Do you remember doing a science experiment at school where the teacher poured iron filings on to the table and then held a magnet near them? All the filings were immediately drawn to the magnet, covering it until it looked like a fuzzy little creature.
We can feel a bit like that magnet sometimes when we take on the feelings and emotions of those around us, family, friends or colleagues.
Do you ever feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders?
You feel responsible for the physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of your partner, siblings, parents or friends...not to mention the happiness of your clients or boss!
It's a lot!
If you are an empathic person, you might take on this responsibility for understanding and helping others without even realising it. You absorb the feelings of others like a sponge and end up feeling heavy, saturated and sodden!
The 3 Stages to Emotional Freedom
In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg describes 3 stages that can take us from “emotional slavery to emotional liberation”.
Stage 1: The Fuzzy Magnet
This is when you are like that magnet covered with iron fillings! You feel responsible for all the feelings and needs of others in your life. You believe that it is your job to ensure that everyone is always happy, and if they aren't, it is up to you to take action to change that, even if it means denying your own needs.
Stage 2: The Itchy-Scratchy Magnet
You begin to understand the detrimental effects of taking responsibility for the feelings of others - damaging to yourself and ultimately the relationships. This can leave you feeling burdened, exhausted and even angry. In this stage, the pendulum might swing right across to the other side and you rebel, letting go of all obligations as an act of defiance!
As you move through this stage, you start to become aware of your own needs, which you might not have acknowledged for a long time. This is where deep emotions might surface. Anger and grief at having ignored your needs for so long. Fear of how others will react if you disappoint them or guilt for having any of your own needs at all.
(This is especially true of women who have been socially conditioned to be “good girls”, praised and rewarded for putting others first, even at the expense of their emotional integrity.)
This is an uncomfortable, and sometimes messy, stage, in which you are learning to recognise and assert your own needs in a way that still acknowledges and respects the needs of others.
Stage 3: The Magnet is Restored
The final stage is emotional liberation! This is when you take action to help others from a place of compassion rather than being motivated by fear, guilt or or obligation. You realise that your response-ability (ability to respond) with compassion should never be at the expense of your own needs or wellbeing, just as others are never responsible for meeting your needs.
You find the balance (most of the time!) of responding with care and empathy in a way that the other person feels heard and understood but still remains responsible for their own wellbeing, even if that means they may need to take steps to grow or heal. Because both of those things are ultimately good for us all!
Did you know that hammering a magnet causes it to lose it’s special magnetic properties? The magnet loses its alignment and all the internal molecules become disorganised.
In much the same way, if we feel hammered by unnecessary responsibilty for the wellbeing of those around us and constantly ignore our own needs, we can get out of alignment too and lose our ability to live a truly fulfilling and meaningful life.