I believe everyone experiences empathy to a certain degree. To me, empathy means a combination of sensing what someone else is feeling (receiving) and pushing a feeling at someone else (broadcasting). However, a lot of people use “empathy” to mean receiving and not broadcasting, so perhaps there is another word for sending/broadcasting which is better used here.
In order to receive feelings from someone else, I need to be intensely aware of my own feelings first. Picking up on a feeling from someone else is easy, but if I’m not in tune with my own feelings first, then it’s difficult to tell which feelings are “mine” and which are being picked up from someone else. So, it’s important for me to take my own “emotional temperature” often, so that I know when it changes, and I can be aware of whether the new feelings are triggered by something in my life, or being picked up from someone else.
Feelings are “infectious” or “contagious” in that someone with a strong feeling can cause a similar feeling in others. If I am not in tune with my own feelings, I may not be prepared for someone else’s feelings too, and sharing that person’s feeling can make me react inappropriately. So, this is another reason to be constantly aware of my own feelings and be on guard for those times when I feel influenced by someone else’s feelings.
Often the best way to deal with the emotions I pick up from others is to “reflect” the feelings back to them (meaning to just tell them what I observed). For example, if someone seems to be angry, I might say “You seem to be angry”. Hopefully, this observation can then be processed by the other person intellectually and rationally. This leads them to consider their “altered” state and prompts them to think about what they should do about it, but it also provides an important validation and reassurance that they are not going crazy. If people don’t know that they are angry or don’t think about it, they may react inappropriately, because their reactions are connected to the feeling and disconnected from their reasonable thinking brains. Therefore, if I call attention to the fact that the person is broadcasting a feeling and that it is noticed and observed, that forces the person to think about what he might have done to show his feelings, and forces him to act carefully and thoughtfully while getting his emotional “balance” again.
In the case of “positive” emotions, picking them up and sharing them is fun for both the sender and receiver, but in the case of emotions that we often label as “negative”, picking them up can be stressful on me. However, I don’t think it’s right to try to “shield” myself from other people’s feelings because they are stressful. If I care about the person, then I can share that person’s angry, sad or hurt feelings and take some of the burden off of his shoulders, the same way I would want to share in someone’s joy, pride, etc.
If I am aware of my own feelings, then I can also control how much emotion I am sending or pushing at others. Broadcasting a feeling is a combination of facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc. So, controlling the feelings I am broadcasting is similar to acting… in fact I believe they are the same. I can “portray” a person who doesn’t have the feeling, and “act” as though I am feeling something else, and if I get into the role convincingly, I can stop broadcasting a feeling, broadcast a different feeling, or broadcast the same feeling more strongly or weakly. This will in turn effect others around me.
However, taking my own emotional temperature on a regular basis is important for this too. Often I find that if I am aware of my feelings, then I am not as likely to wear them outwardly or broadcast them as strongly. This doesn’t mean I am hiding the feeling, or denying it; I will still be honest with someone who asks “How are you doing?” and if I am not doing so hot, I will tell them. However, once I am aware of the feeling intellectually and have started to deal with it appropriately, this greatly minimizes how much I am broadcasting out and how much I am inflicting on others who may not be equipped to deal with the new emotion being thrown at them. (This is another reason why it helps to “reflect” the feelings back to someone, because once they start to deal with the feeling, they are less likely to broadcast the feeling on to others).