When people think of empathy they often envisage a situation where another person feels bad and they feel bad in response. When people think of an empath, they think of a person who picks up on the emotions of others and therefore feels what the other person is feeling. Unfortunately, both of these perceptions are wrong; they are describing a sympathetic and empathic response, which most people are able to passively engage in if they so choose.
Being an empath is a whole other ball game. I am an empath. It is my greatest asset and my massive Achilles heel. Being, what I call a ‘pure’ or emotional, empath, means that I am often misunderstood, ostracized, and criticized for my experiences. So I’m going to try to set the record straight and tell you what it is like to live as an empath.
One cannot just become an empath by, say, deciding to be more empathic towards another. An empath is something you are born as. Empaths are highly sensitive, walking emotion detectors who tend to feel everything to an extreme. We are intuits and our intuition is often highly accurate, but we often have an extremely hard time trying to verbally express what, how, or why we know something. We are exceptional listeners and are genuinely interested in knowing what makes another person tick. We are the nurturers who will stick with you no matter what; if you have an empath on your side you’re basically set for life because we won’t ever abandon you.
Now all of that makes it sound like empaths have some kind of secret superpower which can make the world fantastic. And in one way we do and it can. The downside is we can’t choose to turn these qualities off, and for myself this inability to switch off has the potential to destroy me.
I am a veritable sponge. All I have to do is to walk into a room and I can instantly tell who is having a good day, a bad day, who is irritated, who is angry, who is manipulating someone or a situation and the effect this behaviour is having on the recipient. The problem with this is that all these emotions aren’t mine but I absorb them, often without even knowing that’s what I’m doing. If I take in too much, big and little things accumulate and I get overwhelmed; I literally have to get out of there. Sometimes, if there are lots of seemingly minor things I’ve absorbed, their significance gets scaled up and loses all sense of proportion; I just know something is wrong and can only point at the general source of the wrongness as the specifics are largely lost. If left completely unattended for too long, all this emotional stuff builds up and mixes with my own emotions until I can’t tell it apart to dispel it effectively and I meltdown (think about what happens when you leave an unopened coke can in the sun).
The few effective ways I know to cope with this is to have selected periods of alone time, and talking time with friends where I can filter away all the excess that’s not mine. Unfortunately, I am frequently told I am ‘too emotional’, that I need to ‘let things go’, and my reactions are ‘too strong’, and have often been defriended or told to go talk to a psychologist because I can’t switch off from doing this as easily as everyone else, if at all. Sometimes, if all else fails, the only thing that helps is physical touch and lots of it, but there is only one or two people who I’m comfortable enough seeking that from.
Something else that tends to get me into trouble is my uncanny ability to accurately identify who someone is, underneath all the social masks. Give me 30 minutes with someone I’ve never met before and I will be able to tell you who they are at their core with a scary level of accuracy. Very early on, after having people discover this ability and ask for an assessment then berate me because it wasn’t something they wanted to hear, I developed a rule to never ever tell my impressions of someone, merely to prevent being bombarded by their emotional crap. Unfortunately, this left a new dilemma of what to do when I peg someone as having a personality aspect which can drain me. Do I address it with them or just disassociate? I’m so sensitive that I frequently choose to dissociate.
I am disheartened to discover that as I get older I find that people are becoming less willing to accept my qualities as merely being different. As such, people appear more willing to berate me for taking action to protect and care for myself in ways different to the norm simply because ‘normal’ self-care has limited effectiveness for an empathy, and me in particular. I often feel as though I have committed some horrible social sin, simply because I’m an empath. If berated enough, I can start doubting my own sanity, doubting my own abilities, become highly anxious, and lose the plot even more.
Basically, the life of an empath is lonely and fraught with emotional danger. To live as an empath requires a lot of strength for we not only have to know how best to protect ourselves from the emotional lives of others, but also from ourselves. But despite how strong we appear or grow to become, we forever remain truly fragile creatures.