Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Until recently, I lived my entire life as an undiagnosed empath. I didn't hear the word empath until well into my adult years, let alone acquire any life-skills to manage being one. Below is my story of how I suffered, survived and ultimately learned to thrive as an empath. I share this in the hopes of helping other empaths identify, understand and use their beautiful gift for their highest good.
Being acutely sensitive to other's energy and the world around you can feel like both a blessing and a curse. But with the right knowledge and support you'll find it's not actually a curse at all. Scroll down to learn if you're an empath, and if so, you'll find a list of resources to help you thrive as one. From one empath to another--you got this!
Whether I was born an empath or became one as a result of my traumatic childhood is anyone's guess. I tend to think it's a bit of both. Raised by two narcissistic parents, I learned at a very early age to be hyper-aware of the emotional state of those around me. I earned praise for playing peacekeeper and going with the flow. The more agreeable I was, the less stress there was at home. It was a survival skill in my family. It also wore down the usual healthy defenses that a child with emotionally nurturing parents develops. There was no room for my own emotional needs or expression growing up, so I adapted accordingly by ignoring mine.
In my teens and twenties, I unconsciously began to feel the overwhelming burden of absorbing other people's feelings yet not expressing my own. This presented as over-achieving and perfectionism. Being completely unaware of how to acknowledge (let alone express) my own feelings, I buried them until they'd unexpectedly erupt in unhealthy episodes of sobbing and rage. Hiding my own feelings also led to my role as the friend/daughter/colleague everyone came to for their own emotional support...the shoulder to cry on...the good listener...the strong one. This left me constantly drained and feeling irrationally responsible for the emotional state of everyone in my life. It was an exhausting and confusing way to live, so I looked for ways to cope. Sadly, that lead to an eating disorder and binge drinking, both which gave me a sense of control in my life and dulled my overactive sensitivities. Unfortunately those unhealthy coping mechanisms ended up being the tools I depended on well into my adult life.
By the time I was in my thirties I was a walking, talking emotional sponge. Years of being emotionally bombarded by others had resulted in a full blown (yet undiagnosed) anxiety disorder. I was a high-functioning career woman hiding my problems behind socially acceptable drinking and extreme diet and exercise. I had never learned to defend against stress the same way others do and it was taking its toll. For example, after a full day in the office blindly absorbing everyone's energy, I would come home feeling like a zombie, deflated and defeated. I also had unexplained headaches every day at 3:00 PM (to which I thought more Diet Coke or coffee was the answer. Wrong!) And after hosting social events, I would be so drained it would take me days to recover. I'd go from the smiling, chatting, hostess-with-the-mostess, to hiding in the dark living room by myself barely functioning for three days afterwards, not knowing why.
I lost many friendships during this time in my life due to my deeply rooted fear of any meaningful emotional connection. This is common with empaths who subconsciously second-guess motives in an effort to stay emotionally "safe". I ended up lashing out at friends who I felt were taking advantage of my constant giving of emotional support with no reciprocation. The catch being, that even if they tried to reciprocate I wouldn't let them because that would require me to acknowledge my emotions. I resented friends for not really "getting me", which of course they couldn't because I didn't "get" myself. (For those who know the Enneagram, I was an unhealthy 2 at this point.) It would take me years to finally find help and break these destructive patterns.
My first steps in healing were to be diagnosed with an acute anxiety disorder at the age of 39 and receive treatment. I engaged in many years of talk therapy and self-help courses, as well as deep spiritual and ancestral exploration. It took as much learning as it did un-learning. All of that work helped me access and identify decades of buried emotions. It helped me get in touch with my inner child and begin to heal her. I was able to set firm boundaries with my parents on my own terms. I learned skills like being vulnerable, saying no, and saying what I was feeling vs saying what I thought others wanted to hear. It's not easy, the shadow work never is. And it's not finished. It takes dedication, practice, and trust to enact lasting change.
I don't remember exactly when I first heard the word empath, I just know that it immediately resonated. I felt seen. I felt hope. It was quite literally life changing. If you are ready to embark on your own journey of self-healing and self-realization, I wish you well. If you'd like to invite me along for support, please reach out.
Are You an Empath?
What is the difference between having empathy and being an empath? "Having empathy means our heart goes out to another person in joy or pain," says Judith Orloff, MD. "But for empaths it goes much further. We actually feel others’ emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our own bodies, without the usual defenses that most people have."
Sound familiar? See if any (or all) of these statements sound like you:
People, animals, and emotional situations deeply move you.
Sometimes your heart overflows with sadness and sorrow that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your life. (i.e. world events, news coverage, global tragedies)
You've be accused of being "overly-sensitive" your entire life.
You’re acutely aware of negative energies, negative people, and negative places.
You find prolonged exposure to large crowds and chaos overwhelming.
When someone tells you about their happiness or hardship, you literally feel every emotion with them.
You sense/know exactly what people need without them specifically telling you.
You’re a great listener and people often seek you out for advice.
You feel drained easily and must retreat to silence and solitude in order to refuel.
You can sum people and read a room almost immediately.
Ten Tools for Empaths to Thrive
Often, empaths who are new to understanding their gift, find it difficult to control the sources of overwhelming feelings. The constant reception of other people’s emotions can cause a roller coaster of stress and anxiety. Due to their high sensitivity to feelings of those around them, an empath can end up caring for the needs of everyone else but their own.
Here are 10 tried-and-true techniques to protect and cleanse your own energy:
Give this 10 minute grounding meditation a try
Learn more here
Zip-up Energy and Aura Weaving Techniques
Learn more here
Run hands under cold water imagining it washing away energy that is not yours.
Allow fresh air to blow through your space, moving and clearing stagnant energy.
Black tourmaline, black obsidian, selenite, and clear quartz are all good to use for energy protection and clearing. You may place them around your home and/or wear them as jewelry. There's no wrong way to connect with the power of crystals.
White sage, juniper, cypress, lemon, and frankincense are excellent choices for clearing energy. You may diffuse oils into the air, buy a spray, or simply inhale the scent directly from the bottle. (I do not recommend burning sage due to cultural appropriation--read more here.)
A session of Reiki Energy Healing can help release energy that is weighing you down, balance your energy centers (chakras), and replenish depleted energy.
10. Dry Bathing
Place your right hand on your left shoulder.
Stroke down your chest, across your stomach and end at the right hip.
Do the same on the other side.
Repeat a few times.
Next, extend your left arm.
Place our right hand on your left shoulder.
Stroke down your arm all the way to the hand and finger tips.
Then fling your right hand out into the air (out a window if possible) as though you are throwing away any negative energy.
Do the same with the right arm.
Repeat the stroke down the left arm again.
The 3 Keys
Whichever above technique, or multiple techniques, you use is your choice. It's a matter of personal preference. Allow your intuition to lead you. If you remember these three keys, your energy will be cleansed and protected:
Intend for the technique to work
Consistently use the technique
Trust the technique is working
Want to explore these subjects further? Here are book recommendations on the topics of empaths, energetic boundaries, and self-discovery:
The Empath Experience: What to Do When You Feel Everything
The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People
The Empowered Empath: A Simple Guide on Setting Boundaries, Controlling Your Emotions, and Making Life Easier
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery
A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles"
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents