In normal, day-to-day experiences, resistance and discomfort are two ways the Universe asks me to change my mind. I used to live in fear constantly and I’m not being hyperbolic. I was drowning in anxiety on a daily, if not hourly basis for the first 3 decades of my life. My foundational beliefs – which served to identify who I was – had to go through a huge seismic event for me to begin to find peace because shockingly, these foundational beliefs served as a weak place from which to view the world and my place in it. While I clung desperately to each of these beliefs that guaranteed me eternal bliss, I struggled in the here-and-now in every aspect of my life. And the struggle was a direct result of the aforementioned beliefs.
I finally came to the realization that nothing was working: I had reached the end of my rope years ago, so something needed to change. For years I had been instructed to not question the beliefs that had been imparted to me and I held to that as long as I could until desperation overwhelmed me. Then I took a hammer to those foundational beliefs and threw those pieces in the air like confetti. (At that point – I had nothing to lose). As each belief rained down in slow-motion, I would reach out and grab one at a time and consider it – question it. “Is this true?” “Can I know for sure that it is true?” “No?” Shoot. “What if this isn’t true? What does that mean?”
As it turns out, and much to my surprise, setting aside my beliefs only created freedom and that freedom was very quiet and still.
The sky did not fall. The earth did not swallow me whole.
And so I sat for a while in a daze from the anticlimactic nature of what I was sure was to be my eternal doom.
For a while I really enjoyed saying, “I don’t know!” What freedom to finally be able to admit that I didn’t know anything for sure. What freedom to be able to finally admit that if I didn’t know for me – I couldn’t possibly be responsible for knowing for the rest of the world. Questions came at me fast and each one, I could just sit with, letting the words play in my mind and heart. I read books, listened to new ideas, explored, and explored some more.
But then I started to wonder, “Who am I in relationship to anything?” I couldn’t define my experiences based on a belief system anymore and that was troubling because my experiences defined ME. When the void became uncomfortable, instead of sitting with the discomfort, I began to seek out new filling. I replaced chocolate with strawberry and lime for pistachio. All those new spaces in my brainbox where the old beliefs used to sit started to get filled with new beliefs, new “truths.”
Before you knew it, the anxiety was back. Not so much the fear. But the anxiety always lurking just below the surface as I applied different labels to myself. What good is a belief if it doesn’t help define who I am?
While I dropped the identity of “evangelical,” I picked up the identity of “empath.” I dropped the identity of “responsible” and picked up the identity of “nonconforming.” Imagine my surprise when the new identities turned out to be equally suffocating! Each label comes with its own cultural baggage, group-think, and list of “cans” and “can’ts.” I didn’t realize that at first. It was confusing. Similarly to the “old” group I used to belong to, where everyone believed X, in my “new” group, where everyone believed Z, people seemed pretty happy! Yet I was not. Again.
The last ten years have been an exercise in picking up and dropping back down. As time has passed, I’ve become more immune to the picking up part. I have come to appreciate the deliciousness of taking in what is in the present moment and in not tying myself to ideas that die just as soon as they come into existence.
Now when discomfort arises, I take stock of the mental goings-on. What am I believing? What about my perspective could use a good quake? How can I change and expand my perspective?
I’m a big believer in questioning the premise and in self-inquiry. Just because my brainbox comes up with an idea, that doesn’t mean the idea is good, true, or tenable. I am liberated by my ability to sit inside a question. I am empowered by my ability to question my own thoughts and the thoughts of others. When I experience anything, and I feel discomforted by it, I have three choices:
1. Pretend it isn’t there – usually by talking myself out of what I’m feeling. (Old paradigm).
2. Recognize whatever is present and run. (Old paradigm).
3. Recognize whatever is present and be with it fully. Rise to the situation if you will.
I know #3 sounds difficult. It can be; depends on the situation really. But here’s the deal: the first two choices aren’t really choices at all. #1 is denial and #2 is denial with cardio. When I was willing to come face-to-face with this truth, my life changed in drastic ways and it all started with my mind. I had to change my perspective regarding “negativity” and “positivity” and “light” and “darkness.” I had to let go of the belief that I was an “empath” and “sensitive.” What do those words mean? Are they helpful or limiting? Do they keep me rooted to duality and therefore in conflict with myself and others? Or do they create freedom and liberation?
