These Aren’t My Feelings: Absorbing Emotions as an INFJ

This past Friday I did something I’ve never done before and which provided my father with much amusement. I danced at someone’s funeral. More precisely, it was at a memorial service for a man I didn’t really know. I’d seen him at church services, but we never spoke. His wife was on our dance team, though, and she asked us to open the service by dancing to Bo Ruach Elohim.

At first, I didn’t really feel much about this man’s death beyond a rather abstract sense of sympathy for those who’d loved him. But as soon as I was surrounded by the grief of those who knew and loved him, I started to feel it as well. Layering on top of that were the emotions I imagined other people I cared about feeling. I won’t go into any details, but some of the things this man’s wife and daughter mentioned when they spoke directly touched on struggles I knew two friends were going through. And my heart ached with/for them all.

INFJ Empaths

INFJs are inherently sensitive to other people’s emotions. On top of that, many describe themselves as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and/or empath. This trait, “empath,” isn’t simply a person who feels empathy. Here’s a description written by Jennifer Soldner, an empathic INFJ:

An empath is a person who feels exactly what others feel. This is not to be mistaken with sympathy, which is trying to understand what someone is going through, or even the very similar word empathy, which is actually just being familiar with what someone else is experiencing. An empath literally feels exactly what someone else feels, even if they have never experienced, nor can they relate in any way to what the other person is going through. (from The INFJ Empath Explained)

Talking about being an empath is kind of tricky. Going back to my opening story, suppose I told you that I didn’t start out having feelings of my own about this man’s death, but when I walked into a room of people grieving for him I felt grief. Someone who reads that and assumes I’m an empath would say it’s because I was picking up the other people’s energy waves and feeling their grief as if the emotion were my own. Someone who doesn’t think I’m an empath would say I’m mirroring the other people’s grief because I observe it and care about them, or that I’m projecting my ideas of what they are feeling and then responding to that.

Which one’s right? I don’t know, and that’s why I rarely describe myself as an INFJ empath. I’m not sure if what I feel is exactly what the other person is experiencing or if I’m creating feelings in myself that I assume are the same as the other person’s feelings. I also don’t share all the empath traits. For example, I don’t feel pain in my ankle when I see someone on TV trip and start limping across the screen. I don’t become ill when someone else in the room has a headache. I don’t experience psychic phenomenon like astral projection (thank God! that would freak me out so much).

Not My Emotions

While I don’t have all the classic empath traits, I do deal with emotional contagion, which is “the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others” (from What Is An Empath? Are There Empath Traits?). Many times when someone asks why I’m upset I have trouble answering because the emotion didn’t start with me — I’m struggling because my friend wrote to tell me they’re wrestling with believing that God is good, or I’m sad because my sister is grieving her favorite cat, or I’m anxious because my brother’s worried about his job interview.

still my favorite cartoon from INFJoe

still my favorite cartoon from INFJoe

This is pretty common for INFJs because our minds are wired to pick up on social patterns. We interact with the outer world using Extroverted Feeling (also called “Harmony”), which is in-tune with the emotions of other people. That’s layered on our Introverted Intuition (aka “Perspectives”), which notices patterns and seeks big-picture understanding. Together, the combination of Ni-Fe makes make INFJs (and ENFJs as well) masters of picking up on what other people are feeling. Often, this also includes why they feel the way they do and how they’ll react in different situations.

All this means that when an INFJ feels an emotion they can’t just assume it’s their emotion. We’re not naturally well equipped to handle our own feelings — we’re wired to respond to others first. This can be both a challenge and a strength. A challenge because we need to work at building space to experience and evaluate our own feelings; a strength because we can relate to people on a deep level.

Unique Challenges

Whether you’re an empath or simply an INFJ, your tendency to absorb other people’s emotions means you face some unique challenges. Every personality type has to learn how to deal with their own emotions as part of personal growth, but for us this involves separating your emotions from others before trying to understand them. I’ve read articles written by INFJs who say they can’t recall the last time they felt an emotion that originated with them. We need to give ourselves space (literally and metaphorically) and permission to explore our own feelings.

