Instagram has us believing that 97% of middle class white women are empaths, and that 97% of empaths are middle class white women.
I have thoughts.
Regularly, women tell me they are so overwhelmed by the state of the world and the suffering people are enduring, *because they are empaths*.
I have told myself similar things. I have long been very quick to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and imagine their experience, to the point of feeling the feelings in a big way. I’ve had panic attacks and sleepless nights after reading about individual, and mass examples of oppression and abuse. I have cried all the way home from sessions at the Care Bank having been confronted by the harsh realities of other people’s lives.
Surely, I have thought to myself, this must be an indicator that I notice more about others’ experiences, and that I REALLY CARE. i.e., care more than is average. And this reflects one of the (many, actually) definitions of ’empath’ you will find out there.
According to various dictionaries, etc, empaths:
- have the ability to place themselves in another’s position
- passionately feel the pain, struggle and happiness of others
- are highly sensitive
- have an unusual ability to feel other people’s emotional or mental states
There’s also quite a bit of ‘especially in science fiction’.
Let’s be honest- it sounds like a ‘good’ way to be, right? It sounds like someone who is intelligent, compassionate, perhaps special in some way too. These are appealing qualities- ones we would like to think we have.
Sowhen we are stuck in what’s hard about it, I think it could be helpful to admit to ourselves that we get something out of identifying in this way- some kind of social capital, safety or status in our circles, perhaps? Not so that we can deny ourselves compassion for the associated struggles, but so that we can ask- what might be feeding our attachment to identifying in this way?
[For interest, in my highly scientific instagram polling, 76% of those who answered said they are an empath, 13% said no and 11% not sure. I wonder if there is resistance to admitting you don’t think you are one, because we have a shared sense that- especially in the kind of circles we move in- being an empath is superior, and/ or NOT being one is… maybe shameful?]
Maybe right now you’re like
I DO NOT IDENTIFY AS AN EMPATH, I SIMPLY AM AN EMPATH.
I would respectfully disagree, given that there are abut 500 definitions of what an empath is. I’d wonder if it might be more accurate to say something like, “I read about this collection of ways in which some people experience the world, and it resonated with me”.
I think this can be true about lots of things- according to what I’ve read on instagram this week alone, I may well be an empath, have ADHD, be traumatised, be an introvert, an extrovert, or be any number of starsigns (actually an Aries, which I strongly identify with… lolz).
When we combine this culture of instagrammable quick hot takes, and the hellscape of our society, don’t we end up grabbing for explanations for why life feels so hard? I know I have. It’s like SURELY THIS AMOUNT OF FEELING CANNOT BE NORMAL?!
(I hope it goes without saying but just in case- obviously some people have ADHD, and some people are traumatised, and start their journeys to realising these things thanks to info shared online, and benefit significantly from diagnoses. I’m not seeking to undermine the value of sharing experiences).
Babes- this stuff is COMPLEX. I’ve been discussing it with pals of mine since it first came up for me last week, and the talking has brought me more questions than answers.
This is what the wonderful Dr Suzy Darke had to say on being an empath (sharing with permission)…
I think it’s a thing and I also identify as one however… I wonder whether it’s a learnt survival response rather than an innate character trait.
Anecdotally, many people who identify as empaths have had to be very very attuned to the emotions and moods of others in order to stay safe at some point in their lives.
Where it gets complicated is the overlap with high sensitivity which feels like more of an innate character thing. My son, for instance, is very sensitive to facial expressions and tone of voice and music but I wouldn’t call him an empath in a million years.
Anyway, yes it can be bloody exhausting to feel all the emotions of the world all the time and it’s also a superpower if you can look after yourself in the process.
This all makes complete sense, right?
This sense that it could be a superpower is well reflected in the responses to my relentless instagram polling.
When I asked about the good things about being an empath, people said things like:
- being able to make quick assessments of people’s needs
- being able to make connections easily
- being able to take different perspectives
Note- these are superpower tendencies BECAUSE we live in a society that devalues and undermines human connection, trains us to ignore the needs of others- babies, the poor, etc-, and keeps us in binary thought patterns- black and white, right and wrong, etc.
