One 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, I encourage you to consider joining 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.