Easy to figure out, don’t worry. If my ego whispers any of the following to me:
“It’s too much”
“I don’t have a choice”
“It’s just the way it is”
“I was just born this way”
“No one understands me”
“No one will understand”
“I have special circumstances/needs/requirements”
or anything similar….then the belief is an unhelpful illusion from my ego who is worried about losing control or influence.
Those thoughts are signals to get out my hammer again and started banging away. Because I love discomfort? No. Because discomfort is my greatest teacher. Discomfort leads to self-inquiry which leads to liberated living. I get in my own way – rarely is it something or someone external to me who is blocking the pass. But I don’t have to stay in my way if I’m willing to question the premise. If I’m willing to release an identity. If I’m willing to look, see, and acknowledge, and then shift my perspective – change my beliefs.
When I say, “I can’t,” I want to say it because it’s true: “I can’t because I don’t want to.” Not “I can’t because something is stopping me.” To whom or what am I giving my power away? Funnily enough, it’s usually almost always ideas – these wisps of nothing that can turn on a dime and become larger than life in our minds. If we let them.
Grace and peace.
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And before reading on, I strongly encourage you to listen to it. It has everything to do with what I write below. It has everything to do with empowerment and not being a victim of your emotions or thoughts. You don’t have to believe me or trust my experiences of relieving myself of anxiety, depression, and overwhelming empathic experiences. You can look to the science.
And now, on to our regularly scheduled post.
How we choose to define an empath
There is a lot of information out there defining empaths according to the burdens they bear. Google “empath” or “being an empath” or “signs you’re an empath” and there are a lot of articles providing people with identifiers to cling to that simultaneously offer very little in the way of discussing how to become a healthy empathic person. If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, the bad (or incomplete?) information which we keep regurgitating and sharing on social media often goes unchallenged because of our egos which rely heavily on labels and identification. And I think it is very alluring to the ego to feel special, which is what many of these articles proclaim about people who are empaths.
The articles and memes often identify empathic people as a unique class of human beings who have special requirements, while simultaneously bemoaning the weight empaths carry. Examples are prolific – just Google search “empath,” or “how to be an empath.” Here are some examples of problematic statements, which can be found in the mass of articles throughout the web. Sometimes the problem rests in the fact that the statement is delivered as fact without proof or careful inquiry. Sometimes the problem is that the statement makes victims out of sensitive people, providing no follow-up for freedom. Most of the time, the problem with these statements is both an issue of victimization as well as unsubstantiated “facts.”
– An empath is “unconsciously influenced” by other people’s thoughts, emotions, and/or physical sensations
Many of the statements made – the way empathic people are labeled and defined by the authors – are not followed up with questions or supportive advice. For instance, which the above statement, we might ask, “Why unconscious? Does it have to be unconscious? Does it have to remain unconscious? Would not a person become more empowered by becoming conscious/aware of the influences (and then do a second-level inquiry asking, “Is that true?”) Where is the article that talks about “and then what“?
– An empath is able to read people’s intentions and motivations and can tell when someone is being dishonest (usually followed by, “And we can’t stand being lied to.”)
Again, here we would benefit I believe from asking, “Is it true that people who identify as empathic never have to be concerned about projection, assumption, or “bad reads”? This human-lie-detector thing is also problematic because most people can tell when they are being lied to. People who are honest with themselves can tell when they are being lied to. This isn’t a special skill doled out to a select few: this is part of being a human being when the human being is self-aware and paying attention.
– Being an empath is not a learned trait – you either are or you aren’t.
Is this true? How can we possibly make such a definitive statement? Let’s consider: from where does empathy arise within the subtle anatomy? Or the body? Or the mind? Are we suggesting that only a segment of the human race is capable of deep connection and access to the collective consciousness? How collective is the collective consciousness if only a few people have access to it? Help us all if empathy – a vibrational stepping stone toward compassion – is a rarified gift doled out only to certain people. And help us if we think that empathy is the ultimate goal.