And the downsides, what’s hard about it…
- carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and feeling hopeless because can’t resolve
- not realising it’s someone else’s feeling you’re picking up on, rather than your own
- being unable to function- rest, work or play- because of the above
Babes, with all my love that I hope you can feel seeping into you *empath joke*, I believe this comes down to responsibility, resilience, and boundaries. This is how I believe we take care of ourselves, the importance of which Suzy mentioned above.
I know at this point you probably wanna throw your phone at the wall and unsubscribe. Lots of you are probably like, hang on a sec Kezza- you’re always banging on about how much you despise self care, and how community care is where it is at And now you’re telling me I’ve got to take care of myself?! If you stay with me, I’ve got stuff you’ll like more, I think.
Let me speak from my own experience, and invite you to consider whether it reflects yours.
When I do not have enough rest, hydration, movement, peace, space, play, connection, my mental health deteriorates. When my mental health is not good, my ’empath’ tendencies are at their most intense. I get enmeshed everywhere I turn. I do not know where I end, and others begin. The more I need to be taken care of, the more I feel as though I should be taking care of others, particularly those who have it worse than me, of course. (Could this be… guilt?) And even though I cannot take care of anyone else right then, there is some sort of sense in my mind that thinking about, and feeling about their experience is an act of compassion. It. Is. Not. How can it be? It does not touch the other person in the slightest.
When I speak of boundaries, I am not speaking of the electric fence boundaries we see in people we might consider sociopaths like Boris Johnson & co. I’m not talking about, ‘it doesn’t affect me, so I don’t care and I’m going to pretend it doesn’t exist’. I’m talking about something like, ‘I understand that people are having these experiences. I believe them. I don’t need to create an experience of their feelings in my body and mind in order to respond compassionately towards them. Simply being human is enough to allow me to do that. And from this place of taking responsibility for my own nervous system, I am much better placed to ACTUALLY help them.’
i.e. COMMUNITY CARE IS ACTIVATED when we ACTUALLY care for ourselves in ways that matter. When we learn to sit with pain and discomfort. When we develop healthy coping and regulatory mechanisms. Community care is undermined by PRETENDING to care for ourselves by denying the existence of suffering, or bypassing it, telling ourselves we must protect our energy, because many people CANNOT play make believe in this way, and because we erode self trust.
We are seeking a middle ground that is different from ‘I cannot get sad enough to make anyone happy, or poor enough to make anyone wealthy, so I might as well be happy and rich’ a la Wayne Dyer etc. It’s a shift that is more grounded in both community, and reality. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this Hay House philosophising doesn’t work. It doesn’t stop me from being sad, or angry. I mean it might, for like 5 minutes until my humanity creeps back in. The constant suppression of my ‘negative’ feelings about real world human suffering serves only to increase the weight of the burden. Also throw on a dollop of shame for not being enlightened enough to overcome my humanity, and… well. It’s not pretty.
Let’s not deny our humanness, let’s get better acquainted with it. Let’s offer ourselves support to navigate this wild world whilst feeling lots of big feelings.
I’m pondering: Is this how some of us have come to believe that we are feeling other people’s feelings? Is it because the same industry that tells us we can choose our thoughts and feelings offers us a story for when it doesn’t work out for us? They’re like, babes, most people should choose to feel better, but it’s different for YOU. You are one of the chosen few who magnetises OTHER PEOPLE’S FEELINGS into your cells. So really the only thing you can do is protect your energy. Withdraw. (Ok, cool, all the deeply caring people please withdraw from others, that’ll end well).
I’m thinking, instead, how about… develop resilience- just as the people who are most impacted by injustice have had to.
I feel like perhaps we have become so accustomed to a Capitalist world where experiencing one another as interconnected human beings has become so alien, we are ripe for the idea that doing so is not normal. It may be uncommon, but I believe it is normal.
AND I believe there are versions of this experience that reflect a trauma response to things like inconsistent parenting, or abuse. But surely not for so many of us, because if everything is trauma, nothing is trauma.
AND I believe that many of the people I would consider to be sociopaths, or similar, are also enacting a trauma response to things like neglectful parenting and abuse.
I feel hopeful that both of these survival, or protective responses could be unlearnt, with the right support.
Perhaps you’re thinking BUT WHY WOULD WE WANT TO BE LESS EMPATHETIC/ EMPATHIC? (Fellow geeks- those words are interchangeable, I checked).
Babes, I’m not sure that the way we tend to think of empaths, some kind of shared (ish) understanding of an amalgamation of various available definitions, is actually about empathy at all.
