How do I stop being hyper-aware of how other people are feeling?
June 5, 2023 7:05 AM   Subscribe

It turns out I make a lot of assumptions about what other people are thinking and feeling and then I react with unfounded guilty and anxiety. Also, when people I love are feeling negative emotions I take those emotions on and feel them myself. How can I stop doing these things?

I worry about how my actions will make others feel, so I do a lot of speculating and often land on the worst-case-scenario. For example, if I haven't texted my mother in several days, I will worry she thinks I don't care about her. In actual fact she probably just doesn't care. It doesn't help that my mother is a hyper-sensitive person who can feel slighted by something I never would have expected. But ultimately it's all speculation on my part and it is exhausting. I would much rather live my life assuming that others are okay and okay with me until they tell me otherwise, but I can't seem to get there somehow.

Similarly, if a family member is feeling stressed or upset about something, I feel those feelings as if the situation was happening to me. I don't want to be so emotional if my cousin has a fight with her abusive boyfriend, just because it reminds me of my own trauma. I hate that I want to cry when I hear that my kid nibling is having trouble making friends at school. The rational part of me knows this happens to so many kids and he has a support system. But I still feel awful for him. Or if my sister is having a routine surgery, I don't want to end up feeling sick with anxiety over it just because my mother feels that way.

I am in therapy, which has helped me figure out what's going on. But I guess what I am missing is: how do you recognise in the moment that you're making the assumption, or taking on the feeling, and how do you stop that right then and there? What can I practice to get better at this? Why can I only recognise these behaviours in hindsight? Thanks a lot for any suggestions.
posted by guessthis to Human Relations (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is 100% best answered by your therapist but - in my own CBT-ish therapy sessions, the first step was where you are at - identifying the behaviors, emotions, and thoughts from past events that aren't serving me, and then identifying the cognitive distortions that are associated with them. The first one seems like textbook catastrophizing.

The next step for me was to start creating pauses between the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors - this was where breathing techniques, meditation, even somatic techniques come in. I have found in many instances as little as 30 seconds is all it takes now to recognize that I have taken a small thing or fact and expanded it well past what is actually true - and that space lets me respond rather than react.

This came through a lot of practice. There are a myriad of exercise books out there on cognitive distortion but my therapist provided me the best ones and a structured place to learn, fail, and begin again. This is worth talking with your therapist about because it's where therapy can do.
posted by openhearted at 7:56 AM on June 5, 2023 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I am on the autism spectrum and also have generalized anxiety disorder (which I share with my biological mom) and I have always struggled with this. Also my step-mom is extremely easy to offend so I had to learn to be very careful around her growing up. I don't know if all of this will apply to you, but here is what I've learned from doing psychology research and working on my own anxiety with therapists:

Whenever we think through these kind of situations, part of our brain is simulating other people's emotions so we can know how to prevent bad emotions or properly react to them. Whenever we do this (consciously or not) there is a chance those simulated emotions will become real physical emotions. This occasionally happens to most people (crying at the movies) but the simulated emotions are much more likely to turn real for people with anxiety and trauma. So this gives two basic strategies: simulate these bad emotions less often, and make them feel less real/strong.

The first step is to realize I am doing this, and I often have to look at my body first to see if I am experiencing displaced emotions. If I feel generally bad and there is no obvious physical reason why, I focus on what I was thinking about and I usually realize I was thinking about something that made me feel bad. Our brains often misattribute bad emotions to external causes (making us hate random things) but with practice I can tell when my anxiety is due to being overwhelmed by current reality and when it is about future/past trauma. One way to tell if you are distracted by others emotions is to deliberately think about something positive: if your brain is stuck thinking about something negative this won't work and you'll end up thinking about whatever is bothering you.

Once I realize that I am ruminating, I try to make the bad thoughts too boring to actually worry about. The first few times we think through a possibly bad situation it is actually helpful! This keeps us physically safe and helps avoid offending others. The 50th time we think through a bad situation is never helpful, but our brains think it might still be important. So my first step is to remind myself that it literally does not matter what my step-mom (or whoever) is feeling right now because I'm not actually interacting with her. Her current emotions are just as relevant to me as those of millions of other strangers: they are boring and not worth thinking about right now. This is usually enough, but when it doesn't work, I need to do something about the thoughts to MAKE them boring, usually by journaling. If I take those thoughts and do something active with them my brain stops trying to hold on to them.

But sometimes I do need to think through other people's emotions, and I don't want to feel them. What works best for me is to remind myself exactly how connected I am to other person. This sounds silly, but I need to regularly remind myself that I am physically and emotionally separate from my step-mom. We were connected very closely when I was growing up, but I am not the same person I was them. My emotions now do not need to be same as my emotions when I was experiencing trauma. Therapy can definitely help here, methods like EMDR are good for making the trauma less real so you can think about it without feeling it.
posted by JZig at 7:57 AM on June 5, 2023 [12 favorites]

Best answer: The two answers above are excellent. I would also add that you are not feeling other people's emotions. You are feeling things based on your own anxiety and trauma, triggered by your own thoughts about other people's lives. (You say yourself that those people probably aren't even upset about the situation!) That's really different, because you can't control other people's feelings but you definitely have influence on your own. That gives you so much more control over what's happening, using techniques like what's described above.
posted by lapis at 8:05 AM on June 5, 2023 [22 favorites]

Reading/learning about codependency may be helpful for you. This is a somewhat controversial topic in the world of addiction/recovery which may not feel relevant to you, but this reading list has some suggestions that address codependence in a variety of relationships (family, romance, friendship, etc.) and guidance about increasing your ability to recognize and separate yourself/your feelings from other people and set boundaries with compassion:
posted by sleepingwithcats at 8:12 AM on June 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think Lapis's answer contains an extremely important insight. These are not someone else's emotions that have invaded your psyche. These are *your* emotions when you hear distressing news about people you love, (or in the case of your mom and the texting, even when you just *think* about people you love and you're not 100% positive they're OK right now).

