There is a big difference between being an empath and showing empathy. When you’re a confirmed empath, you don’t have a choice over what you feel. If you’re conversing with someone who’s overly anxious, you feel that anxiety as your own. There is no getting around it. Empathy, on the other hand, is when you choose to show solidarity over a troubling experience shared or otherwise. You open your heart and extend yourself. But you’re free to withdraw at a moment’s notice. You can retract while still sharing space.
For the empath, social interactions aren’t so easy. Every time you step out in public, you’re placing yourself in the centre of an emotional maelstrom. It’s hard, verging on impossible to disentangle from other people’s feelings. The only escape is often a physical one, which isn’t always practical or appropriate. There has to be another way around your inter-personal relationships that doesn’t result in your immediate withdrawal.
The trouble is most people aren’t even aware that they are empaths. Because the concept is so closely associated with spirituality, extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychic phenomenon, it isn’t given the coverage it rightly deserves. Around 2% of the population in the UK are reported to be empaths with many more likely attributing the way they feel to their own shorting comings. It can be a hard road to walk and recognising you have is an innate ability to intuit other emotions can be a huge step in overcoming what they perceive to be generalised anxiety disorder.
Your feelings are only equal to the same amount of meaning you ascribe to them. If you’re taking on the anxiety of others as your own, it will be no different than if you were experiencing it first-hand. However, when you’re able to exercise discernment and tell the difference between your own feelings and another’s, you can dissociate yourself from any undue emotions that aren’t your own. That recognition empowers you.
By extension, when you reach this point in your understanding, being an empath ceases to be a burden, and can now be harnessed as a skill. Being able to intuit emotions give you an inside track in the inner state of someone you’re conversing with. It gives you subtext to a conversation. You can tell when someone isn’t truthful or when they’re in need and act appropriately. Your ability as an empath becomes a skill that you can use for the betterment of those around you.
But even at this stage, there are still dangers. An unfortunate truth about being an empath is that you’ll naturally attract those who are most in need of support. Many people will simply be lost souls. On the opposite side of the coin are the predatory types – narcissists. The union between narcissists and empath is one that is all too common. As an empathic individual, you’ll buy into the narrative of the narcissist and be all too willing to help.
You may even go on to form relationships with those people. But you must exercise your discernment and ask yourself whether what you have is an authentic connection or one predicated on you serving the needs of one individual at the expense of your own self-care. In this, you must set clearly defined boundaries for yourself. The world is full of people with emotional needs that go unmet. It’s not up to you to fulfil them all.
Don’t let this discourage you from extending yourself when and where you can. It’s simply a warning that by trying to play saviour to everyone, you’re eventually going to burn yourself out. There is a finite limit to the amount of care you can show others before you need to turn that attention inwards to look after yourself. Acknowledge your ability to be of service to others. But allow you’re the time to recuperate. You have the right to say, ‘no.’