just cold. We spend little time together and even then we can’t feel the closeness we felt before the proposal. Will I ever go back to what I was or this is it. I’m gonna have to leave and move on. I’m so lonely, how am I supposed to enjoy my engagement when all I wanna do is run….? Never in my life have I experienced such terrifying emotions, am so scared that I’m gonna ruin everything…..

  • Rita

    Katers,
    Thank you for your comments. Things are starting to make more sense. When I was about 12 years-old I heard about the molestation/incest experience of a family friend. I went into a deep depression for almost two weeks. It so sickened me I couldn’t eat. I barely functioned. I’ve had a similar experience seeing sexual violence on TV. Wow! It’s nice to know what was happening.
    Thanks

  • Julianne

    You always manage to post on the exact topic I need to address. Week to week. Thank you so much for all that you do and say. Still in the daily struggle, but this website alone gives me the glimpse of hope that I always need. Thank you.