What to Do When You Discover You’re a Full-Blown EmpathApril 21, 2017
“You’re too sensitive.” Boy, if I had a penny for every time I heard that when I was growing up (or even as an adult), I’d be a millionaire.
If someone chastised me or looked at me the wrong way, I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach.
I took on other people’s emotions. Literally. I still do. I feel my heart swell if it’s joy, heaviness when it’s sadness or grief, and my gut takes the brunt of angry emotions.
I remember when I was younger and would be separated from my loved ones, I wondered if it was possible to die from the heartache I was feeling.
I have a running mental list of movies I wish I’d never seen because they affected me so intensely. Do you remember the film “The Piano”? The soundtrack and neverending gloominess of it got under my skin and wouldn’t leave. Never mind that it swept the Oscars in 1994. I wish I’d never seen it. Ditto “Pulp Fiction”.
I was also terribly sensitive to crowds of people, too much talking, and sensory stimulation, in general.
I loved to hide. Under beds, and tables. And tents made of blankets. A secret hiding place in the bushes down the street in the park. I can still picture my “cave”, with my blue bike hidden away inside with me.
I’d hide in the bathroom during holidays (years later I would do this at work to escape). The noise and the crowd and the hustle and bustle made me anxious.
I still like to hide.
A cup of tea with a friend beats a party for me any day. My good friends know this about me and thankfully don’t take it personally if I decline a party invitation.
Two years ago I impulsively threw myself a birthday party for the first time and I wanted to decline my own invitation.
Too much noise can unhinge me. I think it’s one of the reasons I finally moved out of NYC.
When I was a little girl I was terrified of fireworks. I have a childhood memory of being on a bus at night with my father going to see the fireworks in downtown Detroit. I was holding my ears and crying, traumatized before they even started.
For someone who startles easily, fireworks can be a nightmare. Now, I love to walk to the river in the summer to watch the fireworks. They’re far enough away that the sound isn’t deafening like it was when I was a child. I can always wear my trusty noise-cancelling headphones – one of the best purchases I’ve ever made!
Why am I telling you all of this embarrassing stuff about myself? Because I know I’m not alone and I thought opening up about this might help any closet empaths out there.
The other day I picked up a copy of Dr. Judith Orloff’s new book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People”. It was one of those synchronistic things that happen. I’d recently heard her speaking on an energy medicine tele-summit and I was on my way to an appointment when something nudged me into a bookstore.
I have long known that I’m an empath, but reading her book, and taking the quiz of 20 questions, put me in the full-blown empath category. In fact, I answered yes to every question but one, and that was a maybe, not a definitive no.
It explains so much.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a good thing, and God knows we need more of it in today’s world.
But, there’s a difference between empathy and being an empath.
“Having empathy means our heart goes out to another person in joy or pain. But for empaths it goes much further. We actually feel other’s emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our own bodies, without the usual defenses that most people have.” – Dr. Judith Orloff
I remember the time several years ago when someone I knew sent me a really toxic email. I opened it, completely unaware of what was in it, and it felt as though she had reached through the computer and punched me in the gut.
Luckily, I’d just been reading Peter Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” in which he explains how animals in the wild literally shake after something traumatic happens to them. In this way, they don’t internalize and store the trauma, like we humans tend to do.
So, I did what anyone would do when they get a toxic email – I vigorously shook it off. It really worked!
I was a shy and sensitive child but somehow managed to come out of my (turtle) shell a bit as I got older. I went to my share of noisy rock concerts and sporting events, totally unaware of why I felt so depleted afterward.
Arguments with loved ones affected me physically. I especially felt pain in my heart center and in my solar plexus.
“Empaths feel things first, then think, which is the opposite of how most people function in our over-intellectualized society.” – Dr. Judith Orloff
I remember years ago someone saying to me “Don’t ever assume that other people are feeling things as deeply as you are.” It confused me at the time, but I never forgot what she said.
When my children were little, I instinctively knew that I couldn’t handle the big Chuck E. Cheese type of birthday parties. Instead, I stuck with the rule of one child guest for every year of age. (Thank you to the childcare expert who came up with that idea!)
Four guests when they turned four, seven when they turned seven. I don’t remember whether I ever broke that rule, but I certainly never invited an entire classroom over for a birthday party.
I never said, “You can only invite seven friends because your mom’s an empath.” I had no idea, and how silly would that have been? I just knew I couldn’t handle it.
Meanwhile, I envied those moms who had it all together and could orchestrate a mega party while looking like they were actually enjoying themselves.
Knowing Ayurveda now as I do, it’s clear that the whole Vata dosha thing was also playing its part. Vata is the dosha of depletion (high energy bursts and then they crash) and Vata-types don’t generally have great organizational skills.
I can picture some of the moms throwing the big parties. Pitta-types, all of them! Organized to the max. Who did I call on to help me organize my own party? Yep, my wonderful highly Pitta friend.
Vata also rules the nervous system. And as Dr. Orloff states in her book “Empaths have an extremely reactive neurological system.” It would be a great study to conduct to see how many empaths have a constitution that is heavily Vata.
So, what constitutes an empath? Here are just a few of the questions in Dr. Orloff’s book:
- Have I ever been labeled overly sensitive, shy, or introverted?
- Do I frequently get overwhelmed or anxious?
- Do arguments and yelling make me ill?
- Do crowds drain me, and do I need alone time to revive myself?
- Do noise, odors or nonstop talkers overwhelm me?
