The word ’empathy’ comes from Greek ‘empatheia‘, which is made up of em– (in) and pathos (feeling).
Being able to feel how others feel is a unique ability.
But this also means that you’re easily be affected by the energy other people bring to you, and that can cause some real challenges in the life of an empath.
Being so sensitive to how others feel and experience things makes you a very caring and compassionate person.
Understanding how others feel makes you a good listener, one people tend to turn to when they need a shoulder to cry on.
Your empathy is a superpower: to feel how it is to be in someone else’s shoes.
And you’re able to take on their experience and feel as if it’s happening to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to a friend tell you their troubles, reading the first-hand account of someone who’s long been in the annals of history or watching a movie.
The trouble comes when you don’t know how to manage that superpower and stretch yourself too thin.
Juggling both your own and the emotions of others, allowing the lines to blur between them, is a recipe for exhaustion and becoming overwhelmed for you.
Often, you’ll also feel misunderstood.
Explaining yourself, your feelings, thoughts and experiences to other people can be difficult.
Because you feel things on such a deep level, and you spend time thinking about things in-depth, when others lack the depth of detail that you perceive.
As an empath, I know there are things only other empaths can truly understand.
1. You’re constantly battling emotional fatigue.
Just dealing with your own emotions can be exhausting enough. When you also pick up on what everyone else around you is feeling, it can quickly become overwhelming.
And this includes any kind of emotion – from excitement and joy to stress and sorrow.
Your body doesn’t distinguish between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions – those are labels we put on them. Your body and your nervous system experience an input of energy.
That’s why even things you really love to do can be tiring!
Your body has a complex system to interpret the input that you get and knowing how to trigger a state of rest and relax after being overstimulated is a critical skill for an empath to have.
As an empath you need to get good at self-care (and stop feeling guilty about doing it). You need to take care of yourself because otherwise you’re no use to anyone!
2. Other people’s emotions can flip yours like a switch.
You may be having a grand ol’ day. Everything going your way, maybe you get some good feedback at work, got through everything on your to do list, got a free muffin just cuz you were in the right place at the right time.
Then you meet up with a friend, or get home from work to your significant other, and it all changes.
All the good vibes? Gone.
That sunny mood? Poof.
Replaced by whatever dark cloud of stressed, sad or angry emotions the other person is caught up in.
As you start feeling like their bad day happened to you, you forget all about that you were actually having a good day. This shift can make it difficult for you to hold the space for the other person because you’re now stuck trying to manage the same feelings they are.
It can be difficult to separate your feelings from someone else’s, but it’s important to learn how to do it.
3. Compassion can feel like a burden.
As an empath, you’ve been told time and again that you care too much, are too emotional or need to grow thicker skin.
And, as an empath, you’ve also always found it strange that other people don’t care more, don’t see the little details you do and don’t read between the lines as effectively as you do.
Not being able to shut out all that information that the world is constantly throwing at you can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Always being the one listening to other people’s woes and working to give them the best and most supportive advice, can leave you carrying a lot of burdens – many of which you don’t have any control over.
When you experience suffering more deeply than anyone around you, it’s hard to not feel responsible for remedying it.
4. Sometimes people can feel like you’re reading their mind.
Your intuition is one of your big superpowers as an empath.
You instantly get a feeling about new people that you meet.
I once had a piano teacher that I loved. When she moved to another city my mom paraded teacher after teacher in front of me and I rejected all of them – to her very frustrated dismay.
My explanation of “I didn’t like them” wasn’t sufficient to make her understand that I instantly knew whether I’d get along with them or not.
As an empath, you’re often the one saying “I knew it!” when someone does something – in life, in books or in movies. You get that instant gut feeling that tells you something’s going on even when nothing is immediately evident.
Even when you don’t understand that your intuition is firing on all cylinders, you can look back on an event and understand that it was your radar telling you something.
I once met a person who made me feel like a simpering teenager trying to make friends with the cool kid.
I had this strong urge to take care of that person like a lost kitten, and I couldn’t reconcile that with how I normally am – more withheld with new acquaintances.
I struggled with feeling like that because it felt so unlike myself.
Finally, I realised that that person was quite a big narcissist and used to making people dance to their tune, getting people to do things for them without any real reciprocity.
And I was playing right into that expectation – though I know it was completely unconscious on their part – and it was rankling with me even though I didn’t understand what my intuition was telling me.
Empaths are vulnerable to toxic people precisely because they long to love people the way that they want to be loved.
Narcissists can really take you for a ride unless you can disconnect yourself from that dance of projective identification.
Make sure that your willingness to help others doesn’t lead to people taking advantage of you by setting those excellent personal boundaries.
5. You don’t always know which emotions are yours.
This is one of the biggest ongoing challenges you face as an empath.
