For a long time, I couldn’t figure it out. They would come to shake my hand and greet me warmly, yet I often felt bewildered and confused. Confused because what I saw on the outside with a warm welcome strangely seemed to conflict with what their soul seemed to be screaming in their insides. Happy and warm on the outside and turmoil, anxiety and anger on the inside. Why was I experiencing this? Was this my emotion? Theirs? Was their emotion somehow about me? What was going on?
I am an empath.
The word empath comes from the word empathy, and this is the human ability to understand and relate to many of the experiences of another that are beyond our direct experience. An empath is someone who is particularly sensitive to the emotions and energy of another as if they were one's own emotions and experience. Dr. Judith Orloff explains that empaths have the ability to absorb the good, bad and ugly of life like an "emotional sponge".*
Licensed therapist Kim Egel explains “Empaths have a higher sensitivity to outside stimuli such as sounds, big personalities, and hectic environments. They bring a lot of heart and care to the world and feel things very deeply.” *
Many empaths find themselves in healing-helping vocations, and in the Church, we often see them as counsellors, prayer ministers, gifted with words of knowledge and prophetic words that help facilitate wholeness in individuals and the Church community.
Particularly in the early days of recognizing this gift (as I look back I always have been an empath), it was confusing because I couldn’t distinguish what were my emotions and what was not. The other smudge was assuming what we sense from the other is all about us.
Making it all about us - When empaths are relatively healthy they can be amazing friends, partners - deeply sensitive, attentive, insightful, creative and caring people. However, if the empath has some wounds, like rejection or other kinds of systemic kinds of fears they may be rightly discerning emotions of the other but through their own grid of fear and rejection.
Empath or not, these kinds of woundings shape how we receive the words, body language, and for an empath, the emotions of others. How many times have you read an unintended “tone” into an email or social media post and took it personally? Through our cognitive schema of rejection, fear etc. the emotions we sense from the other can be hijacked and fitted to affirm our own bias about the world, a relationship and our sense of self - good or bad.
When we walk with the limp of fear and a deep sense of rejection, for example, the part of the brain that is on the lookout for danger can be hypersensitive to a perceived threat. This part of the brain tends to shoot first and ask questions later with a variety of responses - fight, flight, freeze, fawn and so forth. When an empath walks with these kinds of hurts sometimes they can misinterpret what they are sensing and react to it from their woundedness and fear. While we are indeed sensing the emotions and energy of another, our interpretation is askew.
Projecting our stuff - Sometimes, when we have dings, dents and broken hearts we can project our feeling about ourselves and situations on another. We project our suspicions and fear on the other and then we interpret the projection as being the emotions of the other we are sensing. It serves as a way of affirming and legitimizing our own feelings about ourselves or a situation/relationship.
A Couple of ways forward
Self-care - There are plenty of great articles for self-care for the empath. You will hear things like creating regular space for breaks from the extra stimuli we receive. I make use of regular prayer and contemplative practices particularly to foster greater self-awareness. I also try and get exercise, eat well (okay... I sorta try), manage my time commitments well, and have clear boundaries with friends and clients.
Self-awareness - A growing sense of self-awareness will also help us keep from inadvertently stumbling into unnecessary drama, issues and anxiety. Understanding the gifts and challenges of being an empath as well as our own inner landscape can help head off misunderstandings, misapplication and help us better recognize when we might be triggered with our own issues.
Grounding and healing our hearts - We all can benefit from an experienced faithful forgiving friend to walk with us. Someone with some insight and the relational equity to be able to speak into our lives. Those who have earned the right (and are relatively healthy themselves) to speak truth to us - even when it's tough. I also recommend a person with experience and training to help us recognize and address our “stuff” - because we all have it.
Personally, my past, bumps and dents of living life, and the work I do with people - who are often in crisis (faith crisis, health crisis, relational crisis) - I have found it very beneficial to have a long term relationship with an excellent therapist. She has been an excellent companion, encourager, pointed question asker and bullshit revealer. I couldn’t imagine doing the work I do without a person like this.
There’s lots more to say for us empaths to be our best selves and be the amazing gift we are to this world. I am thinking about Brene’ Brown right now and her encouragement to Dare Greatly. For us empath’s daring greatly is a way of life - feeling, sensing deeply. Daring greatly in a variety of relationships and situations that are wonderfully served by those of us who are wired in this way. This deep living is not without its perils and all the more reason to tend to our hearts and inner life with courage and tenderness.
* - https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-an-empath