– Empaths pick up and carry the weight of the world’s collective energy and karma.
Can we stop and ask ourselves why we agree to self-inflicted martyrdom? Again, I see no follow-up on how to change this experience and become empowered through discernment. Interestingly, in the dozens and dozens of articles and books I’ve read about empathic people, I don’t think I have ever read the word “discernment.” A spiritual person deep in their healing work is learning discernment. The solar plexus chakra in particular offers an important lesson in discernment which helps us see what we are carrying and from where that energy comes. Discernment is one of the most important and powerful spiritual skills: it teaches us to recognize BS – our own and from others. Discernment is one of the most important things an empath could possibly learn is to distinguish between their own energy and the energy of others.
– Empaths are affected by negative images.
Everyone is affected by negative imagery. And before you tell me, “But I feel it MORE than the average person,” please ask yourself how you could possibly determine that? Just because someone subjects themselves to negative images doesn’t mean they aren’t affected. What if the ability to be with negative images and violence indicates a more evolved way of being in the world? There is the chance that a person has simply learned how to hold a space of compassion for the pain and damage done in the world. Perhaps it means that when watching movies or television shows, or playing video games that are violent, some people can discern what is and isn’t real in a way that empaths have not yet learned to discern for themselves.
What do we do with this energy that has arisen in us? If we feel clear and are standing in our truth when we say that we experience feelings and emotions more strongly than others – okay. But then what? What does that mean? What do we do with that energy that has arisen? What is it teaching us?
What if this discernment enabled people to engage with the idea of violence in a reflective way? If we can’t be in the room with violence or anything else we perceive as negative, how are we ever going to learn how to integrate the whole to heal the whole?How are we ever going to challenge our dualistic natures? How are we ever going to learn to see our own culpability in the violence of the world? Not looking at it doesn’t make it less real or less in need of healing.
How labels stunt our healing
A few months ago I read an article being passed along on Facebook for the friends of an empath. It was a helpful guide to knowing an empath – what to expect, what to be aware of. In other words, it was a list of behaviors that certain people (empaths) should be let off the hook for. (I had to set this article aside for a time to get perspective). The overarching tone of the article suggested that empaths have inherent privileges over other people because of the way they suffer. I will limit myself to only 2.
If we [empaths] give advice, take it. If we take the time to listen to your dilemma, and give you heartfelt advice, just listen to it. We know what we are talking about and if you ask for our advice and ignore it, well, let’s just say it kinda annoys us to no end.
followed two bullet points below by:
We can’t stand narcissism. If you are head over heels in love with your reflection, your money, and your ego- just stay away. We really can’t roll our eyes any harder.
Can we see the mirroring going on here? Can we see the lack of compassion? Can we see the judgment? I ask that as someone who struggles with judgment of these articles myself. But we need to be able to see it to heal it. I can’t fix what I don’t know is broken. I can’t shift what I am unwilling to see.
The number one thing these article and meme writers seem to want to convey is that empaths aren’t “too emotional” or “too sensitive.” They bemoan these labels while at the same time, providing a detailed list of all the things they need to avoid while implying that you should also be sure to not overstimulate or upset them with anything from the list. What I have learned from my experiences of being called “too sensitive” is that sometimes it is true and sometimes it is not. Regardless, it is another person’s perception of me which means how they are perceiving me is more about them than it is about me. However, sometimes, when it is true, it’s time to consider that I might be acting self-indulgent and expecting others to treat me the same.
I don’t like watching the news. It does upset me, especially when something tragic and violent has occurred. My husband watches the news. Do I insist that he not turn the news on in our house or when I’m home? No. I leave the room. It’s not his responsibility to manage my feelings by changing himself or his preferences. Being empathic (a label I don’t personally subscribe to anymore) is an opportunity to grow for me. It is not a tool I use to insist everyone cater to my unique “needs” of a quiet, low-drag lifestyle.
