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When You’re Empathetic, How Do You Not Get Dragged Down by People’s Suffering?

This flower is highly sensitive to every raindrop that falls. Does that mean it can’t handle a storm?

How to Not Get Dragged Down By Other People’s Suffering

Someone asked a great question in last week’s Open Session. She asked, “How have you built the skill to not soak in everyone’s emotions that you work with? How are you not crawling on the floor afterward?” 

If you are empathetic, you are by nature a sensitive person. I happen to be wired that way, and the person asking the question said she is the same. But being sensitive does not mean that I can’t go anywhere, or that I must shelter myself constantly. 

I do not feel drained by my clients at all. On the contrary, I feel inspired and energized by the work they do with me. 

How Is That Possible?

For me, being aware of the feelings of others and holding them in inquiry does not mean that I take on their suffering. Suffering is not contagious when I’m clear about what is my business and what is my client’s business (or anyone else’s business that I happen to be relating to).

Here’s what it looks like to be in my client’s business: I have thoughts like, “I want to help them. It’s my job to fix their problem. They can’t handle it alone. It’s a serious problem. It’s a terrible thing.” When I buy into this kind of thinking, I suffer immediately.

But when I stay to my own business, I’m free. Someone may be suffering but I don’t have to suffer with them. I can be sensitive to them but I’m not believing that anything terrible is going on. Instead, I’m excited that they are bringing their suffering to inquiry. I join them there to support them in their inquiry, but I don’t join them in their suffering.

How Do You Come Back to Your Business?

Whether I’m working with a client, witnessing someone suffering, or speaking with someone suffering, the process is the same: if I’m stressed, I do The Work.

I question what I’m thinking and believing about my client. If I believe that “I need to help them,” then I question it with the four questions and the turnarounds. If I believe that “It’s a serious problem,” then I question it. Or I question “It’s my job to help them.” 

When I question these stressful thoughts about anyone who is “dragging me down” emotionally, I find that no one is dragging me down in reality at all. Only my own thinking is dragging me down. 

When I think “I want to help them,” I immediately put myself into a position of powerlessness. I can’t change another person, so I suffer. I become a victim of their suffering. I become dependent on them and can’t relax until they are better. Without that thought, I am simply witnessing their suffering and I’m fully available to listen or support them in their inquiry. But I haven’t taken on their problem. 

From One Perspective, Nothing Is Terrible

When I question “That’s terrible,” about what I’m witnessing, I come to see nothing more than the normal challenges that life gives all of us. There is nothing wrong in it. The person doesn’t need to be saved from it. But if they want to question their thinking with me, I’m happy to join them in that.

The more I do my own work, the more I realize that nothing outside of me can cause me to suffer. There are no terrible “things” only terrible “thinking” in me. Only my thinking about something can cause me to suffer. 

And I see that is true for my clients too. Even when they experience great misfortune, I understand that my clients’ actual suffering is only caused by what they are believing. If they want to question their thinking, I’m so ready to hold the space for them. And if they don’t, I respect their decision not to. I’m free.

I Have a Front Row Seat to Evolution

Every time someone does The Work with me, I get to watch them grow and evolve. I can think of nothing more inspiring and energizing than that. It doesn’t matter how much someone is suffering, when I see them taking their next step of evolution in front of my very eyes, it lifts me up rather than dragging me down.

And when I’m not doing The Work with people (when I’m moving about in daily life), I’m clear that it’s never my job to stop anyone from suffering. My only real job is to stop me from suffering by continuing to question my thought. 

And that doesn’t mean I won’t be helpful. It just means I won’t borrow your suffering and make it mine. I’ve got plenty of my own that I’m working my way out of. And I trust that you are fully capable to work your way out of yours. We are equals walking our separate paths together.

Your Turn: Question Your Thoughts

Find a situation where someone’s energy, or situation, brought you down. What were you believing in that moment? Write a list of statements to question, and use the four questions and turnarounds of The Work to question what you were believing.

This has been the direct path for me to feel free inside even while being a sensitive human being. 

The Work 101

If you want to make this kind of self-inquiry a practice for yourself, or just want to try it out, join us for The Work 101, my in-depth, online course for learning and practicing The Work of Byron Katie.

Have a great week,

“…Ask yourself, Whose business am I in? Did anyone ask for my opinion? Can I know what’s right for someone else? Then listen to your own advice, and know that you’re the one it’s meant for. Stay in your own business and be happy.” Byron Katie, I Need Your Love, Is It True?

Further reading: Getting Through the “I Get It Phase.” 

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.