An empathic person feels deeply for others. They don’t feel sorry for people, they actually feel the emotional pain someone else is experiencing. Most of the time, there is little effort involved. It’s automatic, like a sixth sense. Empathy is similar to telepathy, but instead of reading someone’s thoughts, an empath is able to sense what the person is feeling.
Yet, walking this earth feeling other people’s pain can be overwhelming. Making sense and coping with ones own emotional pain is cumbersome, so reflexively feeling the anguish of others is additionally difficult.
In first grade, I remember a shy and quiet classmate, William. One morning, William wet his pants at his desk. I felt his humiliation deeply. I wanted to run to him, shield him from the gaze of our classmates, and give him a hug. I still feel his emotional pain, like a punch to my stomach, as I recall that moment. Other kids laughed and snickered, but I was impacted for the remainder of the day. Luckily, I had a mom who was naturally adept at helping her deeply sensitive kiddo, so when I arrived home from school she was usually ready to listen, which helped.
As I grew older, I sensed my capacity for empathy was both a gift and a curse. I readily connected and understood others, and I had a deep emotional constitution, so I excelled in subjects like English and Psychology. Today, I am a psychotherapist, which means I feel for the plight of others for a living. It is my job to truly understand and interpret people’s emotions and experiences. My ability to have empathy allows me to heal.
For eight hours a day, I expose myself to other people’s pain. Yet, I rarely feel overwhelmed, burnt out, or fatigued by it. I love my job and I am often invigorated when I leave the office.
Yet, if I watch the news for 15 minutes, I am dismantled. When I see human beings in anguish and I am helpless to help, I am devastated. My joy is zapped and I feel discouraged and anxious.
Thus, the crucial difference. When an empath can help heal others with their empathy, they fly. Naturally exuding compassion and humanness, an empath can exponentially change the world for the better.
But, when an empath experiences intense empathy for others and cannot help, they sometimes feel grief and anxiety for hours. Temporarily, they are less able to function happily and productively in the world.
So, if your are an empath, be discriminating. If you involve yourself with dehumanizing material, do so with caution and care. Ensure you are in a position to help and heal.
If you are the parent of a deep and empathic soul, do not unnecessarily expose them to dehumanizing content. Avoid movies, the news, and material with graphic content. Instead, ask them if they have questions about what is going on in the world and answer those questions thoughtfully. Filtering and helping them digest the graphic and dehumanizing material protects them.
Also, listen to your child when they approach you because they are upset about something that happened in their world. Refrain from saying, “you are too sensitive.” Instead say, “You hurt for your friend. I get it. You care. That makes you a good person.”
If you are an adult empath, make sure you have another empath in your world to talk to. Allow them to help you shoulder the distressing feelings. This is what friends and loved ones are for.
Remember, empaths aren’t bleeding hearts, enablers, or weak. Sympathizers (enablers) rarely feel another person’s pain. In fact, they avoid that discomfort by trying to help through other means. Yet, largely they remain emotionally detached from the situation. It is important to note that detachment is necessary when interacting with a person with a personality disorder, but in most other cases, especially parenting, it perpetuates either a sense of entitlement or emotional distance in others.
For example, a parent who sympathizes/enables calls the coach to demand a change be made after their child is benched at a hockey game. Unfortunately, this approach creates a victim mentality in the child.
On the other hand, a parent who empathizes, goes to where their child is at emotionally. They allow themselves to feel their child’s hurt in order to understand how they feel, and then they are able to empathize, “You are so disappointed. I get it. I would be too, buddy. Keep working hard in practice. Things might change.” With empathy, the child immediately feels understood and less alone because their parent gets it. The child feels bonded and close to the parent.
Empathy changes a child’s brain by creating good vagal tone in the vagus nerve, soothing their entire mind and body. It creates calmness, security and resilience which directly translates into a solid work ethic. Sympathy, on the other hand, creates a sense of entitlement.
In addition, empathy requires a depth of emotion that many people lack. Deep emotion seems to go hand in hand with courage and selflessness. Empaths, when put in the position to heal, may be the strongest humans around.