Abraham Hicks recently posted the following meme on Facebook and Instagram:
When we blame others or experiences for our emotional or mental state, we are giving away our personal power and othering. There is no freedom without responsibility. While responsibility can feel like a drag or can seem daunting – when we step into our personal responsibility, that’s when we find our liberation. From that place we can begin to question our beliefs and conditioning. When we place the responsibility of how we experience the world at the feet of others, there is no spaciousness for expansion of awareness.
People have approached me asking for assistance because they identify as empaths and feel overwhelmed, depressed, and/or anxious. I ask them the same questions I ask myself when these energies arise to help them clarify what they want their life to look like and feel like (something only they can know). I then ask them what about their life is prohibiting that from becoming reality (something only they can know). And when I ask, “What are you willing to change in your thought process regarding your emotions and experiences so that you might make your dream a reality?” I often hear crickets at this one. Our conditioning can be very strong. And we are most often conditioned to not believe that we have the power to change our lives, our circumstances. Moreover, culturally and spiritually, we have a longstanding tradition of being trained to give deference to our minds and giving our thoughts power over us. We are not encouraged to question and we are not taught to question ourselves except when it benefits the powers that be.
There is a different kind of power dynamic at play when we can identify as “X” and then blame something external for how we are perceiving our experiences because we are X. But it’s a false power that crumbles the moment someone in an empath’s life realizes, “Wait, I don’t need to cater to their special needs. I’m not responsible for their happiness or peace of mind. And frankly, as I give this just a modicum of thought, I’m realizing how uncool it is for them to try to put that on me. I’m out.”
And what if we allowed that self-empowerment of others to teach us how to empower ourselves. We could just as easily feel something or think something and rather than immediately believe it, say to ourselves,“Wait a minute. I don’t need to believe this. I don’t need to feel this. I can question this thought or belief and change it to reflect my truth in a more authentic way. I can acknowledge the experience of these emotions arising and then dismiss them.” Inner power – empowerment of the self – can’t be taken away because it isn’t dependent on outside influences. There are choices available to us that can enable us to create a healthier emotional and mental life. We have to be willing to ask ourselves which is more important: the identity of being X, which seems safer, or releasing ourselves from the bondage of labels so that we can expand and feel better in our bodies and in the world? If we truly want to feel better, do better, be better – if we want to truly evolve – we have to be willing to be honest with ourselves about the power dynamics in our lives. Question them. Challenge them.
Put another way: empathy, if we’re not moving through our experiences with discernment and awareness, can be a great way to shift the focus away from the person truly experiencing pain and put the focus back on ourselves. It can become a way to opt-out of service (should one feel called) and compassion and loving kindness because “I’m just not strong enough to be with that much energy.” Who is the “I” who is not strong enough?
Do people who are more in touch with energy need to practice self-care? Sure. Can self-care include making decisions from time to time to opt-out of an activity because we are tired or overwhelmed? Sure! Does self-care include using that perception of heightened sensitivity as an excuse to remove ourselves from the world and situations where we might be uncomfortable? I hope not.
Is it really a gift?
Is everyone capable of empathy? I believe the answer is yes because every person has a beating heart, a heart field. Every person has the capacity to grow their intuition and discernment through awareness. Every person has the choice to pay closer attention and be self-aware. Every person can choose to become more and more heart-centered and grounded in their body and experiences, to learn and grow and change themselves. Every person can become more attuned to the energy around them.
Then my friends, empathy isn’t a gift. It is a birthright. And it doesn’t have to be a handicap.
What to do with empathy?
At a retreat I attended a few years ago, the leader was asked, “What is the difference, vibrationally, between sympathy, empathy and compassion?” These three responses to pain are similar and can get mixed up with one another. But they each have their own unique vibrational information. They each come from unique places from within us and each has a different agenda and role to play.
To paraphrase, he replied, Sympathy carries a vibration from the ego, from the solar plexus chakra. Sympathy wants to pet someone on the head and say, “There, there, it will be alright,” or quickly fix the perceived problem in an effort to muffle the pain being expressed because it is making the observer uncomfortable. Sympathy comes from a place of wanting to be a caretaker and “help,” yes, but if we’re honest, it also comes from a place of self-preservation.
