Part One – The Difficulties
Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this. – Merriam-Webster dictionary
Most people have the ability to be empathic to some degree. As an empath, however, your capacity for empathy is significantly greater than the average person – in fact, you are probably highly sensitive to the point of appearing to others to have psychic gifts.
The reality is that you have high emotional resonance, rendering you very sensitive to emotional energy. Everything has an energetic vibration which the empath picks up, just like an antenna picks up frequencies. This means you are able to detect and amplify the subtlest of changes which would bypass most people – essentially, you are the person who walks into a room and immediately picks up ‘the vibes’ (vibrations), be they positive or negative.
You will also be able to ‘feel’ the emotions of people around you – and the danger here, if you’re still unaware of your increased empathy, is that you can end up believing that these emotions are your own. Before I recognised this phenomenon, I would actively seek out – or even create – issues, to pin these rogue feelings onto something concrete – “Hmmm, I seem to be feeling a bit low today, I wonder why that is? Maybe I’m unhappy about my relationship/career/friends/family/ cat?” After all, if you’re feeling so bad, surely there must be a reason? There is, of course, but often the only reason is your high level of empathy.
IT’S NOT EASY BEING EMPATHIC
Your high emotional resonance can also make it difficult for you to spend time in an urban, or indeed any over-populated environment. If you ever find yourself caught up in a crowd, you are likely to be surrounded by emotions such as excitement, confusion, anxiety and anger, resulting in you suddenly expressing these same feelings for no obvious reason. You may also find that the energy which builds up when you’ve spent some time amongst a huge throng of people is so overwhelming that you end up feeling physically ill – headaches, giddiness, nausea and high blood pressure are not unusual symptoms for the empath swamped with excessive emotional energy. This is why many of us prefer to live in a rural environment – the energy in a built-up, heavily populated area is just too much for us.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD…
Because we react so strongly to high-intensity environments, we may find others disparagingly labelling us as ‘oversensitive’. In fact, until you learn how to protect yourself from such bombardment, that’s exactly what you are. However, this is of little comfort when you don’t feel accepted or understood by those you love and who love you, or when people dismiss you as being ‘just too sensitive’. (I heard this everywhere – even one of my school reports remarked that ‘Sharon is sensitive – occasionally overly so’.)
Those empaths who are lucky enough to have people around them who are aware of their trait will be more likely to have positive self-esteem and accept and express their natural talents and abilities. Their sensitivity will be embraced and as a consequence, these empaths will grow up to use their empathic gifts confidently and wisely. Unfortunately, in our current society the most likely scenario is that the child will be chastised, mocked and exploited for their sensitivity, and bullied and pushed in directions which please others rather than themselves. The inevitable result of this, of course, is chronic low self-esteem. These empaths will then either rebel and become one of society’s drop-outs or misfits – not always a bad thing if this means they stay in touch with their creativity – or over conform and become yet another of society’s depressed drones. I recently had a dream that I was one of the few ‘real’ humans left in a world populated by zombies. As I spent many unhappy years actually being one of the ‘zombies’ myself, doing what was expected of me rather than what was best for me, the dream was much more uplifting than it perhaps sounds.
BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE?
As an empath, adolescence can be a particularly difficult time in your life. Already dealing with your own rollercoaster of emotions, if you attended (or still attend) one of the average high schools within the Western world’s education system, you are also surrounded by anything up to 1500 other young people, all wrestling with over-energised hormones and a maelstrom of unfamiliar feelings. You’re also in for a rude awakening, as you realise through bitter experience that not all people are as thoughtful and well-mannered as you are.
I personally found the first few years at secondary school so traumatic, that to this day I refer to it as ‘doing my time’. I struggled to grasp the social rituals and game playing which occurs in friendships between little girls, and instead naively believed that others valued friendship in the same way I did. I therefore failed to understand that you were meant to switch best friends at least once a week, and was genuinely devastated when the friend of my choice fell out with me in my first year. (The unaware empath is always heartbroken when their friendship is abused or betrayed.)
My lack of guile seriously affected my friendships for the next three years, and I ended up spending most of that time hiding away in a corner with a book, wistfully escaping into the fantasy worlds of my novels. Unfortunately, being alone and obviously sensitive also made me an obvious target for bullies as my high sensitivity usually provoked a physical and emotional expression of my pain. I was also less likely to fight back due to a genuine aversion to conflict, particularly of a violent nature, and my natural inclination towards peaceful and harmonious relations.