In her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown offer us this:
We need to dispel the myth that empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes. Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.
She also tells us that
‘Affective empathy’ (feeling something along with the person who is struggling) is a slippery slope toward becoming overwhelmed and not being able to offer meaningful support.’
And there you go- this is it for me. What do we desire? A world where we are so wrung out by imagining other people’s pain (because babes, let’s be real- we are not feeling THEIR feelings, we are feeling OUR feelings about our perception of their experience), so exhausted by it that we collapse into inaction and isolation to survive? Or, do we desire a world where we can sit with the reality that some people’s experiences are INCREDIBLY PAINFUL, and access the cognitive empathy that facilitates action taking?
If simply being an empath was an effective tool for positive change, and there were as many empaths as there seem to be according to instagram, we would have solved the world’s problems as soon as the word came into common usage.
Some ponderings in some attempt at summation:
If our keen read of other people’s feelings is a trauma response (seems like that would be true for some people), what kind of benefits could we experience in our lives and communities if we could access the therapeutic support to modify that vigilance?
If our ability to imagine other people’s feelings is emotional intelligence (seems like that would be true for some people), and we pair that up with the level of exposure we have these days to other people’s struggles and traumas, doesn’t it make sense that it would be an overwhelming experience?
(This kind of reminds me of when I had postnatal depresssion, and I couldn’t understand why people, including healthcare professionals, would allude to the sense it was an irrational experience that should be medicated away. To me, it was the most rational way to feel about raising a child away from your own family, having your own day to day life ripped away, sleeplessness, loss of identity, all unfolding alongside ridiculously romanticised versions of motherhood everywhere we look. I feel like it’s the same here. IT SEEMS TO ME TO BE COMPLETELY EXPECTED that the world will often feel an overwhelmingly difficult place to be. This seems human- and not at all unusual. And yet we are so used to living in systems that suggest no one cares about anyone, that we imagine our normal human compassion to be a niche experience.)
If we had more, real, pressing problems of our own, would the experiences we attribute to being empaths continue to take up so much space? If I couldn’t feed my children, would I have the capacity to be affected by things happening around the world? In other words- who gets to be an empath? Do we actually believe (I hope we don’t) that people who are financially oppressed, living in areas with high rates of crime and below standard healthcare and education, women under huge amounts of pressure to simply survive, are less caring than middle class women? Therefore can dwelling in other people’s suffering really be caring more?
Who is more empathetic- the people who *appear to* have steeled themselves against the overwhelming suffering out there to put themselves in positions where they can make a difference? Or those of us weeping into our pillows all night and too exhausted by morning to take any kind of action?
WHAT IF- it’s actually COMPLETELY NORMAL, i.e., HUMAN to be sensitive to the feelings of others, to be able to read the room, to be emotionally attuned and intelligent. And some of us have dialled it up because it’s been the safest thing to do. And some of us have dialled it down because it’s been the only thing we could cope with- i.e., the safest thing to do.
What if living through a racist, capitalist, patriarchal shitshow of a lifetime, and observing the lack of compassion in the systems that set the tone for our lives has left us imagining that caring about others must be some kind of niche trait? Isn’t this all part of the con? Part of the confusion and disorientation?
What if, in this era when we are more confronted than ever by the reality that so many people are so much worse off than we are, we cope with our guilt by creating disproportionate feelings of sadness, fear and despair in our minds and bodies, then make sense of these feelings with this label?
Babes, I have to tell you, I did not start writing this with the intention of approaching 3000 words. And still, it feels incomplete and fairly incoherent.
I would like to close with an invitation to consider these Qs:
If you consider yourself an empath, how’s that going for you?
Does it enhance your experience of your life, or does it take away from it?
Does it bring you closer to the (actual real life) impact you want to have on the world, or move you further away from it?
What support would you need to be able to maintain the parts you like, whilst releasing some of the parts that deplete you?
What judgements are you holding over those who you perceive not to be so affected by suffering?
What would be a new way of describing your experience of the world that would allow your more space and flexibility?
And if you made it this far, well. I’m sure 97% of people didn’t. Thanks so much for considering these complex topics with me.
I’ll be discussing further on the gram this week, and Dr Suzy Darke will be joining me for a livestream on the topic- be sure to tune into her wisdom.