the perils of empathy

Empathy is the ability to sense and fully grasp what another living being is experiencing from their perspective.

Being an empath can be a wonderful thing – for you, sometimes (if you use it in your professional life, certainly) and for other people, who do not always treat the empath well. Narcissists might land their feelings on you by calling you on the phone, turning up on your doorstep, hitting you with the raw stuff. You become known as the go-to person for an emotional crutch; someone reliably kind they can offload their hurts onto, and in so doing feel better.

And when the empath needs the same reliable kindness? Sadly those who exploit the empath, nearly always the aforementioned narcissistic personality types, they don’t tend to have empathy themselves, that’s partly why we call them narcissists – they’re concerned with themselves exclusively. Nine times out of ten, experience teaches many an empath that those they give their all to, they run away faster than you can say ‘self-serving, soul-sucking vampires’.

Still, empaths just can’t help wanting to help. It’s in their nature.

Carl Rogers quote on empathy

Couldn’t empaths just keep only empaths around them?

You might think it would make more sense for all the empaths to hang out together, helping just each other, leaving others to their dramas. Yes, that would make sense indeed – but the jigsaw of human social interactions doesn’t fit together like that.

Empaths can lead isolated lives

Only rarely do empaths find those they help to be capable of being there for them, when the empaths most need support. In too many situations, if an empath is looking for support, they see only tumbleweed blowing along the path where they hoped for flowers.

This is one reason why so many empaths lead isolated lives, become hermits, addicts or get sick in heart and mind: because they long for someone, somewhere, somehow to give them a break but they can only escape by getting away from people.

Like a medium bringing spirits into a circle and then discovering they can’t close the door and are bombarded by needy souls, so too the empath can be ground down over time by other people’s problems and feel the need to escape. A desert island? Yes please.

Empaths, anxiety and depression

Over time empaths can learn ways of shutting down without recourse to extreme measures. They might learn to avoid dangerous narcissists completely, or develop recognition of the signs telling them when to walk away; they can make time for themselves, through meditation and play. They might channel their empathy by taking to one of the caring professions with reassuring boundaries and frameworks.

Too often, empaths find themselves battling with anxiety and depression, getting caught up in other people’s dramas. They can be overwhelmed by something as simple as watching the TV news, or sensing the overall dark tone of their daily Facebook feed: scrolling posts of pleas for help, lost dogs, images of war and arguments over political issues. This can lead to burnout and mental health issues.

How to recharge an empath

Empaths aren’t the way they are because they’re looking for rewards. They just are. But it’s nice when those who receive help, support and friendship from empaths feel able to gather up their own psychic forces and give a little back. This can recharge and reinvigorate empaths.

Empaths will clutch at anything to give them faith in the world when it’s been leeched away. Giving love to an empath is the most powerful way to make them light up, no surprise there, but phone calls to, and time spent with, empaths are also strong restoratives.

One-on-one is best: in the home or at the cinema; on the beach or long country walks. Empaths can enjoy noisy nights out in clubs and bars, but all that psychic fizz from multiple sources, coupled with intoxication – theirs and others – doesn’t provide the juice empaths need to keep going and stay bright. Neither do texts or messages on social media, because they lack the full-on emotional ‘realness’ empaths need to feel. They need auras to appreciate, not computer screens.

Empaths vs psychic vampires

The greatest danger to empaths after their own selves is the psychic vampire: a person who, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, drains them utterly and keeps on doing it without ever giving anything back. When these extremely powerful narcissists are encountered, it often takes the intervention of another empath – known or a stranger – to give a due warning to pull back and get away.

Empaths sometimes hide in plain sight

If you ever hear someone say ‘people are [insert derogatory descriptive]’ or they’re acting horribly to repel others, they might be the ones you least expect to be empathic – but they often are. Empaths who snap and throw shade have been damaged by their own kindness and sensitivity at some point, and have learned to put up a shield or front that is effective to a degree, but ultimately counter-productive (because their true self has been locked away, and that can’t ever be good as it is in the nature of an empath to be open and authentic).

You’ll often find empaths are comedians or actors, the theatrical stage providing a tangible physical means of staying separate from others. Some just stay in bed when the backwash of other people’s issues get too much for them, or they use drugs to cushion themselves.

You can’t stop an empath being empathic

The most pointless thing you can ever say to an empath is, ‘you’re too open/trusting, and need to stop’. You might as well try herding cats or training dogs not to cock their legs when they pee. Words like ‘open’ and ‘trusting’ apply to empaths, most certainly, but their nature runs deeper and is more complex than mere words can encapsulate. They are what they are, and the world would be an even more savage and hostile environment without their caring ways.

Go hug an empath today, with permission gained first, of course. It will feed them. If you’re an empath yourself with no one around to hug you, give yourself a hug. You’ll find it surprisingly pleasant.

Empathy is amazing and so very powerful, a force for good. Without it we would have no parenting skills, no therapists, no social workers, no nurses… The list is long. We wouldn’t have much at all because empathy is a cooperative energy that seeks to build and progress, without which all we would have is dog-eat-dog competition and cruelty. So let’s hear it for the empaths, because civilisation needs them to not only survive but thrive and learn to be better.

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andrew hinkinson
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