I’m a highly empathic person. I not only pick up on other people’s emotions easily, but I also feel them strongly. If you are mad, I can rage with you. If you are happy, I can giggle with you. If you are sad, I will cry with you.
Being high in empathy can be both a blessing and a curse depending on how you manage it. Much like a knife. The knife itself is harmless. Use it well and it’s a tool for chopping up food or even carving art, but if you’re not careful it can leave you with a deep wound. Empathy is the same – it can be fantastic tool to help understand and connect to others, but if used carelessly it will product a lot of misery, both to yourself and to people close to you.
If I were to give advice to other people who are high in empathy, I would say these three things:
- Learn the difference between unconscious and conscious empathy
- Become comfortable with emotional pain
- Compassion is the only thing that heals, not sympathy or empathy
1) Learn the difference between unconscious and conscious empathy
Even though empathy is bundled into one thing, I have come to learn that there is a difference between unconscious and conscious empathy.
In a nutshell:
Unconscious empathy — when you feel another person’s emotions and get lost in them (or use Buddhist speak, “identify with them”). “Your pain is my pain and it is beyond my control”.
Conscious empathy — when you feel another person’s emotions, while still being fully grounded in your own being. You observe their feelings with nonattachment. There is space between their pain and your sense of self. “I feel your pain, but I know this is not my pain and I will lovingly accept them and let them go”.
Conscious empathy can help heal, whilst unconscious empathy can cause harm.
How can unconscious empathy hurt people?
The problem of unconscious empathy can be seen best when two people high in empathy get together. Imagine an empath lives with another empath. Let me call them Empath A and Empath B.
Both of them feel emotions strongly, and they can pick up on what the other person is feeling without even having to explain things to each other. This can be great, because so much of living together can be effortless. If something bad happens, without having to say a word the other person will know and will rush to the rescue.
Imagine however, that instead of having a one-off drop in mood, Empath A has something more chronic, such as depression, bereavement or a prolonged tough period at work. Empath A is just about navigating the maelstrom of emotions that are coursing through their being. Meanwhile, because Empath B is using unconscious empathy to relate, they are also going along the roller coaster ride. So long as Empath A is down, Empath B is down. This is the danger of unconscious empathy.
Things aren’t easier for Empath B either, because they don’t want to come home to someone so miserable all the time. Empath B starts to get bitter and angry at Empath A for “causing” their discomfort, and starts to complain to their friends about how frustrated they are that Empath A is “not getting it together”. Empath A picks up on all this and feels angry that Empath B cannot be more understanding of their hardship. As they both descend deep into the toxic spiral of unconscious empathy, none of them are getting better. This can eventually lead to a friendship breaking apart.
The bottom line with unconscious empathy is this: If you practice unconscious empathy, you will be at the mercy of other people’s emotions.
Other people’s emotions will control you, rather than the other way around. You getting lost in another person’s sadness or anger will not help either of you. All you are doing is adding fuel to fire, a phenomenon which I’ve dubbed, “bringing in the clouds of doom”. Yes, the person talking to you may feel slightly better from being listened to, and you may feel content from having shown so much empathy to their problems (in a martyr-type way – “I am such a good friend I will be just as miserable as you”), but believe me, you becoming just as sad as the other person has done nothing to help alleviate their pain.
2) Become comfortable with emotional pain
People who are high in empathy seem to have a huge aversion towards emotional pain, perhaps because so many of us are also highly sensitive people (HSPs). Any emotional blow that happens inside is like trying to manage an atomic bomb going off within. So most empaths will do whatever they can to avoid feeling these darker emotions not only in themselves, but in others too.
On the surface, this can make the empath seem like a very caring person, always coming to the rescue to help everyone around them be happy. The reality however, is that most of the techniques empaths use to do this is to escape pain themselves. These include: quickly changing the subject to try to cheer the other person up, throwing “happy bombs” or using default vacuous sympathy statements (“I’m so sorry to hear you’re not well”).
Another more subtle way that empaths demonstrate this tendency to want to escape pain is by rejoicing more than anyone when a person previously in pain becomes better again:
This may seem to others like this person truly “cares”, but what actually lies behind their reaction is something much more selfish — they are simply expressing joy from being released from agony. Ironically, it is the very suffering the other empath has inflicted on themself because of unconscious empathy.
This can be saddening to the person in pain, because the bottom-line message that the other person is giving is: “I didn’t like it when you were sad (because I’m sad)”, “I don’t want you to be upset (because I’m upset)” or “I don’t want to accept you when you are down (because I don’t accept myself when I’m down)”. Part of Empath A now feels ashamed and invalidated. This does not help with healing.
Until we are comfortable with our own pain, we cannot accept others’ pain. Until we can accept others’ pain we cannot help them heal.
We must sink into our own discomfort, melt into it as if that’s exactly what life is about, as if we chose this pain for ourselves. Only then will compassion towards others naturally flow out.
3) Compassion is the only thing that heals, not sympathy or empathy
Because of the issues created by unconscious empathy, during times of chronic depression I found my anguish being relieved more hanging out with less empathic people. This was because they seemed completely unaffected by my condition. It had no emotional impact on them, because they couldn’t feel my pain. This also meant that they had no desires regarding how they wanted me to be, unlike my empathic friends who clearly wanted me to be happy again ASAP. They were more likely to just accept me how I was. That, I noticed, was far more important when it came to healing.
Ultimately the only thing that heals is compassion. To share your light with the other person and to show that you accept them how they are, sadness and all.
So is empathy a hindrance to helping people? I really don’t think so. I actually think empathy and compassion can be the ultimate healing combination so long as the former is used consciously. I mentioned earlier about people with less empathy making me feel lighter during times of depression. While I was happier after seeing them, it did always feel like a bit of a Band-Aid. As they didn’t understand my pain, they didn’t know how to talk about it. So we usually ended up talking about something else. It was an effective distraction. At the end of the day though, you still want someone to understand what you are going through so healing can take place.
This is where conscious empathy comes in. The method is identical to meditative practice. You feel the other person’s emotions, but you don’t attach yourself to them. You let them fizzle out naturally. You don’t make any judgements about them either, as any resistance to the emotion will only lead to a feeling that wasn’t yours being stuck in your body.
If you can find a way to use your empathy to simply understand what the person is going through, without getting lost or attached to the emotions, then this can lead to conversations where you can delve deeper into the other person’s wound. You accepting their emotions will help them accept theirs, which will in turn lead to healing. If used correctly, you may also find you notice emotions that the other person didn’t even know they had. You’d be surprised by how much emotion we hide from ourselves. Compassion can then follow and let the healing happen.
To close, I have to mention the ultimately challenging part of being an empath. Even though I have written a whole blog post on the damage unconscious empathy can do, it doesn’t mean that now you should try to change yourself. If you are an empath and you find yourself wanting someone in darkness to get better because you want to escape from their pain, that is fine. Remember that this is your natural reaction to the situation, and as such it should be honoured and embraced. Any attempt to suppress your emotions will leave you with more problems later (trust me).
All you have to do is consciously notice, observe and savour your responses with other people. Do you find yourself bringing out the clouds of doom with others? Do you want to avoid pain when you feel it in others? Do you celebrate almost exaggeratedly when we hear other people are better? That’s ok. Just notice. Know that shedding your awareness onto your responses will lead to natural transformations, an alchemic reaction, without you trying to do anything about it. There is no need to try to get to the state of total acceptance. It will naturally happen simply with conscious awareness.
Trevor Smith says
Most interesting Marie.
Answers a lot of questions.
Being on the HFA spectrum and having no empathy this fits my conclusions about those in my experience with unconscious empathy who are often out of control.