My daughter is also highly empathic and as soon as she began to have regular social interaction with her peer group, she demonstrated a reluctance to defend herself when other children were mean to her – “I don’t want to hurt their feelings”. Thanks to my own experiences, I’ve had the foresight to teach her basic assertiveness skills from the age of three, the gist of my advice being: “Don’t worry about people liking you – just make sure they respect you. If people respect you, chances are they’ll also like you, but if for some reason they don’t like you – most probably due to a projection of their own insecurities – if you have their (albeit grudging) respect, then they’ll simply stay out of your way.”
HANDLING SOCIAL INTERACTION
Because of my experiences at school, in my late teens and early twenties I mostly avoided female friendships, preferring to have simpler male friendships minus the bitchiness and games. I was much happier being around people who appreciated me and did not diminish me in any way for who I was. As the years go by, I’ve become even more selective about my friendships – I have a handful of close friends (men and women), and am not afraid to ditch any relationships which are detrimental to my well-being.
The aware empath also learns how to avoid negative people and sniff out those bad apples by following their intuition. Experience has taught me to always go with my first impression – never ignore that gut feeling! If I’ve ever made the mistake of giving the benefit of the doubt to characters who initially strike me as dubious, I’ve always been badly burned as a result.
Another distressing social problem empaths can have is people taking an instant dislike to you, apropos of nothing. This is often because as empaths we have very light energy, which naturally repels those people with darker energy. Until you learn not to take this personally and understand that the problem lies with the other person and not you, it can be very hurtful to be on the receiving end of undeserved contempt. Some people are also intimidated by the intensity involved in a relationship with you as not everyone want to explore their inner self – a natural tendency for you – so this can sometimes frighten people away for what seems like no obvious reason. Ever had a friendship which seemed to be going just fine then suddenly the other person stops returning your calls? Chances are that person just couldn’t handle the manifestations of your gift.
Dealing with other people’s sexual energy can lead to some serious difficulties for the unaware empath. This can be particularly tough during adolescence as not only are you surrounded by people whose hormones are going crazy, resulting in you being energetically overwhelmed by a multitude of unrestrained libidos, you are likely to still be somewhat unworldly. Your vulnerability and naivety coupled with your compassion and sensitivity can make you an unwitting target for all manner of sexual predators – female empaths in particular can suffer real trauma due to abuse of their sexual boundaries. As unaware empaths are also more likely to use drink or drugs for Dutch courage and to lessen the impact of excessive stimuli in social situations, you can see how the combination of all these factors can be a recipe for disaster.
ENERGY VAMPIRES AND THE ‘LAME DUCK’ SYNDROME
Until you become aware that you are an empath and learn how to protect yourself, you will find yourself being leeched on by energy vampires due to your natural compassion. Even strangers will be drawn to you, as people intuitively feel that you will empathise and offer support without judging them, so seek you out for advice or simply to vent. Equally, you seem to naturally gravitate towards people in pain. Unfortunately this can result in you being a constant victim of the ‘lame duck syndrome’, collecting all manner of troubled folk who you’ve shown some compassion for.
THE SHY LONER
In an attempt to resolve their social difficulties, some empaths become withdrawn and quiet, in some cases to the point of completely isolating themselves and becoming a loner or a recluse. Others become depressed or anxious, maybe even developing social phobias to (subconsciously) give them a valid excuse for avoiding social activities. I’ve been very shy at certain stages in my life, though only people who genuinely resonate with me recognise this trait in me, as I have learned to disguise it very well – and not always in the healthiest of ways. As I mentioned previously, a number of empaths sadly deal with their shyness by hiding behind drugs or alcohol, which can ultimately create more problems than it actually solves.
