I am an empath.
What I am sharing is my own experience and my own truth: use it, don’t use it.
I have read a number of articles about empaths which I feel foster myths that are disempowering and tend to distort what an empath really is. Empaths are potentially such beautiful powerful souls but can also be a real pain in the ass; I know this because I can be both.
For a long time in my life I felt that I needed to guard my sensitivity and feelings to protect myself from the ‘world’ and that my purpose in life was to take on other peoples plights and pains. I did this to the point where I blocked myself entirely from being able to feel in my body, instead I tuned my ability into my creative work as a theatre director guiding people to tell their own stories and connect to their deepest emotions. In the rest of my life however I was closed up in a hard shell of intensity and thought, I was not emotionally present to the love, connection of the people in my life, I was not playing.
The reason was I had misunderstood what it is to be an empath which caused me a lot of suffering, anxiety and trauma. Over the last few years as I have been coaching others and been on a profound spiritual journey intensively processing my own healing; I have worked with many empaths and truly come to understand myself as an empath.
There are some truths we need to face about ourselves because empaths can actually become very painful, prickly, obnoxious and easily offended people to be around.
This is because we as empaths tend to hold this narrative that we are such highly sensitive beings who can feel and literally take on the energy and emotions of other people. But the reality is that most empaths disassociate from the responsibility of their own emotions and instead feel compelled to deflect by managing other peoples moods and emotions in order to feel better about themselves i.e. only when everyone else is happy and at peace, can we be happy and at peace.
Empaths therefore become easily overwhelmed by emotionally obtuse people or large crowds because they occur to us as unmanageable. We then develop the belief that in order to feel safe or emotionally stable we must isolate ourselves from certain environments, be careful about what we watch and listen to and be very particular about the kinds of people we have around us in fear of how they will poison us with their vibes or infect us with their ‘entities’. Some empaths even go so far as to believe that it is their job to absorb and digest other peoples pain like energetic earthworms.
What empaths don’t realise is that through this saviour narrative that we can become quite prickly, negative and serious people and while we so strongly believe that we are the ones needing to guard ourselves from the energies of others, we are actually ones ones who become energetically heavy and uncomfortable to be around.
The mantle of empath that we take on often includes that attitude of martyrdom where we carry the pains and burdens of the world on our own shoulders. We act as if the world is always happening to us that we are these gifted sensitive flowers being swept around by the storms of unconscious and brutal energies. People close to us the ones who really care eventually have to tip toe around us so that our sensitivities are not disturbed, that our great sacrifices are acknowledge and our passive aggressiveness is not triggered.
But the reality is that an empath’s condition or ‘ability’ stems from childhood usually with emotionally unstable or volatile parental environments. At a young age out of fear we learn instinctually how to tune into and read the micro expression and gestures of our parents in order to anticipate their moods and manage them. Many kids automatically feel responsible for how their parents feel and if parents are dealing with their own unhappiness, suppressed trauma or depression (which most young adults are) they instinctively believe they are somehow the cause. Of course we do this because at that age we are the centre of the universe, everything is about us! We then learn how to manage our parents moods by adjusting our own states and in the process we give up the capacity to be fully responsible for our own emotions and become unable to define our own experiential and narrative boundaries.
As we grow up we bring this into our adulthood where we bump heads in relationships with the narcissistic personalities that we invariably attract into our lives. Somebody who is not fully present to their own emotions or boundaries and tries to manage other peoples’ happiness, is needless to say, a sweet flower to a narcissistic bee to manipulate.
But then over time, after much suffering, what happens is that the empath begins to compensate either by defensively adopting learnt narcissistic qualities and/or becomes overly obsessed with self protection managing their external environments so that they can feel safe and at peace. Empaths can then become very controlling and unforgiving people, holding on to resentments and grudges for years, blocking people out of their lives, running complaints and rackets about others, creating walls and barriers, becoming brittle in their personalities, having closer relationships with animals and plants than people etc. Any bells ringing yet? And yes they can also be very defensive and stubborn in their interpretations and perceptions of reality. ‘This is how it is’ and no one can tell them otherwise.
At the core of it is a person who has not been able or willing to take responsibility and own their emotional states, their beliefs and most importantly their own personal boundaries. They will rather sit with their sufferings, illness, ailments and peculiar needs than actually embrace flexibility, openness, joy and opportunities for personal healing and responsibility.
And so the question is this: is your narrative of being an empath an empowering one or a disempowering one? Does being an empath open your heart to all or does it isolate you and make you fussy person? Does your attraction to patiently sit in the space of suffering and lack make you and asset or a liability for those around you? Really think about it.
We often tend to be believe that just by being an empath and ‘taking on’ the suffering around us that we are a gift to humanity. This is an invitation to reconsider that notion. You end up hiding your true awesomeness and power from the world.
On a Vision Quest retreat recently I had the experience of working one on one with more than 15 people in one day holding a deep space for them as they each went through an intense range of emotions dealing with deep traumatic issues from rape, neglect and violence. Their energies were all over the place, there was pain, resistance and lots of tears. At some point one of the participants came up to me and asked me, ‘aren’t you completely drained taking on everyone else’s energy?’ And I realised I was not drained at all because I hadn’t internalised anyones’ energy, not one. I held the space where I was in an energy of unconditional love where I could be compassionate about where they were yet not confusing myself with them, I was not in the way. I believe this is the only way one can truly hold space for others; being fully present.
It has taken me years of inner work, practice and training to get to this point, years of bumping my head over and over again. I used to be washed out and drained after every single session be it a ceremony or coaching work until I realised I was not being responsible for my own boundaries and my own state. I had this idea that I needed to energetically sponsor other people to help them, but nothing could have been further from the truth, I was not helping them rather enabling them and merging my pain with theirs. Out of pure self preservation and with the guidance and examples of some powerful teachers and facilitators around me I have learned to define an entirely different distinction about my role and purpose as an empath… it does not mean that I don’t regularly slip up.
But what I have realised is that the only thing that is ever truly draining me, triggering me or making me anxious or overwhelmed is my own distortions of reality, my own shadows, my own doubts and fears. I own that I have neurotic sensitivities and that I am prone to anxiety attacks which can become defensive rage and in owning it I am no longer ruled by it. The only work I ever need to do is around my own happiness, my integrity and my well being for then I can open my heart and feel everything compassionately without feeling threatened or unsafe by my environments or other peoples behaviours or moods.
It does not mean that I am not mindful about who I interact with, where I go, what music I listen to, what movies I watch, what news I read etc. I have learned to do this with discernment not out of fear but out of choice for what I enjoy, honouring my values and boundaries.
It also means I have the capacity to hold big spaces and tackle difficult subjects like gender based violence, shame, death, trauma, things that most other people would run or turn from.
I discern that the gift of being an empath is not that I can absorb peoples emotions or energies, it is that I can instinctively read their gestures and micro expressions, understand and have deep compassion for whats really going on, sense when they are being inauthentic or hiding out from what they are really needing to deal with. It allows me to guide people to see what they cannot see so they can do the work that they need to do if they are willing to be responsible for their own lives.
At the end of the day it is all about responsibility and choice. As an empath if you really want to hold a healing space for others, learn to hold the space of joy, love and wellbeing for yourself first, then learn to hold that vibration in your listening for others no matter what place they are in, they truly feel supported and understood.
The rest is about recognising that while we are all separate containers of perception and narration we are also one. When we can deal with our own stuff and truly get it out of the way we can be compassionately present to the exquisite oneness and shared experience of each and every living being we encounter and thats when we can make a difference.
That is my definition of being a empath.
Heinrich is a life and spiritual coach, shamanic facilitator and theatre-maker