When you’re like a sponge, always absorbing the moods, energies and feelings other people are projecting, you can get really turned around about which feelings are yours and which are someone else’s.
This can be especially challenging when you need to make decisions and can’t sort through the feelings swirling around you to know which ones are the right ones.
I recently had this experience when I’d contacted a lady who was looking to re-home her cats.
She was reluctant to give them up and had considered only giving up one of them or trying to get her mother to take them. Still, she came to the conclusion that the best thing for her beloved cats is to give them up.
But between the time I went to see the cats and her sending me a message that she’d choose us as the cats’ new family, I was rolling in emotions and got very unsure of myself.
I knew I really wanted cats, we’d discussed it extensively at home and the decision that we need to get a cat was conclusively made on our side.
And her cats were lovely and charming, but I left there feeling like maybe this wasn’t right for us. It spiralled into me thinking that I wasn’t ready for a cat at all, that maybe I’d done such a poor job of being a cat-owner the last time, I shouldn’t ever have a cat again.
But I’d felt so sure before, I wondered. What happened?
It wasn’t until later that I realised, despite having tried to steer clear of taking on her upset feelings about giving the cats up, that I’d gotten tangled anyway. The doubt that had crept in and was colouring all of my feelings wasn’t mine at all – and it wasn’t at all obvious to me that it wasn’t my mood.
I kept thinking maybe I was tired, for feeling so doubtful.
Every time I thought about having those cats in our house I felt like it was a bad idea. Eventually, I just decided to let it all go, telling myself she’ll probably pick one of the other people who’d been to see her cats.
It wasn’t really until I got a message from her saying, that if we’d still have the cats she’d be as happy as she could be in this situation, knowing that the cats would go to a good home, that I realised I was taking on someone else’s feelings and mixing them up for my own.
In the end, I figured what will happen will happen and if they’re to come with us, that’s what will happen.
So, I decided to keep a positive but calm tone in my communication with her and that I’d offer empathy by making sure she feels the cats are going to a good home (and reserve any upset or tears for when I’m back home).
6. You need time to process change and transitions.
As an empath, you love your routine. It makes you feel safe and confident. Sudden change or constantly being unable to establish a routine, will feel stressful.
And this is true for big and small changes.
Small changes, such as when you come home at the end of the day and need to readjust to be at home, can take longer for you than for others. Especially, if you’re not actively protecting your energy throughout the day.
You may even experience a sense of feeling hollow after you’ve been in a crowd, or a sense of emptiness when the last guest has left after a party and you’re alone again.
Blanket caves, reading books, watching movies, binging TV shows, spending time with fur babies and loved ones all help. Also when you recognise that it’s a transitional state rather than a permanent one, it’s easier to deal with it because you know what you have to do to get over that hump and that it’s just temporary.
If you’ve been socialising, you should also be prepared to give yourself time to process those interactions.
Accept that for days, even weeks, to come you’re still going to be running over those conversations in your head, trying to discern meaning.
Don’t sweat it (and don’t let others try to convince you that it’s obsessive) and just give yourself space to ruminate or you’ll never let it go.
Let those thoughts come and go, don’t attach yourself to them and don’t try to hang on to them unnecessarily.
If you’re experiencing bigger or more significant changes, such as a move, a relationship ending or loss, give yourself time.
And purposefully make time for yourself to do those things that make you feel rejuvenated.
Having a journaling practice is a great help when you need to clear your feelings and get some perspective.
There’s no sense in pushing too hard or demanding too much of yourself. The easier you are on yourself, the easier you’ll find it is to adapt to the change.
7. You can feel torn between going out and staying in.
It can be a real challenge to balance socialising with personal downtime.
But one thing you can do is choose more low-key settings, such as coffee shops, going to a friend’s house, and having an intimate picnic on the beach over clubs or big parties.
Choose how many people you want to socialise with depending on how much energy you have and how busy your schedule is.
When you find that you still need and want to socialise but don’t want the fuss of lots of other people around, staying in for a nice quiet date or intimate dinner party is a great idea!
And give yourself permission to duck out early or take breaks in a quiet place when you do have to attend a big, noisy event.
If you feel like you’re disappointing friends and family by not attending certain events or leaving early, be proactive and suggest meeting up in the next few days (in a more low-key place) to spend some time together.
Things you could say to get out of a party early as an empath:
"I'm sorry I have to leave already, I know it's really disappointing. And I would love to meet you for lunch tomorrow if you're free because I'd love to catch up with more time!" "I'm so sorry I have to duck out early, it's a really lovely party and I wish I could stay. I could come by your place this weekend if you have time and spend some time together!"
As a typical empath, you’ll have a cat or a dog or a chameleon to blame for your early exit on.