POTENTIAL HEALTH PROBLEMS
When you are unaware of your trait, you can become swamped by emotions, mostly those of other people. Society soon makes it clear that expressing emotions is bad, so consequently you have no suitable channel or outlet for the excessive emotional energy you’re carrying. The potential outcome of this blocked energy is that you could become emotionally unstable (acting out past pains over and over with just a change of the central cast now and again, to try and shift the blockage) – or at worst, you could end up having a mental breakdown. It’s easy to see why an unaware empath, battling their way through life, may be tempted to take an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) such as Prozac, to reduce their arousal levels for a while and give themselves a break. (See Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Survive and Thrive When the World Overwhelms You for more on this – there’s a whole chapter about the pros and cons towards the end).
Medicating yourself works to a point but the downside is that as well as losing the negative aspects of your sensitivity, you also lose some of the positive ones (which are worth it, believe me). For this reason, I believe it’s best used either as a short-term solution until you come to terms with your trait and learn how to handle it, or as an emergency treatment, for no longer than six months, if life conspires against you and it all becomes too much.
Some empaths put on weight to use as a ‘buffer’ between themselves and the world. I found that when I felt depressed and trapped (for example, when in a dull relationship or job) I put too much weight on, but if under extreme stress – if suddenly thrust into a high-intensity environment or situation, be it personally or professionally – it dropped off me extremely rapidly. This ‘yo-yoing’ of my weight was not good for my health, but ultimately gave me another impetus for learning more about how to handle being an empath. You may also find yourself suffering from other physical manifestations – diseases and disorders – as blocked emotional energy tries to find an outlet through your body. (You can read more about this, and get links to relevant books, in the mind/body connection articles featured in the Empathic Guidance blog).
You are probably more physically sensitive than others too, and may find yourself having allergic reactions to anything and everything – cosmetic products, chemicals in food, detergents, pollen, dust, fur etc – resulting in symptoms such as sneezing, asthma, hives and stomach problems. This physical sensitivity means you may also feel other people’s physical pain, as well as the emotional stuff, particularly if you have a close connection. On more than one occasion, I’ve gone to collect my daughter from somewhere and the minute she is in my presence, I will suddenly get a strange ache in my stomach or my head – only for her to tell me that she’s not been feeling so well and has a stomach/headache.
THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
Our empathy is not just limited to those around us – it’s also global. The empath can hardly bear to watch violence and will weep for the pain and suffering in the world. Your high level of compassion means that you probably find it impossible to comprehend the cruelty, ignorance and narrow minded attitudes of others. I remember my dad telling me as a child that Pete Duel, who I loved to watch in the 70s TV show ‘Alias Smith and Jones’, had killed himself because ‘he took the weight of the world on his shoulders’, and as I grew up I began to realise why I had been strangely drawn to this man, as I too experienced some of the pain Pete must have felt. (Pete’s story is a tragic testament to the life of an unaware empath – it’s worth checking out if you want to know more about this subject.)
My advice to those of you who also know this feeling only too well is do your best to avoid news programmes until you can handle it – I did this for a while whilst developing my inner strength and now limit myself to a quick scan of the headlines which automatically pop up on my homepage and occasionally reading The Guardian. Even then, I tend to stick to the stories which relate to my work or my life in some way. Empaths also prefer not to watch violent or gory films – though on occasion you may enjoy a psychological thriller. I liked Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ even though it scared me half to death, because (aged 15) I thought the plot twist was clever and weird. Empaths enjoy anything that involves creative or lateral thinking.
Fortunately, more and more people are gaining self-awareness about their gift and are learning how to heal their wounds and nurture themselves. The empath often becomes aware after a number of strange experiences, which can suddenly launch them into an awakening period and provide the impetus for a journey of self-discovery. Often this experience can be dramatic, life-altering and very memorable for you throughout your life.
For me, the turning-point was unexpectedly losing my full-time job (albeit one I was thoroughly miserable in) on 10 April 1995. After the initial ego panic about how I would survive, I decided to take some time out to find out what I really wanted. Following a series of weird but wonderful synchronicities, I realised I had to stop working in meaningless jobs for the sake of earning a living and fulfilling someone else’s work ethic, and find out what really fulfilled me. I began to listen to my inner guidance’s urge to seek awareness, balance and authenticity and thus started my journey on the holistic path. And as I’ve discovered, when you feel centred and whole, you gain the inner freedom to utilise and explore the positive aspects of being an empath.
In part two, I’ll offer some tips on how to nurture yourself and make the most of your trait for those of you who identify with being an empath, and discuss the delights of being a highly empathic person.