This practice, the Empathic Differentiation Exercise, is the icing on the cake of boundary practices. It’s particularly useful for empaths and highly-sensitive people. It is most effective when you’ve just had an experience of emotional contagion—when you’ve been “infected” by someone else’s emotions and can’t figure out how you feel or what your needs are (a common happening for empaths, as I can attest).
This practice depends on doing regular Embodied Check-Ins (directly below) so you know the topography of your own emotions: where they show up in your body, the range of “forms” they can take, and how intense or invasive they feel.
Then, when you’ve had a potentially contagious encounter with someone, do the Embodied Check-In.
You already know what it feels like when your own emotions are present in your body, and where they are present. (This isn’t to say that what’s really yours always presents in the same way and at the same level. But usually it has patterns. Self-awareness gives you the chance to notice your own patterns and therefore, to notice when something that’s in play feels different.)
Now ask yourself the same questions, adding the following: Is there a “humming” in my nervous system, or a vigilance that indicates it’s turned on at full volume? After the charged interaction I’ve had, is anything different from what I typically feel during my Check-Ins?
If the emotions you have in this moment of contagion feel markedly different in nature, or you feel them in a different place in your body from where your own emotions normally live, they likely belong to the person in question. Once you identify this, it’s immediately empowering. You can use your breath to release emotions that are not native to you. Or you can employ connective tissue self-massage to do so.
As you inhale, feel their intensity and where they are located. As you exhale, cultivate a willingness to let these emotions go, without forcing them out of your body. Do this as long as necessary; you’ll find that once you’ve identified emotions as not belonging to you, they’re easier to release than you might imagine.
Practice often. Try to find a quiet space for this practice whenever you are triggered by another person. Practice for as often and as long as you need in order to feel calmer and more embodied
Embodied Check-In. Lie on your back with your knees bent, one hand on your heart and one on your abdomen. (You can also do this sitting, standing, or in any position comfortable for you.)
Close your eyes and breathe slowly through your nose as you explore the following self-inquiry:
- Am I present in my body in this moment? (It’s OK if the answer is “I don’t know”; asking is the first step.)
- What is the rate and depth of my breath? (Rapid breathing can signal nervous system overdrive. Slower breathing indicates a state of active calm, which is conducive to setting healthy boundaries.)
- Is my breath happening mostly in my upper body, i.e. shoulders and chest?
- Is my breath able to move in my back and side bodies?
- What’s happening in my abdomen? Is there any tension or inflammation? If so, where? (Your abdomen is home to your enteric nervous system or “belly brain.” Tension here can change your gut microbiome, increase anxiety, and make it hard to set boundaries.)
- Does my connective tissue feel hydrated and “fluffy?” Dehydrated? Tight?
- What is my level of physical energy right now? Is it high? Low? Somewhere in between? (Noting the level of energy in your physical body helps you recognize when you are depleted and need deeper self-care.)
- What is my emotional tone? Is sadness, anger, or anxiety present? If so, does it feel like mine, in the places I usually feel it? Or does it feel foreign and lodged in different places? Do my emotions better fit someone with whom I’ve recently interacted?
- What is the quality of my self-to-body relationship? Does my body feel like an “alien?” Am I approaching it with tenderness or, perhaps, a sense of harshness or as though it’s a “thing” to be brought under control?
- Add any observations that feel important to your Check-In.
- When the Check-In feels complete to your body, slowly transition your eyes to open.