Even if you don’t, just make sure that you start with an apology. And then make it clear that you really want to spend more time with the person – because nobody will ever say no to someone who’s eager to be in their company.
The other person will be happy that you showed up and be eager to get together again in a setting where you can have a nice quiet chat and really connect.
Maintaining healthy relationships is good for your mental health and pure isolation isn’t.
So, go out there and say yes to invitations, just remember to take your excellent personal boundaries when you go.
8. Alone time is necessary — even when some people don’t get it.
It can be hard to explain to someone why you need time to recharge.
But it’s really the only time you can properly listen to yourself and sort out some of those thoughts that are swirling around in your head.
As an empath, you need quiet moments, with nobody else around, in order to ease the pressure of always having other people’s thoughts and energies knocking at your emotional door.
Giving yourself small breaks throughout the day to recharge and be alone will protect your energy and prevent you from becoming completely depleted.
Other people may not need as much time alone, as some people even thrive by constantly being around other people.
If you live with others, you should set expectations early on in the relationship and explain that you just need time alone to reset and feel like yourself again.
Explain that it has nothing to do with other people and that you aren’t upset when you need to withdraw – and explain that you’ll always come back from it feeling more rested and ready for socialising again.
9. Sometimes you forget to leave emotional space for yourself.
Your empathy makes you a great listener, friend, healer and problem solver.
But sometimes in your eagerness to help others, you give away too much.
Spending all your energy on helping others, while forgetting yourself, will lead to nothing but trouble.
You need to really embrace the fact that you need to help yourself before you can have the energy to help others.
Prioritise self-care, downtime and inner work.
10. You struggle with anxiety or depression.
It’s not uncommon for an empath to struggle with mental health – especially when you don’t know that you’re an empath or don’t understand how to take care of yourself first.
Because you’re so sensitive to the emotional information around you, your own included, you may deal with a lot of self-doubt, stress and anxiety.
Being on the receiving end of someone’s anger, frustration or disappointment can feel like being hit with a ton of bricks.
You can experience a whole range of physical and mental symptoms, including panic attacks, chronic fatigue and depression.
This means that you can be left juggling your own mental health issues in addition to those of others.
Even when you aren’t dealing with these kinds of things, you may have spent a lifetime feeling different from everyone around you, and this can lead to a profound feeling of loneliness and isolation.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that you take time for yourself and prioritise self-care in order to care for your own mental health and well-being.
11) You can tell someone’s feeling ‘off’ even when nobody else sees it.
Because you have that clear line of sight into other people, you can sense when something’s wrong.
You can feel when people are upset even when they’re doing a good job of hiding it form most other people.
Being so aware of others can make it challenging to have a good time, if one of your loved ones is feeling down.
Since I always love a good chat about emotions, I won’t hesitate to tone down the party-mode to have a chat with someone. Usually just offering that moment of listening will make them feel better and allow them to enjoy the part too.
After all, the problems will still be there even after the party, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take a few hours to enjoy yourself.
12) “Little” things can upset you.
Since you care so deeply about everything and everyone, “little” things like off-hand comments or a small disagreement can affect you for days.
Other people many think it was a completely inconsequential thing and tell you to “get over it” or “just let it go”.
Knowing how to protect your energy and release the negative energy is another one of those tools you definitely should have in your empath’s tool belt.
13) Violence and horror deeply affect you.
Though there are empaths who can enjoy the horror genre, most empaths will struggle to understand how anyone can enjoy violence as entertainment.
Empaths will also struggle to understand how people can read very depressing news – like news about animals dying or people being mistreated and the planet burning – and simply move on with their lives.
Violence, whether fictional or in real life, can leave you feeling profoundly upset for days and weeks after you see it on the news or read about it.
My personal pet peeve is excessive violence in movies or shows. As a writer, I understand that violence can be an integral part of the story, but simply rubbing it in my face at every turn just becomes distasteful and usually doesn’t further the plot at all.
14) You find it difficult to say ‘no’.
Because it makes you feel guilty. Or selfish. Like a bad friend.
You hate disappointing or potentially hurting others. And if they need you enough, or plead enough, you’ll end up sacrificing of your own time and energy to help them and make them happy.
The unfortunate consequence is, of course, that you end up feeling drained and overwhelmed.
The trick to not feeling guilty about saying ‘no’ is to balance it with saying ‘yes’ enough.
It doesn’t necessarily feel natural to reach out and suggest events and activities, but when you don’t do it ever, you become neglectful and let the other person carry the relationship.
So, reach out and invite them to things you’d like to do together.
Say you want to treat them to a coffee, a trip to see a new exhibit in a museum or the movies.
When you become proactive in your relationship, you’ll also find there will be fewer times when you’ll actually have to say no.
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