Having recently written two articles on the topic of Narcissism and Egocentrism, I told myself I thought it would be good to balance things out and start writing something on its polarity.
So this article’s focal point is the empath, or the empathic structure.
I always recognised a lot of myself in the definition of an empath even though for many years I didn’t know much about it. So it has been a great opportunity to learn about myself first and now finding pleasure in my ability and platform to share it with others.
There are several common traits unifying empathic people, one of which is the commonly associated personality trait, empathy. Empathy is defined as a sign of emotional intelligence and emotional ability to understand other people’s feelings as if they were one’s own. Empathy is the act of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and reaching our hearts out to others.
image by Alex Wong
It’s worth noting that empathy is not the same as sympathy, which is more an act of pitying or feeling sorry for another. As the Dalai Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality”. It allows us to keep our hearts open to love and nurture our acceptance and understanding of ourselves and others. In my opinion, it is the most important value that our society needs to foster and focus on today. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, it is a predominant characteristic in individuals found to have high EQ’s.
People with high empathy, or empaths, are praised and valued in society for obvious reasons. But we often neglect the ‘dark side’ of an empath. An empath is the direct opposite of a narcissist in that they are extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of others. But this can sometimes backfire on an empath, as they also tend to struggle standing up for themselves or recognising what is best for them. As Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and an empath herself put it: “The trademark of an empath is feeling and absorbing other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities”.
Empaths are people who are extremely aware of the emotions around them. To an empath, it doesn’t just feel like “being aware” or others feelings… their experience is one of actually absorbing other people’s emotions as though they were their own. Furthermore, when overwhelmed with the impact of challenging or relentless emotions, empaths can very easily begin to experience depression, fatigue, apathy, panic attacks or fall into addictive behaviours using food, sex or drugs. As Andre Solo, co-founder of Highly Sensitive Refuge, affirmed, “For empaths, this ability is both a gift and a curse. It can be hard because most of the time empaths feel that they cannot ‘turn it off’, or it takes them years to develop ways to ‘turn it down’ when needed. As a result, an empath can find themselves going from perfectly happy to overwhelmed with stress, anxiety or other feelings, simply because someone else walked into the room. At the same time, an empath’s ability to absorb feelings is their greatest strength. It allows them to understand others and connect deeply with them. It’s also what makes them extraordinary caretakers, friends and partners – especially when others understand and appreciate their gift.”
I remember a time when my ex husband and I individually took a famous personality test that a couples counsellor had recommended. Once completed, we were asked to overlap the two separate tests to merge the results. This way we could recognise our similar and opposite traits. What we found was surprising for both of us and the counsellor: my spouse was at the higher limit of the indifference spectrum and I found myself on the opposite end, as a highly sensitive person. Today I recognise that I have an empathic structure.
This was back in 2006. At that time, a lot of information was still not as readily available online as it is now. I didn’t realise that a result that high on the empathic spectrum meant I was lacking safe boundaries and needed to learn how to protect myself in many areas of my life, including with myself.
Today, having studied and trained on the subject, I’m far more aware of what it means. This awareness has had a huge impact on my life, and allowed me to learn and integrate many lessons over the 26 years of my marriage and the subsequent long years that followed my divorce.
All my life I had been living as an emotional sponge. Too often I’d give away so much, too much, without any limitation and to anyone, be it my husband, daughter, mum, dad, friend or colleague. I would take on everyone’s pain without even realising it. There were times when I would actually sense it in my body and the consequence of that was this relentless need to try and fix, help and save people from their feelings and pain. I couldn’t help it, it was a true compulsion that I was totally unaware of. One that was in truth fulfilling a deep, unconscious need to be seen and recognised.
Interestingly enough, when my psychotherapist suggested I explore and dive into counselling and coaching as a profession, it gripped me immediately. For the first time, I had a deep interest in what I was doing and a real passion for my profession.
In delving into this new profession, I learnt so much more about the consequences of my extreme empathy. Having been so unable to set boundaries with and for myself and other, I didn’t understand what loving authentically really meant. I was feeling, sensing and loving everyone around me, my husband, daughter, friends and clients but rarely asked myself how that was impacting me. I was the opposite of a narcissistic personality and though much of society would see this overwhelming love and self-sacrifice as ‘altruism’, what it really was, was too much love. In reality, when we feel and love too much we’re not really feeling or loving at all.
image by Adrian Swancar
Too much, or excessive love, giving and feeling, has nothing to do with real empathy. They are more reactions to feeling sympathy. We believe that we are givers, therefore good, altruistic people that must help, give, love and feel for others to alleviate their pain or struggle. But we’re deceiving ourselves. We think we’re loving, generous and selfless, but when it’s too much, we are not manifesting the authentic sense of these words. Fooled by a society that values and reveres love and altruism, we are kept in the dark about the less positive aspects of being an empath. As an emotional sponge, an empath can take on others’ heavy burdens and responsibilities without even realising it, without even being asked to.
The consequences of being an ‘under the radar’ empath can be subtle but immense. An empath can in fact put themselves in risky situations and/or become invasive for others around. For example, an empath might not see how they’re not giving their children space to grow into independent and authentic adults. Or they might impede their spouse to grow and expand according to their own rhythm and willingness. The empath can dominate or suffocate a partner with their too much sensing and feeling, trying to fix, help and save without being asked or required to do so. Unaware of this damaging side, the empath can be a powerful emotional manipulator or blackmailer, much like their narcissistic counterpart. In fact, neither one is better than the other, both a narcissist and an empath have their shortcomings because the truth is they exist at the extremes of a spectrum.
