The Empathy Trap
When it’s Unhealthy and How to Break Free
The ability to truly empathize with another human being is a beautiful thing. I believe some people don’t do it enough and the world could generally benefit from more empathetic people.
Where empathy can get difficult is when someone is an empath, or OVERLY empathetic to the point where it becomes unhealthy.
For the purpose of this article, the word ‘empath’ will be used to represent the following:
“An individual who feels and absorbs other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities. They filter the world through their intuition and have a difficult time intellectualizing their feelings. When overwhelmed with the impact of stressful emotions, they may experience panic attacks, depression, chronic fatigue, an unhealthy soul tie that they cannot break or an addiction to food, sex, alcohol, drugs or another person.” — Paraphrased from Psychology Today
When someone takes on the feelings of another person so much that they become a sponge, absorbing those feelings and letting them seep inside, it can be damaging. When we take on the feelings of someone who is negative or draining, it can create the same feelings inside us and can tear us apart.
There is a difference between jumping in the boat with someone and pulling them out when they go overboard vs jumping in the water and drowning with them.
An empath’s natural intuitive ability will allow them to tune into how other people are feeling, and they can quickly get a sense of people and places just from being in proximity. Rather than just noticing and being aware of how others are feeling, empaths may also tend to take on their energy and emotions.
I am an Empath, and in my life, I have gotten myself into some pretty difficult situations because of it. I would go too deep with my empathy and I seemed to choose a lot of people who were struggling so I could “help” them.
I would collect wounded birds (figuratively)and work at taking care of them until they could fly again. This can be a great quality, except as an empath, I would end up taking on their pain and suffering to the point where my own wings were broken. Not only could I not fly, I felt like I was drowning underwater.
For some reason I thought this was the right way to show compassion and understanding — dive in deep and wrestle with people in their pain. I thought I was doing a good thing — helping people.
Recently I was in this situation (again — ugh). It was probably the worst case of empathy I’ve ever had, and I lost myself completely in the pain and drama of someone else’s life. I lcared about this person, poured all I had into them, took on their emotions and and would’ve done anything to rescue them from the pain they were suffering.
In becoming so connected, I developed a trauma bond with this person and couldn’t find a way out. After much therapy, talking to trusted friends, praying and asking God to help me, I FINALLY figured out a way to show empathy without losing myself.
I figured out ways to stay true to my authenticity even when the challenges of others’ feelings, beliefs, and emotions appearing on my radar and sometimes coming through louder than mine.
I began to understand what it meant to stand in my own ‘human’ power (albeit weak and fallible at the best of times), instead of giving it away to another human being.
I write this article to help any of you out there (including me) who struggle with being overly empathetic, to the point where it wrecks you when you’re feeling someone else’s pain.
I hope this information helps you see that you can be an empath and also not take on the feelings of others to the point it destroys parts of you.
My Discovery Mission
- I discovered recently that when I do that I end up feeling down and depleted and I have a hard time separating myself from the other person. I develop such a tie to them and their pain becomes my pain.
- I realized I liked helping people in their suffering because it made me feel needed and purposeful. This came from a place of insecurity and I knew I needed to become more whole so that I could support people in a healthy way and not make THEIR story mine.
- I saw that I didn’t have to face what was going on inside me when I was focused on helping someone else. What an interesting way to avoid looking at myself in the mirror.
- I figured out that if I truly wanted to help another person through a situation, it didn’t serve either of us for me to go down inside the pain with them. When I did, two people need to be rescued.
The Difference Between Normal Empathy and the “Empath”
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Sounds great right?! Well it can actually become difficult to empathize properly when you are an empath and you get involved with teh wrong people. An empath is defined as “a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.”When an empath apprehends the state of another, they take their emotions on themselves.
Like a moth frawn to a flame, empaths can have a predisposition for flying head-first into soul-sucking friendships and dangerous relationships, similar. We end up feeling exhausted and unhinged, yet many of us fall into the same trap over and over, often missing the fundamental life lessons being presented. —www. lonerwolf.com
It’s great to be able to empathize with people, but empaths need to put things in place to SAFEGUARD themselves. This is done so we so don’t end up deep in the water with the people pulling us down, where OUR wellness and survival is dependent on THEIR wellness and survival.
This is especially important when it come to people who suffer from certain personality disorders, are unhealthy, daining or toxic to your emotional wellbeing.
The Attraction of Empaths and Narcissists
I’ve learned that there are certain types of people who attract empaths. I don’t believe this applies to every situation, however most experts have a great deal to say about teh trauma bond that forms between empaths and narcissists.
“What narcissists see in empaths is a giving, loving person who is going to try and be devoted to you and love you and listen to you, but unfortunately, empaths are attracted to narcissists, because at first this is about a false self. Narcissists present a false self, where they can seem charming and intelligent, and even giving, until you don’t do things their way, and then they get cold, withholding and punishing.”
— Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide”
As you can see, empaths are also attracted to narcissists so it’s a perfect storm and can be extremely damaging to the empath. I cannot tell you that every person I have ever been in a toxic relationship with was a narcissist, however I can say that the most toxic ones I’ve been in were with individuals who possessed the same qualities as a narcissist does.
Empaths are compassionate and deeply caring by nature. The empath’s purpose in life is to support healing in others, yet due to their intense sensitivity, empaths often struggle to create healthy boundaries for themselves, giving in to martyrdom, victimhood, co-dependency, and chronic self-sacrifice.
Due to various traumas, core wounds and conditionings, narcissists hide behind an idealized self-image which is expressed as being highly charming and attractive, yet deeply uncaring, indifferent, self-centered and cruel.