There are two things that are good about that. First, it makes it easier to practice the behavior you want, because you don't have to focus on identifying when you're 'taking on someone else's emotions', you just have to focus on identifying when *you feel bad*. That's easier to notice and catch. And second, it means the self-calming and centering techniques you learn will affect your life more broadly - they are useful not only when you're upset because of a (real or perceived) threat to a loved one, but also when you're stressed or upset for other reasons. As you practice noticing and pausing when you are upset, you may notice that the cognitive distortions that make threats to a loved one so painful are also amplifying other kinds of threats (to yourself, for instance).

It's great that you are a loving person, and it's also great that you're looking for ways to go through life feeling safer and happier. Good luck and big hugs.
posted by Ausamor at 8:28 AM on June 5, 2023 [5 favorites]

How do I stop being hyper-aware of how other people are feeling?

Heavy drinking maybe? I don't think you want to stop the awareness as much as not be overwhelmed by it. You can do that, ironically by becoming hyper-aware of how you are feeling.

how do you recognise in the moment that you're making the assumption, or taking on the feeling, and how do you stop that right then and there? What can I practice to get better at this? Why can I only recognise these behaviours in hindsight?

What you are talking about is called staying present in the moment and is achievable if you're willing to work at it. You 'just' need to train your brain. Many people (including myself) have had great success with breathing meditation but if you look up "staying present in the moment" you'll find a lot of different learning techniques.

Breathing meditation quickstart:
1) Set aside five minutes and find a comfy seat
2) Focus on your breathing. I usually say internally "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in." and "Breathing out, I know I am breathing out." as a I breathe.
3) When your mind wanders off -- which it will do constantly in a matter of seconds -- gently and kindly guide it back to step 2.

At the end of five minutes, move on with your day.

What you're doing there is creating a bias in your brain for being present right here, right now. The reason I prefer breathing meditation is that it ties that bias to a physical process in my body that is constantly occurring, even during circumstances when I would normally be distracted or overwhelmed.

Some people meditate for hours, some for minutes. I've found 20 minutes every morning keeps me in training.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:54 AM on June 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

One thing that has helped me is to recognize that what is sometimes framed as "being an empath" or being "highly sensitive to others" is, at least for me, hyper-vigilance linked to childhood trauma. If you grew up in an environment where the people around you were volatile, you might have trained yourself to notice every shift in their emotions in order to try to head trouble off at the pass, or at least avoid it.

Although this survival strategy might have worked when you were a child, it doesn't serve most of us in adulthood. But, as others have noted above, recognizing the problem as stemming from your own internal landscape, rather than from the moods or emotions of others, means you can start addressing it, no matter what anybody else does or thinks. Re-framing your thinking from "I'm hyper-aware of what other people are thinking" to "I'm hyper-focussed on what I imagine people are thinking/feeling" might be a useful first step.
posted by rpfields at 10:02 AM on June 5, 2023 [9 favorites]

I feel those feelings as if the situation was happening to me.

It's really easy to split hairs around empathy, but from a practical standpoint "I had an excellent internal simulation of what this person was feeling, and their consequent actions and personal account confirmed later that I was correct" and "I felt what they were feeling" are the same thing. The trick is to not be overwhelmed by either.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:14 AM on June 5, 2023

Best answer: I used to do this a lot and still do it a little, and while I'm not big on CBT in general, this is maybe the one thing where CBT has been incredibly useful to me. I can't speak for you of course, but how this manifests for me, it's not that I'm feeling what other people are feeling - it's that I'm seeing their behavior and then my brain goes off and writes entire fucking worldbuilding novels about how I assume they're feeling and why and what might happen next and on and fucking on, it's endless and exhausting.

The CBT exercise where you force yourself to look at the thing you're spiraling about and consciously come up with other explanations for the behavior you're seeing? That's the one CBT exercise that has been really good for me. Doing that regularly over a long period of time really helped me hammer into my brain that for example, just because Person X is behaving in a particular way or I think they might be experiencing something, that doesn't mean whatever story I've told myself about it is true. With a little thought I can come up with several alternative explanations, quite often those explanations turned out to be right, and done often enough over a long enough time, that's helped rewire quite a bit of this out of my brain.

At first you might not be able to do the thing you're asking about where you recognize it when it's starting. That's okay. Even if this is something you only do retroactively at first, it still might help, and with enough practice you might find you can start doing it before the spiral really starts.
posted by Stacey at 10:59 AM on June 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

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