I’m not sure how old I was when I learned about being empathic/an Empath, but I do recall it as a major AHA! moment in my life. It explained so very much. It gave me the vocabulary necessary to make sense of what I experienced as a child: walking through crowds of people at the mall, absorbing the emotional residue of everyone I passed; feeling feelings that I didn’t understand because they weren’t actually mine; my moods swinging wildly countless times a day and for no apparent reason.
At a young age, I came to understand that I was “fickle,” unreliable when it came to my feelings and moods. I was told as much by the people around me, and I experienced the roller coaster of my frequently changing mind & feelings on a regular basis. As a result, I learned that my feelings weren’t to be trusted, a belief I held even into adulthood, and still struggle with sometimes to this day. At different points in my life I was able to “turn off” my emotional sponginess, a survival mechanism that made me appear “normal” for short periods of time. But ultimately, everything I absorbed and pushed out of conscious awareness would erupt only to render me non-functional for longer than I appeared “normal.” I slid in and out of depressive states for as long as I can recall, my “baseline” a low-grade depression with a heaping side of anxiety. From age 15 onward, I was prescribed pills in every color of the rainbow by well-meaning doctors who diagnosed me with various conditions found in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, none of which touched the root of my problems.
Further complicating my clinical picture, as I would learn nearly 15 years later, were Lyme Disease and associated co-infections. The infectious diseases were systemic, but manifested largely as mental illness for most of my life. However, in my 20’s, it became clear that there was a very physiological basis for what I was experiencing, as the infections manifested more visibly and quantifiably. Still, I grew weary of the oft-repeated refrain, “It’s all in your head,” as I visited doctor after doctor, searching for answers. Eventually, I found them. It took many years of seeing specialists with a knack for invalidation, and then many years thereafter undergoing countless treatments, but I can now say I am free of tick-borne infectious diseases.
I am not, however, “cured” of my empathic sensitivity — and never will be, as it isn’t a disease or something that requires “fixing” (though there are times when I might ardently argue the opposite). It’s simply who I am. Knowing that there’s a name for it and that it is a recognized phenomenon makes a huge difference in how it affects my life now. I have the support of professionals and friends/family who are also empathic, and a common vocabulary with which to communicate my experience — I no longer feel as isolated and “crazy.” I’ve learned a lot regarding how to cope — and even thrive — as an empath, over the past decade. For me, it begins and ends with my physical well-being, which directly influences my emotional well-being. Diet, sleep, relaxation, & exercise are key to maintaining a sense of wellness. When I am suffering in any of those areas, it’s more difficult (or impossible) for me to establish and maintain boundaries necessary to protect myself from absorbing other people’s energy. Currently, I find myself struggling in all of those areas. I have good weeks, and bad months, all the while trying to succeed academically in grad school. It’s a lot to take on, but my academics keep me sane. They give me something on which to focus my anxious energy, plus school offers me a routine that I otherwise have great difficulty providing for myself.
Many days, I feel as though I’m in a boat that’s sprung a leak and each time I find the leak and plug it, another one starts spouting water. Luckily, I can swim, so even when the boat sinks I don’t drown — which is not something I could have said of myself, say, 5 years ago. I tread water until another boat appears and I can climb aboard. I now know that, ultimately, another boat will appear, and each time I find myself in the water, I become a stronger swimmer. I can’t say I enjoy the process, but the work is worth the rewards. And I still hold out hope that some day my boat will be sturdy enough to withstand even the stormiest of seas.
Some things I’ve learned over the years:
- EMPATHIC ≠ WEAK: It’s easy to come to the conclusion that sensitivity equals weakness, but it’s not the truth. Being a highly sensitive emotional sponge requires a lot of energy. If anything, it indicates strength, especially as we live in a culture that devalues it and therefore our experiences.
- Taking care of yourself first & foremost is not a sefish act. Empaths have a tendency to want to be of service to others, but we can only be effective in that role to the extent that we, ourselves, are taken care of. That means resting when we’re tired, getting enough sleep, eating well, and taking time to decompress and feel reinvigorated.
- Some people will simply never understand us, and that is okay. You aren’t required to justify your existence to anyone, ever. What other people do and do not understand has very little to do with you, and everything to do with them and their own baggage.
- There is nothing wrong with you.