Since I was a teen, I always played the empath role, the one who feels too much, loves too much, gives too much to others and very rarely to themselves. The one who, through their excessive love, attention, giving to others, was often deliberately controlling other people’s lives at the expense of their own needs. Although, I’d receive some recognition and approval from all this too much, I never gave to myself or filled my own cup, busy juggling the woes of the world. This left me hospitalised twice from total burn out.
When I finally recognised the empath within me, I chose to begin a journey of self-transformation. It’s been a long and challenging journey, I admit, partly because I didn’t fully understand what it meant to have an empathic structure until after my divorce. It was only in solitude that I was able to observe myself and learn more about this trait of mine.
Today, I’m grateful to find myself in a different, balanced space. I’ve learnt over time to “turn off” my high sensitivity to others’ feelings and needs and even go so far as be emotionally distant, if that’s what I need to protect myself or care for myself. I consciously choose to allow others to be free to be who they really want or decide to be, feel and behave. In this way I can practice true authenticity with myself and then others, without acting out of fear of losing, hurting, displeasing, abandoning, rejecting or betraying. I have chosen to nurture a deeper level of emotional intelligence that allows me to access a balanced and healthy level of empathy.
Being an authentic empath means being sensitive to others’ needs without neglecting our own. It means being responsible for our own emotions, in a healthy, selfish way, and letting go of emotional responsibilities that are not ours. It means allowing others to be emotionally responsible for their own feelings (which is highly relevant when it comes to being a parent and watching our children grow up and go through their emotional growing pains).
I don’t mean to suggest that an empath should not be sensitive to the emotional needs of others. It means that we can still be highly sensitive without entering the trap of over-loving, over-giving and taking on others’ burdens. To achieve this balanced empathy, we need to let go of deep-rooted toxic conditioning and embrace a new way of living, no matter how uncomfortable at first.
image by Sascha Matuschak
Over time, behaviours and traits can become habitual, so it might feel counter-intuitive or selfish to change your behaviours at first. But with practice, persistence, patience and self-compassion, you can change the way in which you express your empathy so that it doesn’t become damaging for yourself or others. According to Dr. Orloff, “Empaths can also learn to centre themselves so that they don’t feel too much or become overloaded”.
As we’ve touched upon, empaths can be prone to burnout if we don’t know how to set boundaries with others and ourselves and take time to recharge. On the one hand, our emotional openness and sensitives can help others to feel safe and so we are able to build profound connections with others. On the other hand, we need to know how to manage the stress and consequences of taking on too much of others’ stuff.
In her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, Dr. Orloff offers a list of traits that empathic people share.
I’ve summarised them here alongside additions from my own research and experience:
Empaths are big-hearted people and try to relieve the the pain of others: a distraught friend, a hurt child, a homeless person etc. They don’t merely offer support to ease the pain of the suffering people, they take it on as if it belonged to themselves.
Empaths’ ‘dark side’ is painful to carry. By taking on board others’ negative emotions, empaths often tend to forget their own needs and carry burdens that aren’t theirs on their shoulders throughout their lives.
Helping others while you have your own problems is totally exhausting, especially if you’re an empath. As they’re able to sense other people’s feelings, it is little surprise that they can feel drained and exhausted after a day at work. After enough time passes, burn out seems inevitable.
image by Clem Onojeghuo
The main thing to take home from this article is that coping with the issues of others is not an obligation or duty. To prevent our empathy from become unhealthy, one should try not to give all of themselves to every single person that they encounter in their day to day lives. Empaths should also let go of the walls that they have built over time because of negative experiences. Only by healing, rebuilding trust, paying more attention to themselves and being more attentive of whom they spend their energy with and on, can empaths finally allow their authentic selves do real good in their lives and others.
As an empath myself, married to a narcissist for many many years and unconsciously becoming the ‘aggressor’ on occasion towards myself, my daughter and others in order to protect myself and survive, I had to first spend time in counselling and training to de-condition myself from my childhood family conditioning and entanglements.
I then had to study and understand the narcissistic and empathic structures in real depth, honestly recognising them in others and myself too. I had to learn to observe and take care of myself, to be healthily selfish and less over-altruistic. I had to educate myself on the true meaning of self-love and self-care and had to rebuild my self-esteem from scratch.
Today I have a daily routine that keeps me grounded and use several tools to protect my deep sensitivity, such as firm time management when I am with someone who I might recognise to be unhealthy for me (be they manipulative, narcissistic etc). I must set healthy boundaries with people I find draining and of course, with myself too (we are our own worst enemy after all). I practice a daily mindfulness practice to centre myself and slow down the thinking – action process. And I deliberately and regularly choose to spend time in nature as often as I can.
After acknowledging the curse that accompanies the empathic structure I was born with and after transforming the compulsive and unhealthy consequences that followed allowing it to run wild, I was finally able to see the blessing in disguise, the silver lining, and feel thankful for the gift of being an empath.
We must remember that as empaths we have special needs and we need special care from ourselves, to ourselves. If it so happens that you recognise yourself in the above, as an empath, it’s important to honour the empath in you first and then to learn to recognise your special needs, whilst possibly deciding to clearly communicate them to your loved ones.