Though most of my work is influenced by my empathic nature today, I very rarely write articles that expressly discuss being an empath in a self-destructive world.  I have reasons, of course, and some are quite logical, even.  😉  But the bottom line for me has been that there is simply so much available material out there, that the growing community of empaths seems well served without my input.  And so I need not directly involve myself, I think…

But sometimes things change, and the urge to contribute to a growing body of knowledge becomes compelling.  Today that is true for me.  Back when I first self-diagnosed as an empath (some 30+ years ago or so), it was not a common or well known phenomenon.  In fact, people often accused me of being psychic, and when I tried to explain that I was not, that I was actually empathic, the blank stares would encourage me to just let the explanation go.

Now, though, with the global “awakening” that is occurring, people are discovering their innate empathic abilities at a rapid (even alarming) pace.  And with so much information available for coping with it, I feel a need to step in and offer some experience borne of trial and error over three decades or so.  These are not “rules” I’m offering; rather they are guidelines.  I look forward to the possibility that any society that survives our current transition might be more firmly grounded in empathy, rather than power, driven relationships.  Yet I also understand how challenging it can be to deal with our own overwhelming emotions sometimes, without adding the influence of others’.

So…  Without further ado, here are some suggestions I’d like to make to those of you who are beginning to explore this new “gift” within yourselves…

#1: Be clear, and careful, how you define empathy…

Empathy is about awareness, especially emotional awareness.  It means that you actually feel the emotions of others, as well as your own.  You do not think, “oh, someone around me is feeling angry”; rather, you feel angry, even without a discernible cause.  Because of that, it is often quite difficult to distinguish between what is yours, and what belongs to someone else, but it is essential that you learn to do so.

At any given point in time, on any given day, I can easily find “causes” for the feelings I have, whether it be irritation, exhaustion, or joy.  If I look no further than that, then I have missed the connection my heart has made to another individual.  The only way I’ve learned to avoid this (not perfectly, by any stretch), is by getting to know my self so intimately that I can recognize whether my reactions to circumstances actually make sense for me.

Example:  I find myself unusually grumpy at work, so I start to run through a litany of everything that bothers me there.  It all seems to fit – work is irritating me today.  Except that I know, from paying attention to my past behaviors, that these same irritations occur almost every day I work.  But I am not always grumpy about them; most days I simply accept them and move on.  So what is different today?

What is different today is that someone around me is feeling particularly grumpy.  Acknowledging that, I am now free to seek out that connection, and stop complaining…

#2: Expand your emotional vocabulary…

This may seem self-evident (or not), but emotions come in many guises, and there is a vast “feeling” vocabulary available for capturing the nuances of your emotional states.  Consider the above example.  I used simple feeling words like angry, grumpy, irritated, but other words might work as well.  Consider touchy, frustrated, overwhelmed, anxious, sensitive, out of sorts, out of balance, unwell, unhappy, etc…  The list could certainly expand.

Learning to identify subtleties in emotions by applying different labels is essential, if your empathic abilities are going to become more gift than curse.  Not only will a broader vocabulary help you better identify what feelings are properly yours (as opposed to someone else’s), but they will help you better identify the actual source, as well as what might be causing their distress.

For example, identifying that someone is frustrated, rather than just irritated, can help narrow down why they might be feeling that way, as well as suggesting possible solutions.

#3: Never assume that because you feel what someone else is feeling, you know exactly what they’re going through…

It may feel that way to you in the moment, but it simply isn’t true.  And acting as though it is serves neither you nor them; it prevents you from actually “helping,” while simultaneously discounting the other’s experience.  Here are a few “facts” I’ve learned the hard way…

* I cannot truly feel what I’ve never actually experienced myself.  Feeling it vicariously is not the same.  When my father used to beat on my sister when we were young, I could “feel” her fear, her anguish, her pain, but since he didn’t physically beat on me, I could not comprehend the totality of the experience, including the powerlessness, the helplessness, the rage.  The best I could do was draw comparisons to my own feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and rage, stemming from my father’s sexual misconduct toward me.  But make no mistake, the experiences were different!  Mine, for example, had the added weight of shame, which my sister did not feel.

