Empathy Overwhelm? Finding Words and Answers Amidst Darkness

I originally wrote this post in December 2012 after a school shooting. Ouch, it hurts still to say those words. And I came back here today after yet another mass shooting in Florida to see how it might help me and others face this roller-coaster of emotions.

As I have questioned my emotional ups and downs this week, wondering why I can’t think straight sometimes, I’m reminding myself right now that this is normal and healthy. I’m so grateful a dear friend reminded me it’s not depression, it’s just a brain rewiring in process, and the message is “Please stand by. Upgrade in process.” Ha, that rings a bell. Allowing. Allowing.

I offer this earlier post to you and myself once again, because it still feels right, on this day in June 2016. Here it is from 2012:

The hard-to-talk-about dark side needs a voice today.

I want to honor what is present, and hopefully offer something helpful.

We struggle to talk about the dark side. And I believe we must visit it sometimes—in small doses—if we want to live fully and heal what needs healing.

Today, I’m thinking of the heart-breaking school shooting tragedy, the unfathomable destruction of another hurricane, ongoing wars that we hardly discuss, and the countless losses people are carrying during the holidays.

I see people searching for answers and connection online. Or running from loss because it’s too big.

A friend who lost her son this year told me that it’s hard to know when to mention her son’s name to others, but he’s always on her mind and the weight is heavy as the family gathers for the holidays. Wondering whether to hang his Christmas stocking… is one of many unanswerable questions. My heart sinks as I imagine each question unfolding.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I will share what words I am finding helpful.

The practice of mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Once we are able to see deeply the suffering and the roots of the suffering, we will be motivated to act, to practice. The energy we need is not fear or anger; it is the energy of understanding and compassion. Only understanding and compassion on a collective level can liberate us.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

This applies to all the shadows inside ourselves, not just the big tragedies. Honoring our shadow side is a universal issue that affects our work and home lives.

I notice that sometimes we fight against our emotions and get depressed or stuck, and sometimes we allow emotions to move through us, as naturally as the coming and going of winter.

What I Am NOT Saying

I’m not saying we should dwell on the darkness.  In fact, take breaks, please.

Nor am I saying, “Focus on the silver lining.”  That is just another way of ignoring the shadow side.

I’m only saying, we need to look, at what is, the light and the dark. Sometimes in small doses. I believe answers and healing arise from being present. I know it because it works for me. And I see it working for others too.

Empathy and Overwhelm

I know many people feel things very strongly, and truly it is a gift to be able to feel another’s pain and be with them. I have that natural empathy strength myself, and it used to overwhelm me at times.

If it overwhelms you to feel all the feelings around you, focus on self-care first. There’s no gain for anyone if you are lost in the process of trying to help others. I’m a sensitive soul and I’m so grateful that my mindfulness practice is helping me be present with my emotions and others’ without (usually) getting overwhelmed.

If you’re feeling the overwhelm today, take big breaks from the media spin. They’re in the business of creating frenzy and you’re already full. Instead, talk to friends or wise community leaders who can be with you in it. Attend a vigil. Light a candle. Look to your sources of faith. Those are the restorative places, so you can find solid ground, and when it’s time, you can reach for the stars again.


Comments welcome here and on my Facebook page.

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10 thoughts on “Empathy Overwhelm? Finding Words and Answers Amidst Darkness

  1. Val, I
    appreciate your expression of the events that unfolded this past year. You have
    shined a light on what most of us would like to ignore. Thank you for voicing
    it. I believe we have a chance at tackling this problem if we can change the
    conversation to “safety” rather than “gun control” and move
    from “self interest” to “shared interest.”

  2. Pingback: The Wisdom of Winter for Everyday Shadows | Val Nelson

  3. Val, I agree. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I haven’t lived a big loss since my mother’s passing in 1996… I’ve been fortunate for a long time. However, during the difficult moments, I remembered reading about the Stockdale Paradox where you are fully aware of the currently terrible situation, but had a feeling, no, a knowledge that I would be in a better place eventually… I didn’t put a timeline on when that would come, but I just knew it.

    • Javier, Thank you for that great example of staying aware and finding a sense of trust that it would pass, in its own time. Funny how that works. We can feel the emotion and know it won’t swallow us.
      I think sometimes we get convinced it will swallow us so we don’t even find out. Thanks again.

    •  Thanks Javier for sharing that great example. I agree that there is something about breathing into the feeling  helps us find the trust that it will pass, in its own time. And I admit it is not easy to do sometimes.

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