Put empaths and narcissists together? Both come in contact with their “inverted/reverse” selves, and both are forced to learn, grow and heal as a result of such an experience (although this doesn’t always happen immediately, but through trial and error).
It is important for empaths to realize that they can never “heal” the narcissists in their lives — any form of healing must originate within narcissist’s themselves.— www.lonerwolf.com
What I discovered is the best way for me to support someone in my life without losing myself in the process is to empathize in a healthy way. To take care of ME first and then I am full enough to take onsome of other people’s feelings too.
I got to practice techniques that would allow me to not become a sponge, but to stand beside people, cry with them and love them, while staying true to who I was and letting those emotions belong to them and not me.
You may not be involved with someone who has a clinical diagnosis, but if you feel manipulated, abused, consistently confused, projected upon, trauma bonded or lost in the other person, unable to untie yourself from them, then you may want to consider some of the following tools to remove yourself from the situation.
How to Find Balance
I have worked diligently over the past few months to step away from damaging relationships and take control over my own emotions. I have put some techniques in place and I hope in sharing them with you, healing is found for you as well.
Sitting With Pain:
Most of us like to avoid pain, however I couldn’t in some situations, so I sat with it, cried, processed, got angry, etc. I realized that my pain was so strong because I had taken on theirpain. Then I figured out what I could do to gain more peace and eventually the pain passed and more peace came.
I believe in going through pain and experiencing it fully, otherwise it just gets stuffed down and comes up when you least expect it. If it isn’t dealt with appropriately, it stays deep down and is rarely ever completely healed.
Spending Time Alone:
Solitude can be an amazing thing — when we are willing to acually shut off and just be. In spending time on my own, I was able to reflect on what was really coming up. I could also see the person who I had become (and it wasn’t the same woman I knew a year ago). As I processed, things became clearer and I knew in my gut that I needed to put some changes in place or else I would continue down the road to destruction.
In the martial arts world there is a technique called Grounding. I want to post an entire blog about this technique and for now I will say that it’s a form of peace that comes from deep inside your body. It required me to be present in the moment and allowed me to let go of the past and the future. I would imagine deep roots going from my feet into the ground and I would focus on the feeling deep inside me that was connected and present.
This gave me a sense of peace that I had never experienced before. There are may different ways of grounding so feel free to check out some techniques on this website: https://www.livingwell.org.au/well-being/mental-health/grounding-exercises/
I went for walks in nature on a regular basis. They helped to clear my head and take my focus off of what wasn’t ight in my life for awhile. there is something healing about being surrounded by trees and water. I would often put on my favourite inspirational music and peace would just wash over me. I would highly recommed this one to anyone who needs a mental break.
I started to say “No” more often when I knew I needed a break. I didnt just agree to things — I started being selective about who I spent time with, where we went, what we talked about and I noticed whether the conversation brought joy or pain to my life.
This helped a great deal in processing my own feelings and realizing that the toxic people in my life didnt have a place there anymore.
Choosing Safety & Support:
As I separated myself from people who were toxic, and tried to refrain from feeling sad about it, I spent time with the people who did bring joy into y life. I poured into areas and people which brought peace and happiness and instead of spending time in big groups, I spent time with 1-2 close friends at a time.
This helped me get grounded and focus on going deep instead of just having mundane, surface level conversations. I knew I needed people around me I could go to the depths with — who would build me up and be a safe place for my emotions.
I was emotionally eating for a number of months and felt very out of control. In order to combat this, I began eating very clean for a month in order to reset my body and mind. I ate protein, vegetables, fruit and healthy fats. I stayed away from caffeine (this one was tough at first), sugar (also tough), foods with more than one ingredient, dairy and gluten.
This helped so much because it allowed me to feel clean, and when I felt clean I could process things better and pay more attention to how my heart was really feeling.
I read — A LOT! Two nooks that had a huge impact on me were by Dr. Henry Cloud. They are called “Boundaries”and “Necessary Endings”. I would defiitely recommend both, as they teach about creating much needed boundaries and explain when and how to end relationships that do not serve us.
I originally thought ‘empathetic’ was a great characteristic for me to possess. I have learned that language is powerful, and since the word wasn’t completely serving me I wanted to find new words to represent how I could support people in their pain. I came up with 3 words I can focus on as I relate to others:Sympathy, Caring and Understanding.
Sympathy: Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune
Caring: Displaying kindness and concern for others
Understanding: Sympathetically aware of other people’s feelings; tolerant and forgiving
When I approach people with the qualities in mind I can still love them, be with them, support them and go through the hard times with them, however I don’t end up losing myself in their pain and sorrow, taking it on myself and hoping to fix them so we both feel better.
This is such a smal short, however for me it was huge in changing the way I relate to others.
Know that if you are reading this and have just had a mirror held up to you, this is exactly where you are meant to be. I believe great things are in store for you (and me) and the sooner we can choose the people in our life more wisely and learn to create boundaries where they are needed, the sooner we will be at peace.
I love being an empath now, however I didn’t always love it. I hated the sadness, confusion and aching inside me all the time. The only reason my attitude changed toward it is because I learned how to protect myself, and why it was important to have compassion, yet not lose myself in other people’s pain.
We can still love others just as we always have, it may just feel different. I hope it feels different, for your sake. If you are like me, you want to feel better — and simple changes can get you there. I know because it’s happened for me.
I pray for peace and joy in your life as you get out of the empathy trap and make healthy choices to move forward into a new way of being!