Imagine being the sort of person who is deeply affected by the emotions of every other person they encounter.
From a man you happen to pass for a split second on a bike path, to the cashier at Trader Joe’s, to your children, their teachers, your spouse and even your pets, you are constantly inundated with energetic information—sad, happy, stressed, nervous, bored, lustful—you name it.
Despite an ongoing debate about what actually constitutes an empath, this is the baseline definition—or perhaps a better word would be condition—of being one.
Empaths are born with the innate ability to sense and absorb the emotions of everyone they meet, even people they don’t physically know or aren’t in fact real—like characters in books or movies, television personalities or sports figures.
The world is defined, for them, in terms of emotion—a vast undulating sea of energy in which they can often be swept up, losing a sense of where their spiritual body begins and ends.
For empaths, this hyper receptivity can feel disorienting, frustrating and distressing—especially when they don’t realize that not everyone experiences the world the same way they do.
Empaths can feel everything, except the fact that sometimes others cannot feel them.
How can there be war, they wonder. How can there be bullies and things like hunting for sport, dog fighting and boxing? How can there be dictators or murderers? How can anyone ever want to hurt anyone else, knowing that they will feel the pain that they’ve inflicted as their own?
These are mysteries for which an empath may never discover a satisfying answer.
When an empath first encounters an aggressively non-empathetic person (such as a narcissist), they expend untold amounts of energy trying to “read” them and figure them out. They are not used to being emotionally blocked. The non-empathetic person will often take advantage of this focused attention and lock on—the two then creating a dynamic of co-dependence which binds them tightly, and painfully, together.
To break free, the empath must accept that their partner has never, and will never, care about or sympathize with their feelings—no matter what seductive language they use or dramatic actions they take to convince them otherwise.
Psychology Today reports that the percentage of narcissists, currently in America, has reached unprecedented numbers:
“One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test. That number has doubled in the last 30 years. Another study reported a 40 percent decline among young people in empathy, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism, since the 1980s.”
Whatever the reason for these figures may be, they leave empaths in a precarious position. Unless they learn to understand their unique way of experiencing the world, and accept that not everyone shares that experience, there is a good chance that they will find themselves drawn into abusive relationships which will scar and perhaps permanently damage them.
So, is it possible to be “gifted” with this extraordinary sixth sense and still be self-actualized, confident and comfortable? Absolutely.
One of the first things an empath needs to do is realize that, though they can feel other people’s feelings, they aren’t responsible for them.
Empaths tend to be fixers and healers, wanting desperately to make everyone’s pain go away, in part because other people’s pain becomes internalized as their own. In other words, if someone is suffering, the empath will suffer right alongside them. But the belief that they can, and should, change the emotional state of someone else is paradoxically narcissistic.
Until an empath learns something called “compassionate detachment”—a state of mind in which we observe those around us without judgement—they will find themselves serially entangled in inappropriate, unproductive or dangerous relationships.
Empaths also need to learn how to compassionately detach from their own emotions. Even though emotions are their natural entry point into every experience, empaths can train themselves to find the place of stillness that lies beneath all that turbulence.
The most effective way to do this is through a meditation or a yoga practice, which teaches us to watch sensations as they come and go, without engaging in them. In this way, even empaths can realize that they are not their emotions, but something much more constant and profound.
The emotional “noise” of the world can make empaths feel like they are in a crowded room where everyone is screaming and in crisis all at once. For this reason, it is also essential that they spend big chunks of time alone, preferably in nature. This allows them to re-calibrate and feel their own feelings.
For empaths, it really is a question of managing energy. Of knowing how and when, and with what sort of person they can share their sixth sense, and when to gently keep some distance. With practice, over time, empaths can become true healers—people who are vulnerable, yet strong, as well as wise, yet always questioning.
They can become people who learn, not only how to best help others (and not because they have to, but because they want to), but also how best to heal themselves.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/Day Donaldson