Another thing to keep in mind is that our experience of someone else’s emotion isn’t more genuine than their own experience of that feeling. It can be tempting to think that because you feel with someone you understand exactly what’s going on, but that’s not always the case. You might pick up a genuine feeling, but make an incorrect assumption about what triggered it. Or you might see a trigger and assume you know how the person is reacting, but be wrong.

INFJs are often nicknamed The Counselor. It’s important that we find balance in this role. Take the time to “counsel” yourself and work through your own emotions. Let yourself have feelings. When counseling others, really listen to them rather than just assuming you accurately guessed what they’re going through. Let them, and help them, work through their own emotions.

 

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7 thoughts on “These Aren’t My Feelings: Absorbing Emotions as an INFJ

  1. I relate to this so much! Earlier this summer I went to a funeral, and as soon as I walked in the church, I felt practically assaulted by the emotions. Though like you, I don’t completely take on the emotions of others, but I pick up on them and am affected by them. For example, if someone gets mad at me, I don’t necessarily get mad at myself, but I notice the emotion and my emotion changes because of it.
    I say I eat other people’s emotions. If people are happy, it’s like eating good food, which puts me in a good mood. If people are upset, it’s like eating rotten food, which puts me in a bad mood. That’s kind of an odd way to explain it, but would you say your experience is similar?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like the “eating emotions” metaphor. Negative emotions can literally turn my stomach — I’ve left during the middle of a dinner because there was conflict at the table and I couldn’t finish eating.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Me too :), I relate to this soo much too. When I came across the book Highly Sensitive People and read it, I was floored. I didn’t think anyone out there understood what I felt, much less could write an entire book about it. I felt relief and validation to be blunt. 🙂 Then – I found that I tested as an INFJ.

    Learning the traits and pros about them and challenges (or just having them clarified and validated) helped immensely with the next step: learning, just as you said, how to keep a balance.

    People always look at me like they don’t understand how someone else’s bad day (rather their intense emotions about it) could affect someone else. You explain it very well in here. 🙂 I’m bookmarking this most definitely!

    Insightful as always… Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I have been researching on INFJ and empath for years now after I realised I’m one of you all. I have to admit, I can relate to this as well. Just two days back, one of my co-workers had a bad day and was being rude to everyone. I don’t feel offended by her gesture, but rather I’d somehow felt her pain which brought my mood down too. The worst thing is when I’m on super good terms with another person, the emotions tend to linger around for some time. Yes, it’s still lingering around right now.

    Do you have the experience of such emotions, positive or negative, lingering around you for days? I wonder is it just my own emotions, or is my co-worker still feeling the same too.

    Thank you for this insightful post. I’m glad that I’m not alone.

    Like

    • I’ve had that happen, too. I’m never quite sure whether I’m still feeling the lingering effects of the other person’s mood or if my mood has actually changed. Sometimes it lasts 2 or 3 days or even more, especially if I’m close to the person.

      Like

  4. Reblogged this on abstract relations vi and commented:
    I have noticed that sometimes when I watch movies or TV shows I get a bit more worked up than the average person (eg. I was watched an episode of The OA this morning and I got physically anxious because of the situation… my heart was racing, my hands were clammy.) Or that when my husband comes home in a melancholy mood I have to consciously choose not to automatically slip into being melancholy too, no matter how great my day was. Or that when someone cries, I often cry too.
    Today after reading this blog post and thinking more about it, I realized that this is probably why I am so numb in some situations too. Because I know from experience how easily my emotions can be manipulated, there are some times and places where a wall goes up around my heart as a defense mechanism. Church, especially has been one of those places recently. For a good number of years the music and the preacher and the people around me all influenced me, convincing me these feelings were my own. But then it the quiet moments when I was alone, when I no longer felt those same emotions, I started to wonder if they were my feelings at all. And obviously being a follower of Jesus is more than emotions… the heart AND the head are involved. So then I would press more into the beliefs and the knowledge side of things and well… growing up in an age of skepticism makes that difficult as well. So… I don’t really have a point here, just that I appreciated this blog post and a reminder that there are other people who are trying to figure out the lines between their emotions and the emotions of the people around them.

    Liked by 1 person

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