edited 6/18/17 – Before you read on….
Just today I was finally listening to a podcast from NPR’s Invisibilia, that had been sitting in my queue for a few weeks:
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 goes unchallenged because people desire to feel special – we want to feel set apart from genpop. And these articles most certainly do that. Often speaking to the specialness of empathic people as a unique and rare class of human beings, who have special requirements, while simultaneously bemoaning the weight empaths carry. 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
Why unconscious? Does it have to be unconscious? But more importantly, where is the follow-up article that talks about how important it is for an empath to wake up to their own experiences and do some self-inquiry? To practice discernment? 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.”)
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 willing to be 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 does honest self-inquiry. Which, according to the first statement, doesn’t seem to be the case for most empaths who are unconscious of their experiences. And oh yeah – no one enjoys being lied to – again – not just empaths.
– Being an empath is not a learned trait – you either are or you aren’t.
And the proof of this is where? 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? I call BS. 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, no follow-up article 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. Why discernment is not often taught as an important tool to hone for people who are empathic is a mystery as 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? Because you’re willing to talk about it? That’s not evidence. Just because someone subjects themselves to negative images doesn’t mean they aren’t affected.
And 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 (there’s that word again) what is and isn’t real in a way that empaths have not yet learned to discern for themselves.
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. It was embarrassing for its lack of self-awareness and why I started writing this article that same day. (I had to set this article aside for a time to get perspective). The overarching tone of the article was condescending; statements made that were assuming, including suggesting 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.
Oh the irony! Yeah, it’s not at all egoic to insist that friends follow through on advice given by an empath because 1. they expended their precious time to listen to your dilemma (something I thought friends just, I don’t know, did?) and 2. it annoys an empath when you don’t follow their advice because they Know. All. The. Things. Because, in case you didn’t read it in a number of articles available, empaths just know. It’s a different knowing than simple intuition of course because empaths are special.
The number one thing empaths seem to want to convey in almost every single article is that they 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. If someone I know calls me “too sensitive” 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 because it assumes too much) 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.
While many of the concepts AH shares through memes could use some fleshing out to fully grasp and implement, this one is pretty straightforward and true. When we blame others or experiences for our emotional or mental state, we are giving away our personal power and othering. Of course, some people do not want to embrace their personal power because it requires taking full responsibility for their lives and how they choose to experience them. But there is no freedom without responsibility.
People have approached me asking for assistance because they identify as empaths and feel overwhelmed, depressed, and/or anxious. Having been there, done that, got the T-shirt, I ask questions 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.
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.” 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 victim identity which seems safer, or feeling 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.
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 be a great way to opt-out of service and compassion and loving kindness because “we just aren’t strong enough to be with that much energy.”
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 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. 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 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 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. 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.
Grace and peace,