April 23, 2021

I am Breaking Free from the “Empath” Narrative—& Here’s Why.

I always hated being an empath, until I had to embrace it.

Anyone who spends frequent time online or is on social media can easily observe that more and more people are coming out to declare that they, too, are empaths who have been long rejected by a culture that’s always favored energetic, loud, and highly expressive extroverts.

This isn’t to shame empaths or extroverts, but to simply say that they’re different in the ways they approach, explore, and navigate the world.

When I was a teenager around the age of 13, I had no access to Instagram or even knew what psychology was. I lived in my own little world. I felt burned by all my intense, heavy emotions, with no safe outlet or a person to turn to, except for the critical voices in my head and my own trusted notebook and pen.

I was your typical shy, socially awkward, and introverted teenager. I was easily disheartened whenever another person was rude, aggressive, or overly critical. I never took rejection or criticism lightly or understood how.

On top of my own awkwardness, I was often reminded that I was intelligent, but that my sensitivity got in the way and will hinder any progress I’ll attempt to make in the future.

I eventually learned to reject the way I was made and buried myself underneath the tons of books I have read, praying that intelligence would be able to mask my swarming emotions.

I was 25 when I took my first personality test on the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), a term coined by researcher and psychologist Elaine Aron, whose own personality as a Highly Sensitive Person has inspired her work to help others like her understand themselves better.

When I took the test, which consisted of 27 questions, each indicating symptoms of the level of high sensitivity one might be, I marked “yes” on 25 of them.

A Few months later, I stumbled upon another psychology article where I was first introduced to the two terms “empath” and “empathy,” and another video by Brené Brown in which she explains the difference between empathy and sympathy, and why it is crucial to understand the difference between them both.

All of a sudden, everything started to fall into a perfect place. I told myself, “I knew I wasn’t crazy. I knew that somewhere, somehow, there was a logical explanation for people who felt like me—too much, too intensely, too deeply—all the time.”

I’d like to make the distinction here that although used interchangeably, a Highly Sensitive Person and an empath are not identical. However, they often share and exhibit similar characteristics, which might include carrying intense emotions, feeling easily overwhelmed by individuals or environmental energies, having an overactive nervous system, which can only get worse under pressure or when stimulated by strong sensory input, and being attuned to other people’s emotions or body languages—all while feeling deep compassion and empathy toward them.

This isn’t to say that non-empaths or non-HSPs cannot share some of those characteristics. Regardless of our personality type, we each feel compassion and empathy as humans, especially toward the people we love.

But with empaths, the ability to feel, sense, and hold space for another human on a deep cellular and emotional level can leave them feeling overstimulated, or it can even manifest in physical symptoms such as adrenal fatigue, headache, nausea, migraines, exhaustion, or a general lack of motivation and energy.

I confess that understanding my newly found characteristics provided me with great relief. Knowing that what I had been carrying for years as a burden is something that someone else has normalized alleviated some of the self-doubt, criticism, and the pressure to conform or to be validated by what was perceived as “normal” at the time.

But looking back at things, I now understand what I didn’t know back then.

Discovering my traits—both strengths and weaknesses—as an empath only provided me with a framework to work with as I continue to journey through life and to learn how to understand myself and other people better. It was never meant to be a life sentence or a rigid, unbendable, non-conforming rule that can never change.

I was your typical empath who was crippled by my long battle with anxiety, depression, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)—all combined with an environment that was relentless in replaying my triggers. This made it harder to distinguish whether the fears, fatigue, and sensory overload I often felt were driven by my empath nature, or whether they were CPTSD symptoms manifesting in my psyche and physical body.

All my I am not good enough, smart enough, capable enough, independent enough, or worthy enough to deserve a good life were amplified by a personality trait that was unforgiving toward people who are sensitive, let alone toward those who are sensitive and continue to battle with mental health.

The way it was, it didn’t feel like being an empath is a privilege as the many articles on Elephant Journal and other mindful websites pictured it to be. Instead, it feels like a curse.

That is why I am here to tell you, one empath to another, that being an empath doesn’t mean we have to tick every single box in every empath personality test that exists. We don’t have to confine ourselves to the specific definition or rules of who, what, and how an empath should live their life.

My self-discovery journey has felt exhausting, but it’s also taken me to so many wonderful places.

Oftentimes, my own anxiety and anger, and hopelessness have pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, introduced me to fascinating places and people, challenged me to apply for jobs I felt I didn’t deserve, and helped me work on an immigration plan to escape what I felt was an abusive and unfair environment.

I would have resisted all these changes if it weren’t for the restlessness I felt while locking myself in the confines of what felt convenient. All these opportunities wouldn’t have been made possible if I believed I needed to retrieve to my cocoon, or to live life by the things that exclusively brought me comfort.

I wouldn’t have flown all the way to India for my yoga teacher training, or taken up salsa classes, or read books that opposed my ways of living, or created friendships with people who weren’t as empathetic, but had other amazing qualities that inspired me to understand life differently, or…

It is often said that empaths can’t handle watching violence or take part in situations that require being assertive or a bit aggressive. In some parts, this might be true. But I’m an empath and an HSP, and I love watching crime documentaries, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu videos, and Muhammed Ali’s boxing clips during his early career while chanting, “I am the greatest.” I find all these things inspiring.

The way I see it, violence and aggression will always exist in the world, whether I’m willing to accept it or not. Embracing aggression as part of the things I am able to welcome within myself as an empath only allows me to employ my empathy to handle violence whenever they arise in other people. After all, meeting aggression with aggression has never proven to be fruitful, has it?

So, where does that leave me? Where does that leave you? Where does that leave the rest of us empaths?

The intention in sharing my experience isn’t to sound condescending, or for anyone who identifies with being an emapth but is on a different path to feel disheartened. It is meant to explain that personality tests aren’t set in stone, neither are psychology theories or our biology, mind, and behavior.

Our brains are incredibly capable of changing according to the recent theories in neuroplasticity. And in return, these incremental changes in our minds can have tremendous effects on our bodies as well as our behavior.

Saying that all empaths “should” live life according to the limitations of their biology or experiences, without the ability to explore life differently or go beyond, is equivalent to saying that all siblings will end up with the same abilities, given that they came from the same parents, were raised under similar circumstances, and received fairly equal opportunities to grow. Even identical twins, however similar, end up with different characteristics.

We are each unique and are exploring our own paths. But we’re ultimately looking for a similar meaning, purpose, and a way to contribute to the bigger existence, whatever our perception of it may be.

Empaths are incredible, and they are naturally gifted with an enormous capacity to feel, embrace, and give in ways that others may not be able to embody. They are generous, compassionate, caring, and loving, and the more they give, the greater their sense of empathy amplifies. But this isn’t to be mistaken with codependency, or relying on others to derive meaning toward one’s self.

It is no wonder that many of them go into becoming great healers, given that under the right circumstances, they can use their talents to help others see the beauty and the meaning that they see in the world and in others too.

The world is slowly decaying, and we desperately need compassionate leaders who care and can lead and transform with empathy.

Many empaths feel that they aren’t equipped to handle positions that require leadership, lest they feel burdensome by the enormity of these great responsibilities.

But I’ll leave you with this one thought: if we can already see the consequence of a world where narcissists are put into positions of power, imagine what the world could be like if more empaths were given the same power. That potential can be ours if we can only claim it.

As the great, late Maya Angelou once said:

“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”

 

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