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.

The Witching Hour


I had a chuckle at myself a couple of months ago. I had been mentioning the 3-4 am witching hour –  the time when many people wake up overtaken by panic or anxiety - in my blog posts, and then I found myself waking up at that hour myself. It had been a long time since I’ve woken up at the witching hour, but in mid-December I woke up twice to find the clock begin with the number three: 3:47 then 3:17.

Instead of fighting it or judging it, I became curious. Instead of trying to will myself back to sleep, I followed the invitation of psyche and divined its wisdom. And then, as I always do to make sense of my experience, I wrote:

It’s 3:17. I don’t fight it. I lie in the darkness for a while and become curious. I gently notice. I breathe. I sense a sadness Click here to continue reading…

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Parenting by the the Fuel Source of Gratitude


People often ask me how I survived the early years of motherhood when our firstborn son woke up between ten to twelve times a night and needed more than the breast to go back to sleep. Part of what allowed me to survive was an extraordinary partner who shouldered the nighttime challenges with me for the first year. Part of it was a fierce commitment to eating nourishing foods and eliminating sugar and caffeine completely. But most of it was learning early on in pregnancy that actively connecting to the free and sustainable fuel source of gratitude powered me through all challenges associated with motherhood.

My gratitude practice began in my first trimester of pregnancy when I was taken down by a sickness nobody could have prepared me for. And the more I interviewed women for my Birthing a New Mother program, the more clearly I saw the direct connection … Click here to continue reading…

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Anxiety: A Portal to Serenity


On the other side of anxiety lives serenity. When you walk into the forest and face the fear-vines of your mind – swashbuckling at first then sitting down in the glade and simply watching – you eventually unfold into an open field. You cannot know this until you walk through it. Fear is the test. It’s the revolving door. On one side is anxiety and on the other side is the peace and tranquility of your true nature.

It’s difficult to realize when you’re in the stronghold of anxiety that what lives on the other side is serenity. In fact, until you’ve walked through the revolving door of anxiety and greeted serenity on the other side, you don’t realize that anxiety and serenity are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Just like darkness and light share a sector of psyche and grief and joy share a chamber of … Click here to continue reading…

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I Feel Like I'm Lying When I Say I Love You


These are statements I hear quite often in my practice: I feel like I’m lying when I say I love you to my partner. I feel like a fake, an imposter, like I’m leading him/her on. If I don’t feel love, how can I say it? And I’m not always feeling it. In fact, it seems like more often than not I’m not feeling in love, or loving feelings at all. So how can I be genuine and say I love you?

When you say I love you even when you don’t feel it you’re acting from who you really are. Yes, you are lying: You are lying to the fear-based part of you. You’re lying to the gatekeeper that wants to protect you from getting hurt… again. You’re being untruthful to your small-minded ego who is defined by its separateness and, thus, is terrified of losing itself in the oneness … Click here to continue reading…

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