What is an Empath, and How Can Empaths Stop Absorbing Others’ Emotions?

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Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change. – Max Carver

Empathy, in its positive sense, means the ability to stand in other people’s shoes and be able to emotionally tune in to someone else’s experiences and feelings. Being an empath can be hugely positive, both to the individual as well as to those around them.  However, it can also become a source of strain if carried too far and when boundaries are breached.

An empathic person is emotionally moved by someone else’s experience, which can lead to caring, kind, and understanding thoughts, words, and actions. The empathic individual can have an appropriate, sympathetic response to a situation which they may never have experienced themselves.

This can make empaths exceptionally good caregivers in relationships and make them indispensable as friends, parents, co-workers, and leaders. Their ability to express compassion and respond positively to others tends to make these individuals excellent communicators and popular in a wide variety of social circles.

However, empaths tend to absorb others’ emotions at their own expense when they take on the stress, emotions, physical symptoms, and issues of others as their own. It can therefore be difficult to separate themselves from others, leading to their feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

Absorption of others’ emotions can cause empaths to establish coping mechanisms that may be harmful or detrimental as they attempt to carry the heavy burden of others’ pain. They may turn to substance use or eating disorders or may experience insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

It is possible to be present, to listen, to care, and to support without taking others’ emotions on as though they are your own. In this article, I will further explore what being an empath means and outline some tips for self-care and boundary setting.

The Difference Between Being an Empath and Having Empathy

Showing empathy does not automatically translate to being an empath. It is possible to celebrate others’ successes, feel compassion for their setbacks, and understand their experiences without being an empath.

An empath experiences these aspects but on a significantly deeper level because an empath absorbs others’ emotions into their own system, both psychologically and physiologically.

Empaths have the additional ability to detect unspoken emotions. Each of us gives off subtle energy, whether sad, angry, or happy. Empaths can pick up on these energy fields and translate them into a strong sensory experience. Other people’s joy, pain, or frustration will dramatically affect an empath and leave them riding out others’ emotional rollercoasters.

The strong mood shifts can lead to exhaustion and confusion if the empathic individual can’t distinguish between their own emotions and those of others. The intense highs and lows and accumulation of others’ experiences can take their toll, leading to a variety of mental health disorders as well as physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and digestive problems.

Self-Care Advice for Empaths

An empathic person needs to practice shielding techniques to protect themselves from emotional energy absorption. Setting boundaries and recognizing others’ problems as separate from oneself is a vital part of living a healthy happy life.

1. Focus on the Positives

If you are experiencing overwhelm as an empath, it is important not to berate or blame yourself for your empathic abilities. Empathy is a beneficial quality, centered on caring for and feeling deeply connected to others.

Empaths are often positive people who have a sunny outlook on life and who are quick to lift others’ spirits, offer support, and nurture happiness in others.[1]

Embrace empathy as a gift and disregard any notions or negative comments from others who label you as overly sensitive.

2. Distinguish and Identify Emotions

A key step for an empath is to learn to distinguish between their emotions and the emotions of others. By engaging the rational part of the brain, we can take a step back and determine if our experience belongs to us or to the person with whom we are interacting.

Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after an interaction to assess what impact the communication has had on your mind and body.

3. Set Boundaries

An empath’s instinct is to move towards others, to externalize, be outwardly focused, and open spirited.[2] They will often prioritize others’ needs and happiness over their own. This leads to a tendency to take on more than they are capable of as well as to neglect their self-care.

Empaths need to approach interactions with others mindfully. Meditation techniques, breathing exercises, and relaxation tools will help an empath stay in the present and be aware of the effects the interaction is having on them. This will help build resilience, a sense of autonomy, and a feeling of calm, which will allow the individual to respond appropriately and step back from the situation if necessary.

Organization and time management techniques are also powerful boundary-setting tools. Keeping a manageable schedule, not over-booking, and marking out clear periods of “You Time” will prevent an empath from becoming overwhelmed.

4. Be Aware of Codependent Relationships

An empath’s lack of boundaries may cause them to develop people-pleasing tendencies. By placing others’ needs above their own, they become at risk of forging harmful and toxic codependent relationships.

The term co-dependency originated from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and points to the fact that Substance Use Disorders impact not only the user but also loved ones.[3]

Signs of a co-dependent relationship may include:

  • Placing others’ needs above one’s own
  • Extreme loyalty to the other person even if it’s undeserved
  • A lack of self-esteem and self-worth on the part of the co-dependent person
  • A lack of interests outside of the relationship
  • Only feeling worthy when engaging in self-sacrificing behavior

By contrast, a healthy relationship entails two individuals with autonomous lives who express equal amounts of respect, care, and affection.

Research demonstrates that empaths frequently find themselves in relationships with narcissists. Narcissism can be defined as a “personality disorder characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance.”[4]  Narcissists commonly experience a deficit of empathy and so gravitate towards those who have it in abundance. Narcissists often crave admiration and seek to control others, which can lead to situations of abuse due to emotional imbalance.[5]

Studies have found that there is a higher percentage of empathic women in contrast to empathic men, which is partially responsible for the archetypal role of the female as “natural” caregiver. It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of the estimated 40 million codependent Americans are women.[6]

Conclusion

An empath’s experience of others’ emotions transcends the usual degree of empathy. While being an empath can be a valuable trait, it is also clear that empaths must prioritize self-care, set boundaries, and focus on positive, mutually beneficial relationships.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with stress, depression, or burnout from empathic tendencies, please do not suffer alone. Please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Batson, C. Daniel et al. “Empathic Joy and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 61, no. 3, 1991, pp. 413-426. American Psychological Association (APA), doi:10.1037/0022-3514.61.3.413. Accessed 6 Dec 2021.

[2] Heym, Nadja et al. “The Dark Empath: Characterising Dark Traits in the Presence of Empathy”. Personality and Individual Differences, vol 169, 2021, p. 110172. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110172. Accessed 6 Dec 2021.

[3] Davis, Lennard J. (2008). Obsession: A History. London: University of Chicago Press. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-226-13782-7.

[4] Caligor, Eve et al. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic And Clinical Challenges”. American Journal Of Psychiatry, vol 172, no. 5, 2015, pp. 415-422. American Psychiatric Association Publishing, doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14060723. Accessed 9 Feb 2021.

[5] Burgmer, Pascal et al. “I Don’t Feel Ya: How Narcissism Shapes Empathy”. Self And Identity, 2019, pp. 1-17. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/15298868.2019.1645730. Accessed 9 Feb 2021.

[6] Hughes-Hammer C, Martsolf DS, Zeller RA. Depression and codependency in women. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 1998 Dec;12(6):326-34. doi: 10.1016/s0883-9417(98)80046-0. PMID: 9868824.

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