I feel too much.
I feel feelings that aren’t my own. More specifically, I feel my kids’ feelings. I sympathize and empathize, but I go too far. I’ve seen it called toxic empathy, but that makes it sound so awful. Maybe it is.
When one of my kids is going through something difficult, I over-identify with them to the point of taking on their feelings as my own. When they are anxious, I’m anxious. When they are sad, I’m sad. When they’re upset, I’m upset. But it’s not that simple.
Being over-empathetic, I not only absorb their feelings, I also absorb their problems. There are two major issues with this.
(1) I become more involved than I should. I try so hard to help—to fix things (that are not mine to fix but I feel like they are)—that I make things worse for them. I’m probably getting on their nerves, for one, but also, by interfering, I’m taking away opportunities for them to learn how to handle things on their own. I step over the line because the line is blurry, if not invisible, to me.
[Aside: I have trouble determining when to get involved and when not to. It seems I always make the wrong choice—I get involved when they don’t want me to, or I don’t get involved and they think I don’t care. I never seem to get it right.]
(2) Taking on their problems and emotions on top of my own, I become overwhelmed. But I’m incapable of separating theirs from mine. I take them all. And then I feel drained and exhausted. And of course, I prioritize their problems over my own. I’m told this is bad because if I’m better, I’m better for them. Yet I can’t seem to focus on me. My heart says focus on them; my brain knows I should focus on me. Guess which one wins?
(Not my actual heart.)
I can even take it a step further.
I get so consumed by their emotions that I feel them more intensely than they do. I’m more sad, more upset, more anxious than they are. That’s so fucked up! I feel physically stressed (and sometimes physically sick) when they have something bad going on. I go into emotional overdrive. Hell, I’m often still upset about things after the kids have gotten over them! So fucked up.
It’s also selfish. I unintentionally make it about me—I am anxious, I am sad, I am upset, I am overwhelmed—when the matters at hand and the emotions that go along with them are not mine. It’s not about my feelings. It’s about theirs.
So what do I do?
As I read about this, I came to the advice section (as one always does) telling me how to fix this. Here are two things I saw repeatedly (neither of which helps me).
Draw boundaries—their problems are not mine, and I’m not required to take on their burdens.
I’m not sure this applies since I’m talking about my kids. In some ways, their problems are mine. But there does need to be a line somewhere. I just can’t see it.
Don’t let their emotions overtake your mind and body—focus on relaxation and let those feelings go.
This gem of wisdom applies to pretty much anything stressful. And it’s easier said than done. In fact, I can’t do it at all. I end up curling into a ball of despair, crying and struggling to function. But I’m not exactly a model of mental health.
So, again, what do I do?
I don’t know. When I try to distance myself from a situation, I feel like a terrible parent. But when I get too involved and try too hard to help, I’m also a terrible parent. I know the answer is somewhere in the middle, but I can’t seem to find balance.
I’d like to feel them too much. I said what I said.
p.s. — I’d like to think that I’m subconsciously trying to take their pain away. The more I take, the less they’ll have. But it doesn’t work like that. Besides, their emotions are not mine to take. I wouldn’t rip a cookie out of their hand and eat it myself. And I can’t do that with emotions either. I need to let them have their cookie and eat my own. That doesn’t mean I don’t know how delicious their cookies are, it just means I’m letting them have that deliciousness instead of taking it from them. (Bad analogy.)
But I don’t even know if that’s what’s going on. I may just be overly emotional, needy, and selfish. I want all the cookies.