- Do I prefer one-to-one interactions and small groups to large gatherings?
- Do I startle easily?
- Do I absorb other people’s stress emotions or symptoms?
Dr. Orloff herself is an empath and so she knows firsthand the challenges of being an empath in this world.
But she also speaks about the gifts, and I couldn’t agree with her more. So, please don’t feel sorry for me!
My whole life, I’ve been aware of my extreme sensitivity and yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. A doctor once told me in my 30s that I should take medication because I was “too sensitive”. Thankfully, something in me (perhaps my strong intuition which is one of the gifts of an empath) kept me off of the hamster wheel of pharmaceuticals.
I can reflect back on my life and recognize how being an empath impacted so many situations. Even my years with fibromyalgia were without question influenced by the intense sensitivity I felt as an empath. So many of my symptoms were sensory-related.
Most Ayurvedic practitioners, myself included, believe that Vata dosha is heavily responsible for this strange pain syndrome.
It’s never an accident when a book falls off a shelf and lands at our feet, or lures us into a bookstore. Reading this book came at a time in my life when I’ve realized that I need to pay more attention to the empath in me.
For those of us in the Vata time of life (age 50+) our nervous system needs nurturing even more.
Studying energy healing for many years gave me invaluable tools to protect myself. Not just being in the world, but also when working with clients. But it’s easy to get lazy when it comes to protecting our own energy.
Many, if not all, of the clients that seek me out, found me because I wrote about my healing journey with fibromyalgia. These people are in serious pain. They have multiple health issues and some have been suffering for years. I got into studying holistic health (especially Ayurveda) and energy healing because I wanted to help others heal themselves like I had.
Being an empath is a gift as a healer especially because empaths have strong intuitive skills.
But the downside is that you run the risk of absorbing the client’s energy and even physical pain. I’ve been doing this long enough now to know that I need to have strong boundaries and protect myself from taking on both the physical and emotional symptoms of others.
I only work with a few clients at a time and watch myself for signs of a heaviness in my heart or feelings of fatigue. These are my signs that I need to self-protect, they may be different for you.
I make sure to clear myself and my space using methods such as smudging, sound (drums, bells, my own voice), bringing lots of Nature into my space, and regularly taking clearing baths (or even showers).
A simple clearing bath technique that I learned is one box of baking soda and two cups of sea salt (any kind). Soak for twenty minutes and rinse off.
Or for those of you lucky enough, take a swim in the ocean. Salt water is a tremendous cleanser of negative energy. Ditto Nature in general.
The best way to balance and clear your energy field is to get out in Nature.
When I lean against a tree and take deep breaths, everything stressful melts away.
I had a particularly challenging winter this year and found myself very depleted. I had thrown my whole heart and soul into the tragedy which was unfolding at Standing Rock. I came very close to getting in a car and driving there with a friend but something kept holding me back. Well, it was my intuition again, I’m sure, knowing that I just wasn’t strong enough physically.
My heart literally ached for months and I persisted in going into the city (NYC) for every march, every protest, every rally. Even at night in the pouring rain. I knew it was depleting me but I just couldn’t seem to stop.
I eventually did stop and found myself retreating to my apartment where I needed to energetically balance myself. I tried to do my part by writing about the situation, sharing it with whoever would listen, rather than deplete myself in the company of thousands of people.
Now the Climate March in D.C. is just around the corner. You all know how I feel about Mother Earth. I’m signed up to take a bus there but I just don’t know if I’ll be able to go. I hear there’s a sister march in NYC so I might stay here.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I was on my way to an appointment when I ducked into the bookstore but didn’t say where I was going. I went to visit a shaman who I’d recently learned about.
He quickly tuned into me and kept mentioning the words healer, communicator, and teacher. I’ve never had my hands read before but what he saw was so true (even nuances of my way of being in this world) that I was astonished.
He kept telling me that I was meant to use my power in this lifetime. And again, I wanted to crawl under the table hearing those words. He’s not the first healer that’s said that to me.
The word Power has such negative connotations for me, and yet it shouldn’t. I know that. But, my tendency is to hide, remember?
The shaman kept asking me “When did you lose your Power? Who took your Power away?” Ack! I’m still ruminating on that one.
Can a turtle be powerful? Uh, yeah. Quiet Power. That sounds much better to me.
I left his office with these thoughts swirling around in my head. When I got home, I opened Dr. Orloff’s book and again, no coincidence, this is where I landed.
“We are in the midst of an evolution of human consciousness, and empaths are the path-forgers. A sacred responsibility comes with our sensitivities, which demand more of us than simply retreating into isolation. It’s vital we learn how to avoid feeling overwhelmed so that we can fully shine our power in the world. Empaths and all sensitive people are pioneers on the forefront of a new way of being for humankind.” — Dr. Judith Orloff
I think that my winter of inwardness was necessary to replenish my own energy so that I can be of better service to others. I’m proud of myself for following my intuition and taking a step back. I just have to remember to step forward, as well.
If you’re an empath too, I hope that you’re also nurturing and protecting yourself so that you can share your gifts with the world without compromising your own health.
Or perhaps you’re a parent with a child who’s an empath. Be sure they know that their challenges are also gifts.
Dr. Orloff says that we’re part of “Generation S, for Sensitivity — those who salute compassion and loving kindness.” What could be more important than that? But, we need to be strong and healthy to impart that in the world. Check out her new book for tons of practical advice for nurturing the sensitive empath that you might be.