52 The Day I Stopped Saying, “I Feel for You”

February 15, 2024
Barbara Cook

From Rescuing to Compassion – Final Part 3

I feel for you.  Emotional surrogacy. From Rescuing to Compassion. Barbara Cook blog

In this little series, I’ve been musing about my journey from Rescuing to Compassion.

In Part 1  I noted that ‘helping’ can sometimes be tangled up with ‘rescuing’.

In Part 2 I explored the subtle difference in energy between sympathy and empathy and decided that empathy is a clear winner.


There are whole Facebook pages, websites and podcasts dedicated to the life of empaths. I was an empath before the noun was ever invented! That should be a good thing, right? Well, it starts to sound a little murky when you read this definition which I borrow from 

Barb Dalton’s article Sympathy versus Empathy:

According to Dr. Judith Orloff, an Empath is a person who ‘absorbs the world’s joys and stresses like “emotional sponges.” They lack the filters most people use to protect themselves from excessive stimulation and can’t help but take in surrounding emotions and energies, whether they’re good, bad, or something in between. Source

I know a number of people including fellow therapists who feel others’ emotions and energies so intensely that they are often left feeling overwhelmed and depleted.

Doing the emotional work for them

On a personal level, when I started repeatedly hearing myself say that innocuous phrase,“I feel for you”  I realised I was actually trying to do just that! Do the feeling work FOR THEM! Thus began my journey from Emotional Surrogacy towards Compassionate Holding.

What do I mean by Emotional Surrogacy? Just as a surrogate offers to carry someone else’s baby for them, I would offer to carry someone else’s EMOTIONS for them.

Here’s what I mean. Current day scenario 1:

Barb has had a pattern of attracting in people who are not yet in touch with their emotions. In conversation, Person X will be describing a situation which deserves their anger and possibly even rage. This is often delivered with a blank expression or even an incongruous smile.

Barb, being a good little empath and emotional surrogate, starts emoting on her behalf! It sounds something like this: “She said WHAT?! They did WHAT to you?! That’s not right!” followed by attempts to help Person X find ways to empower herself and remedy the situation.

Person X shrugs her shoulders resignedly and wanders off, clearly not yet ready to own or feel her own emotional state; clearly not ready to move from victimhood to empowerment. 

Barb is left seething and railing at the injustice of it all, having surrogated someone else’s rage and given herself a good dose of anger chemicals along the way!

And it’s not even my problem! Perhaps there’s a projection there that I haven’t yet noticed. In any case, clearly my empathy needs tweaking.

Current day scenario 2 :

Barb is talking to Person Y, who is getting close to feeling his sadness and pain. She’s immediately in that emotional state with him as he describes the situation, affirming him with, “I feel for you. That’s so tough.”

He quickly clambers away from the sadness and switches immediately to, “Oh well, never mind. Do you want a cuppa?”

He proceeds to carry on as if nothing has happened, clearly not ready to do more than dip his toe in the very edges of this feeling.

Barb is left drained by having surrogated the energy of pain on his behalf, having given herself a good dose of grief chemicals along the way!

Oh, you mean they’re just venting?

My empath was formed at such an early age that I had no way of knowing that someone was simply venting without wanting to do anything about the situation. 

I had no way of knowing that my job was to simply be a kid; not going around on ill-advised rescue missions that were beyond me anyway.

Instead I must have psychically put my hand up and volunteered, “Yes, no worries, I’ll absorb that emotional charge for you. I’m an emotional sponge with no filter. I’m up for it.”

Energy exchanges — releasing the charge

I remember reading The Celestine Prophecy” years ago, and resonating deeply with the truth of energy exchanges. In a perfect world, people would take responsibility for their emotional regulation, release and processing in healthy ways.

But many people have not learned how to do that. Disallowed energies (of rage, sadness, envy, guilt etc) were stored in the body, but the charge of those emotional states has not gone away. If the charge cannot be released, it seeks some kind of exchange. What do these people do?

Their only reaction is to release the stored energy charge through either venting or acting out, often through an angry outburst at someone else. Afterwards a kind of equilibrium is restored and they feel so much better! The trouble is that others have been caught in the crossfire. They’ve unwittingly or voluntarily absorbed a big fat energy package that wasn’t theirs to begin with.

My empathy needs tweaking

Awww, I’m so in love with this younger part of myself whose emotional surrogacy was her very best attempt at lovingly wanting to help. But clearly the quality of my empathy needs tweaking. It’s time to let go of my entrenched role as fixer-upper. No more ill-advised rescue attempts for me. No more carrying someone else’s emotional baby.

What happens when I give up being an emotional sponge or emotional surrogate?

What happens when I stop saying, “I feel for you.”

What if I ‘leave them with it’? How can THAT possibly be love?

I think I’ll start calling myself a “Compash” rather than an Empath.

Yes, I know I’ve made up a new word. Instead of jumping in there with them, I provide what I’m calling ‘Compassionate Holding’. I become a ‘Compash’.

I have moved into a new territory.  In this weird new world, I allow that person to have their own feelings. What a novel idea!

Of course, I have to work through some unfamiliar feelings that I’ve abandoned someone if I don’t feel their emotions for them!

I limit the amount of mere venting I’m willing to listen to and

My heart is bursting with love for them as they begin to feel their own emotional charge. I energetically hold space for that person without taking it on for them. It might sound like, “I’m hearing you.”

It will involve practical help if required. Afterwards I keep careful watch out for taking on their emotions and try to remind myself that it’s their journey. If and when they’re ready, they will find the tools to empower themselves to deal with it, just like I have.

What happens now?

What’s left to do now that I’m not attempting all this rescuing and carrying other people‘s emotions for them? Here are the two main takeaways:-

  1. Importantly I become curious about my own projections. Am I ever projecting onto others my own disempowerment or unacknowledged pain? It’s so much easier to see and try to remedy in others! 

2. It’s time to continue taking responsibility for my own emotional regulation and processing.

A most unexpected by-product

In letting go of the rescuer role, I’m also released to be ‘merely a kid’ again. I’m more accepting of all that life brings. I lighten up.

I find more joy and fun.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section if any of this resonated.


Barb x

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