Letter to an Empath

November 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Written in July 2008.

Dear Empath,

Maybe you have just consciously realized that not all the emotions you feel are yours, and aren’t sure what to do about it. Maybe you have known this for a while, and trust your senses implicitly. Likely you have a healer’s sense, and want to do all you can to fix the hurts you feel, sharing your perceptions of others’ emotions with them in an attempt to get them to open up.

Sharing your perceptions is fine, but it needs to be done sensitively, and too few “sensitives” manage that. There’s a reason many science fiction novels depict telepaths as mistrusted, hated, or feared: one’s inner world, the contents of one’s mind, is a deeply private, very personal place. Infringing there without permission is a severe violation.

But Meir! you might say, I can’t help sensing peoples’ emotions! How can you say it’s a violation? They’re violating me by blasting me with painful emotion!

First, not everyone is aware of their empathic senses, and plenty of people do not have very strong or well-honed empathy. If you are naturally strong empathically, you have a talent that you must learn to control. It is your responsibility to be ethical and sensitive with your abilities. After all, if you’re an empath, you’re supposed to be sensitive to the feelings of others, right? It’s in your best interest to avoid agitating people by displaying violation of their privacy.

It’s like someone born with a naturally larger body than most: powerful shoulders, great height, an easy gain of muscle mass. Such a person has to learn to adjust their grip so as not to bruise others in a casual handshake or a pat on the back. They can’t help what they were born with, but it’s nonetheless their responsibility to moderate their use of strength for the well being, safety, and comfort of less physically gifted individual. Similarly, a naturally strong empath must moderate their behavior to accommodate less psychically gifted individuals.

Second, it is your responsibility to take care of yourself, including in regards to your empathy. I’ve known empaths who insist that every other person in their social circle is at fault for what emotion they’re supposedly “projecting”, especially if such people are Pagan or occultist. Some have even insisted that a Pagan exhibiting strong emotion around the empath was psychically attacking them! In my opinion (and I say this as an empath, myself), this is ridiculous. You are responsible for your own senses.

For instance, someone who is hypersensitive to light doesn’t generally insist that lights be turned down or off wherever they go; that’s not feasible. Instead, they wear sunglasses or prescription glasses or both, and perhaps they install special light bulbs or dimmer switches in their home. Similarly, an empath can learn to use filters or shields and ward their home against outside energy and emotion. I live with emotionally volatile roommates who frequently fight; I ward my own room and retreat there when it gets to be too much for my senses. Music, a loud fan, reading a book, or focusing on video games can help block it out even further.

I don’t like shielding or filtering. I find it uncomfortable and feel that it muffles what is, for me, a vital sense. If I choose not to shield or at least put up good filters, however, I run the risk of sensory overload from empathic feedback. I can’t blame others for that overload, because it is my responsibility to shield and I choose not to, thus making myself vulnerable.

Many empaths I’ve known have difficulties shielding effectively. That isn’t the only way to manage one’s empathy, though. Developing healthy personal and social boundaries can be helpful; learn what is “you” and what is “not you” and it can make it easier to lessen the impact of or ignore outside emotions. This is harder and takes longer to develop than shielding, but I believe it’s the most effective coping skill for empaths in the long run.

Other management and coping tactics are removing yourself from an overwhelming situation (such as stepping outdoors after being in a crowded room for a while), preparing yourself when you know you’re going into a potentially overwhelming environment (visiting a distraught friend or going to a concert, for instance), grounding frequently, taking care of yourself physically so that you have the energy and mental resources to handle your empathy (such as eating healthily and regularly—food has an incredible impact on mood and ability to focus), and avoiding toxic relationships and situations.

For example, if a friend is frequently venting her anger to you and it’s overwhelming, draw boundaries: ask her to vent to someone else. Empaths are easy to open up to and talk to, but that can take a toll on the empath. If you are feeling strain from people emotionally dumping on you, it is your right to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t handle venting right now; do you think you could talk to someone else?”

You have to deal with, in one way or another, whatever emotion people give off, but you do not have to let people use you as cheap therapy. Firm, respectful boundaries are especially important for empaths. Friends may be upset at first that you won’t let them come to you about every one of their emotional woes and angers; they may even say that you’re the only one they can talk to, but don’t let yourself be guilted into not taking care of yourself. You can’t help anyone else if you’re burnt out and breaking under empathic strain.

And if you’re really the only one your friends can talk to about issues, then it’s likely they’ve become over dependent on you. Allowing that to continue does them a disservice and handicaps them. Beware of codependency!

Third, it is possible you are wrong or inaccurate. Your own mood and perceptual filters distort all sensory feedback. This certainly distorts visual and auditory feedback—what you hear and see and how you interpret it is infinitely subjective, and nonphysical senses are just as much so, if not more. Some people have shields that distort or divert your senses. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who you’re picking up emotion from: you might be feeling your distant lover’s anger through a close psychic link and mistake it as coming from the friend right in front of you.

Finally, if you must share your perceptions—be subtle and sensitive about it. Accept that you could be wrong. Especially accept that the other person might not wish to share what’s bothering them, and they have that right to privacy. Verbal, empathic, and social pushing after the individual has refused to discuss the matter is a violation, and at that point it’s an intentional one. I know it can be hard not to meddle, but oftentimes doing so can make matters worse, no matter your good intentions.

Take responsibility for your abilities. Take care of yourself. Accept the possibility that you and your empathic senses are fallible. Maintain healthy boundaries. It can even be helpful to get therapy to learn boundaries and minimize codependent tendencies. And please, respect others’ right to privacy; they are not required to explain their emotions to you, nor are they required to believe that you are sensing their emotions.

You have a talent, and it is your responsibility to manage it effectively.

It is not an easy journey.




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