If you lose sight of these differences, you may wind up causing more harm, by assuming you know how to cope with the totality of what the other is dealing with.  The tendency is to offer advice based on what you know.  But here, you really don’t know

* An open heart connection to another is not an invitation to meddle in their affairs.  I know it feels that way when it’s happening, as the desire to alleviate another’s suffering is compelling.  But I am not always qualified to help them, nor should I try.  If I am asked for “help,” then sometimes the best I can do is mirror, and name, what I feel.  As we’ve already discussed, sometimes the simple act of accurately labeling a feeling will provide insight to a solution.

* Feelings rarely occur in isolation.  In fact, they tend to come in poorly mixed, weird combination packages, more closely akin to the swamp than the pristine waters we’d like to associate them with.  Therefore, no feeling in isolation will accurately depict the circumstances someone is confronting.  By the time I add in my own biases, expectations and experiences, the mix becomes so murky, I have to radically backtrack to guidelines #1 and #2 above.

#4: Work on developing a strong sense of boundaries…

I’ve read a lot about shielding, and protecting one’s self from the onslaught of others’ emotional baggage.  What I don’t see a lot of is information about respecting the boundaries of others.  Let’s face it, empathy is an incredibly invasive gift.  How people choose to process emotion is as diverse and personal as the number of people capable of experiencing emotion (and not everyone is, by the way).  Some people “act out,” effectively throwing their emotions out there for everyone to deal with; others are more likely to withdraw, seeking solitude.  To be an effective empath today, you must be a person with integrity, compassion, and an ethical code that recognizes and respects others’ personal space and boundaries.

If you have identified an “open channel” with someone, feel free to approach, carefully!  If it’s someone you know, you might simply ask how they are today, thus giving them the opportunity to open up.  If they claim to be fine, let it go; the fact that you have asked is enough.  Should they want to talk about it, they now know someone is available.

Never, ever lead with, “I sense you are feeling…”, it is rude, invasive, and heavy with expectation, and will likely put them on the defensive!   (How’s that for non-judgmental?)

Simply making eye contact and smiling at a stranger may be enough to open the door.  Asking them how they are, and truly listening to their response, may open the floodgates.  You may find them telling you the most personal details of their lives, interspersed with frequent commentary about “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this…”

In both cases, your primary responsibility as an empath is to listen, acknowledge, and potentially help them identify what emotions they are actually experiencing.  That is all you can, or need to do, as they must take responsibility for solving their own problems.  You do not need to explain how you know what you know, nor do you want to make it about you.  This is something I still struggle with today…

#5: Never forget that empathic connections are a two-way street…

When you truly connect with another, it is important to remember that the connection flows both ways; not only are you feeling what they are feeling, but your feelings will influence what they feel.  If you get unduly upset by what they are experiencing, you will only aggravate their emotional distress.  And since many you encounter will not automatically grasp that you’ve actually connected in this intimate way, they will likely own your feelings as their own (see guideline #1).

The disadvantages to the mutual flow of emotion are obvious, but there are positive side effects as well.  If you can maintain a sense of calm, a feeling of comfort, a strong outpouring of love, you can ease someone’s distress simply by being “with” them, without speaking or “solving” anything.  Cry with them, not for them.  Laugh with them, not at them.  Be with them, not just near them.  Ultimately our gift as empaths is to bridge that imaginary, yet seemingly significant gap between people; to be one rather than other…

And with this last point I would like to add that cultivating a calm serenity, an active love of others, free of judgment, a joyful awareness of the beauty and bounty of life will do much to ease the suffering of many around you.  As an empath you are not only scanning unconsciously for others’ feelings, but also actively influencing them; the more your gift grows in effectiveness, the more likely you are to influence your environment with your emotions, positive or negative…

Of course, if none of what you’ve read here feels right, then maybe it is wrong for you; I can only share what I’ve experienced myself.  In which case you should feel free to disregard everything you have just read, and explore the paths that ultimately call you forward.  I wish you love and light as you expand your gift today…  😀

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