As a young woman, I thought it was my job to feel other people’s emotions and help them process what was going on. It was hard not to—I felt their hearts whether I wanted to or not. This got me into trouble, because when you’re busy feeling other people’s stuff, you don’t spend a lot of time feeling your own.
For me, this behavior began with my inherently empathetic nature and was cemented by my parent’s struggle with their marriage. As the youngest child, I was left alone with them and their dysfunction, and I assigned myself the job of facilitator. I believed that if I could explain how my father felt to my mother, and how my mother felt to my father, they’d be able to find some middle ground that didn’t involve contempt, displeasure and plain old hatred of each other.
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t up to the task. I was so busy running around trying to make everything right that I didn’t realize or understand why I was profoundly angry and depressed all the time.
And even though I never succeeded in mitigating my parent’s misery—they divorced after 30-some odd years together—the script was already written. This had become my modus operandi in relationships.
Even so, the real trouble didn’t begin until I got involved with someone who I used to believe was simply a narcissist, and am now coming to understand was a man with full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Here is a definition of this condition from Psychology Today:
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration—all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment. Related Personality Disorders: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic. Narcissism is a less extreme version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”
I was 25 years old when I met my boyfriend, and liked to think I was pretty smart, but in fact I was as naive as a newborn fawn. One of the many things I didn’t yet know was that people like me—baby empaths—attract people like my new guy—extreme narcissists—the way sugar cubes attract ants.
I found that all my tried and not-so-true ways of interacting with people were turned upside down with him. I didn’t have to work my way into his heart and show him the way out—he enveloped mine and latched on to it parasitically.
At first it felt romantic. We were deeply connected in a way I had never experienced before—but it quickly became an emotional black hole. No matter what I threw in, it was immediately mutilated and destroyed—especially love.
I spent five years unsuccessfully battling that black hole and losing just about everything in the process: money, friends, sobriety, my pride, most of my possessions and even my home. By the time the relationship finally ended, I was a shell of my former self, but I had learned an important lesson (many important lessons, actually, but this one in particular).
I learned that I can’t heal, and am not responsible for, other people’s wounds.
That’s not to say I can’t help heal other people’s wounds, but I can’t reach in with my empath’s finger and make their pain go away, nor should I try. Doing so not only keeps me from healing myself, and it doesn’t give other people the chance to do their own work.
I didn’t realize it, but that attitude was not only foolhardy, but selfish at its very core. Believing I had the power and responsibility to fix everything was its own form of narcissism.
So how was I able to change my behavior in order to still connect with people and feel their feelings (as is my nature, I am helpless not to), without getting my feelings all tangled up in the process?
I had to teach myself something called compassionate detachment.
“Compassionate detachment can be defined as the way in which we relate to others when we allow them to deal with their own problems and become responsible for their own issues, while expressing a loving concern for the nature of their current predicament, and simultaneously staying detached from the outcome.” ~ Helen Abbot
Compassionate detachment demands that we stay absolutely in the moment when dealing with other people. By doing so, we can experience their emotions but not become swept up in their drama. Our expectation is not to promote change, but merely be a caring witness and create space for change to happen. Because we can move on when the moment is over, we are able to release our attachment to the result of the exchange.
When we interact with others, we must always maintain a connection to ourselves. I became so consumed by my ex’s needs and energy that I literally disappeared into him. We can use the breath as an anchor to remind us where we are in time and space, slowing the heart rate and maintaining our integrity. Whenever I sense I’m being sucked into someone else’s firestorm, the first thing I do is focus on my breath.
But sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are spiritual vampires all around us, and even if we do manage to practice compassionate detachment, some people will push and push—especially when they sense our resistance—in order to rope us in.
It’s okay to walk away from these people.
Being deeply empathetic is a great gift—it means you’re an energy receiver. The world is alive and vibrates for empaths in a unique way. But being a responsible and personally realized empath also means you must master the discipline of non-attachment. You must accept that although you may be a gifted receiver, you still should never expect to carry the world—no matter how compelling the vibrations—on your shoulders.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Evan Yerburgh