When we try to fix or nullify another person’s pain, we are taking away someone’s opportunity to heal. The energy of pain has arrived – there’s a reason for it. And the person who is experiencing it (not second-hand as an empath) has the right to decide what to do with that energy regardless of how anyone else might be empathizing with it – regardless of how it’s making anyone else feel. We are each responsible for our own feelings and perceptions.
He then said of empathy, Empathy is a vibration that shares the heart chakra and the solar plexus chakra. Empathy is a vibrational resonance that leads to dis-ease. (That got my attention). Empathy is a person coming into contact with the pain of another, picking up that pain, and then choosing to walk hand-in-hand with the other, carrying that pain together. Which sounds comforting and loving, but is really just two people now in pain.
BINGO. It’s allowing perceived pain to affect the way a person identifies himself in relation to others and the world at large. It isn’t a solution. It lacks momentum. Feeling empathy isn’t end game – it is a SIGNAL to move into compassion.
Of compassion he said, Compassion is a vibration of the heart. When we are in the vibration of compassion, we are not taking anything on ourselves, or trying to solve anything, or trying to erase anything. We are holding a space for the other person to enter into their healing work. Holding a space of compassion does not involve trying to fix, remove, or change the other person’s experience.
So while we might be feeling deeply the experience of pain another person is having, we don’t have to hold onto it. Why would we? We can choose to become aware of it, release it as it is not ours, and turn our calm attention toward the person going through something and hold space for them to do their work. No judgment, no advice, no fixing. Just holding. Just open hearted awareness and be-ing with them as they continue to follow their path to healing.
Here’s what the articles I allude to above don’t often say – empaths DO have a choice about what to do with the “extra” energy they perceive themselves to be embodying or carrying. They don’t have to continue to carry it, or process through it, or fix it. Once made aware of the energy – of the reason for the moodiness, the anxiety, the depression, the exhaustion – once discerned that it is not their own energy, that energy can be dropped! Let it go. Breathe it out. Empaths don’t have to be victims. They can learn to be a part of the world without crumbling in the midst of all the energy present. They aren’t required to take it on and carry it around with them. There is no merit badge for carrying the weight of the world.
Once upon a time I missed out on fun ballpark experiences, and midnight movie showings of the hot new sequel. I didn’t go into the city with friends or attend healing circles. I wouldn’t watch TV at night because I couldn’t control what might come across the screen and movies were pretty much out for the same reason. All because I felt overwhelmed. Being told I was unique and had a gift didn’t provide me an opportunity to learn from those experiences and heal my perceptions of the world around me. And the truth is that I wasn’t special or more sensitive than my friends. I was simply perceiving the world differently, identifying with it differently, and I didn’t know how to cope because I didn’t understand energy. I think that’s a big problem in the metaphysical world: we talk about energy, we even talk about healing with energy – without really understanding it and our relationship to it.
It boils down to choice. Each of us can choose what to believe, what to carry, which perspective to identify with. Each of us can choose to release what no longer serves. Each of us can choose to spend some time doing honest self-reflection to determine which aspects of our lives, our thoughts, our emotions, our responses might no longer serve. We can learn to co-exist with uncomfortable emotions, images, and experiences. We can learn to hold space for anything that comes our way while standing boldly in our place, grounded in the heart. We can change our habits and thought patterns. Is it easy? Not necessarily.
Is it worth it? I would say it is. I “do life” again. I go to Mariner’s games and concerts and movies. My relationships are healthier because I hold myself responsible for my feelings. Clients and students and friends feel more supported in their healing work because their healing work doesn’t become about me in any way, shape, or form. When they are uncomfortable or in pain, I am not uncomfortable or in pain with them – rather, I can hold space for them to fully be where they need to be and experience what they need to experience. I’m not constantly exhausted anymore and anxiety, when it arrives, has less influence. Energy “vampires” aren’t a real thing in my life anymore because I am responsible for my energy and emotions. I am able to check in and determine if I have the capacity for an activity or not and then honor that without excuses or blaming.
In short, I experience freedom that was out of my reach when I wasn’t willing to look at myself honestly and take responsibility for my thoughts, beliefs, actions, choices. I had to become aware of it, then become willing to change it. Make an exchange if you will.