The Gift and Burden of Empathy
If you wonder, “why are people always telling me their life story!”, or “I feel everything from everyone and it’s exhausting!” – This article is for you.
Empaths are special people. They are easy to like, and people trust them as they can pay attention to feelings in an authentic way that is disarming and often alluring. They walk through life having a very different moment-to-moment experience than most people, and people don’t generally notice this is so.
You might expect that a well-developed sensitivity to people’s feelings would be a pretty fun superpower, but if you an ask an empath what it’s like to be them, you’ll frequently hear “it’s exhausting! It’s overwhelming! I get so overcome with feelings that I can’t even be in the room. It’s hard to go to the store much less to a party. People think I’m strange or something, but I can’t help it. I’ve always been this way. I sometimes can’t even tell what feelings are mine and what are other peoples! And please, why does everyone want to tell me their life story?”
Sounds pretty unpleasant and exhausting to me.
Empaths, by necessity, often develop sophisticated strategies for managing. Some come to my sessions saying, “I need to develop good boundaries,” and that is often true but just as often not the real problem. Frequently, empathic folk feel victimized. After all, it’s not their fault they are born sensitive in a harsh, inattentive world.
A wounded empath is often continuously and invisibly (to others) triggered by their experience of other people. It’s not a happy place to be, and generally, no one notices the extent of it. They can feel incredibly lonely and misunderstood. Add to this that resentment about these feelings can be strong – – “Damn it! That feeling is not mine, but it’s ruining my day!”
I get you. I have a special appreciation for empathic folk and specialize in working with people that identify as intuitive, empathic, and creative in ways that can seem to set one apart from the world.
I’m Tired of the Roller Coaster
When I hear “I’m exhausted from this emotional roller coaster!” or “I’m tired of feeling knocked around by the feelings of others,” I think “YES!” because it means what I’m hearing is a voice from within you that knows there is a better way. That healthy part of you knows you can have a better life AND knows the way to get there if given a chance. The notion that the path to healing is built-in is a based on a principle called organicity*.
My work is not to tell you what to do, but help empower the you that already knows the way – and support you in exploring how to give that voice a more central role in your life.
THAT’s how you reclaim your space.
It’s Not Fair
The belief that “it’s not fair” to be sensitive in an insensitive world can lead to a sense of victimization. Some practitioners will shame you, saying, “you don’t want to be in that victim mentality.” To me, that kind of judgment is a form of violence* and part of my work embodies non-violence. You’re not wrong for having those feelings. They are your feelings and you good reason for them. My work is to help you explore whatever feelings you have so you can discover anew for yourself how these feeling arise. Only then can you be at choice. When you feel in a very bodily way, “in your bones,” so to speak, the truth of your situation, then, and only then does it become possible to choose to be different.
Once you’ve seen the solution to a puzzle, it’s not a puzzle anymore. You can’t ever return to your “baffled” self about it. In the same way, when you gain a foundational insight about yourself, you can’t unknow it. Everything you do after that is better informed.
The urge that knows that you deserve a balanced and rich “in the moment” reality – is healthy. Focusing on this innate knowledge and exploring what comes up in the process of that exploration – is the way home.
Other People’s Feelings are Intrusive
Underneath all of this, a wounded empath is continuously dealing with the IMPACT of feelings that, in their world, come from other people.
It’s like other people are at fault for disrupting their world. This often has roots in reality.
Consider the world of a young person (say 7 or 8) who had parent, caregiver, or sibling that was unstable and could be abusive at any moment. In this house, a child learns to be VERY attuned to the mood shifts and non-verbal behavior of people because their safety literally depends on it. In this scenario, one learns that sensitivity is directly related to security or it’s shadow – danger. They become associated in your brain (called a neural network). As a result, relaxing is experienced as a danger and you can only feel safe when you have a good read on people around you.
In a session, mindfully exploring what comes up for this person while they imagine relaxing and taking it easy for a bit, is likely rich territory.
In another scenario, a child may develop an intense awareness of others in order to get attention and affection. If a caregiver was distant or hard to reach, one of the tools a child or infant has is to amplify some kind of behavior so they get noticed. The child may choose an attractive expression, such as being cute or endearing. The child may also choose to be unpleasant or disturbing. Whatever works.
As an adult, this person could identify as empathic because they are continually monitoring others to see if they are paying attention to them. If yes, they feel safer, and if not, then the world is a cold, insecure place. This particular kind of wound is called an attachment wound. Specialized techniques are used to carefully and mindfully explore these issues.
The Rightful Life of a Healthy Empath
Healthy empaths are a gift to the world. They can bear witness to great suffering in an incredibly supportive and compassionate way without losing themselves. Their moment-to-moment experience can be one of great depth that is profoundly satisfying and not dependent on the moods of others. They have the power to elevate the mundane to a celebration of the exquisite richness life. In a mature, well developed, empath – empathy with people broadens to be resonance with life itself. And that is a pretty awesome superpower.
When healthy, empathy broadens to be resonance with life itself.
And that is a pretty awesome superpower.