Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Post #91: Are You an Empath?

I'm not referring to science fiction characters here---I'm just talking about normal(ish) people like you and me who possess extraordinary empathic skills. Virtually all humans are empathetic by nature (although people with certain mental conditions appear to lack this trait). So, what is empathy, and how does it differ from sympathy?

In graduate school, we defined empathy as the healthy ability to put oneself in someone else's shoes and  experience compassion for their situation. Sympathy was when we crossed the line and mentally or emotionally merged with someone else's internal situation, often to our own detriment. Great distinction, and an important one, too. Unfortunately the word "sympath" does not exist alongside "empath," and we empaths are known not only for our healthy compassion, but also our willingness to take the emotional hit for someone else (anyone else!)

I should clarify this, because it's not that we're always willing to take the hit----but rather that we are naturally receptive and permeable, so we soak up other people's emotions, stress, etc., automatically. Some empaths don't realize what's going on and are defenseless, living on an emotional rollercoaster and feeling drained, overwhelmed, and often ill. Others become hermits because they know they are affected by other people's energy, but don't know how to protect themselves, so they withdraw entirely. Still others find a way to develop healthy boundaries and filters.

Sounds rough, doesn't it? And being an empath can be excruciating, but it can also be a blessing, because empathy is the glue that bonds humanity, and possessing a lot of it can help us love and have compassion for all forms of life. It's one thing to cheer for your own child, but empathy allows you to cheer for anyone, anywhere, and to be genuinely happy when they succeed. It allows you to care enough about strangers to donate coats and blankets, and then experience the warm satisfaction of knowing you made a difference.

Next week, we will go over a few effective ways for empaths to protect themselves from absorbing too much negative energy, but for this week I'm asking you to notice your shifts in mood. Maybe one minute you're fine, and the next minute you take a nose dive. Or, perhaps, a conversation with your mother or boyfriend leaves you feeling drained or depressed. Just keep an eye out for cause and effect. What precipitated the shift? This exercise will provide important information that'll help you learn to prevent these swings in the future.

                                "Gem" from Star Trek