In psychic terms, empathy is referred to as clairsentience, the ability to sense how another person is feeling. Empaths (also referred at as clairsentients) tends to have blurry boundary edges, or a looser sense of self in comparison to the average person. On the plus side, this gives them a stronger ability to feel a sense of oneness with all of life, leading to beautiful spiritual experiences based on a skill called ‘merging’. Being a natural empath myself, I can describe what merging feels like to me, but keep in mind we are all different and the experience is unique to all empaths.
When I was a child, I could spend hours alone in nature merging with the environment around me. I would hug a tree and feel as though I were becoming one with it. I’d squat over an ant’s nest to watch their comings and goings, and the rest of the world would cease to exist for me; I would become part of the ant’s world, as though I too were an ant. As an adult I have had unforgettable meditative experiences during which I have become one with the entire universe and when I’m healing, I become one with the client so I can feel what they feel.
Empathy, when well managed and balanced, blesses me in very specific ways. By helping me to be more compassionate towards other people and the world around me, empathy enables me to live in a more harmonious way with other people and my environment. Empathy helps me understand and make sense of other people’s behaviour, personality and self-expression. It improves my counselling skills and is my core healing skill. Most importantly, empathy helps me develop emotional intelligence.
People who lack empathy are unable to dissolve the barriers that separate their solid sense of self from the world around them. They find it difficult to put themselves in another person’s shoes and may have trouble seeing things from other people’s perspectives. This can negatively impact their social and emotional development. These people can have a very rigid, black and white sense of ‘self/not-self’, resulting in racism, sexism and intolerance towards minority groups of which they are not a part. They tend to see nature and animals as things or resources, rather than beings in their own right.
At the other end of the spectrum we have excessive empathy. When taken too far and not managed with self-awareness, the ability to completely dissolve boundaries and merge with one’s surroundings can become a liability rather than a blessing. First, we lose ourselves. Without a solid sense of self with clear distinctions between self and other, we stop knowing who we really are. Our feelings, opinions and perspectives become tangled up with the world around us as though we are a leaf being blown around in the wind. Too easily influenced by the world around us, we become distorted channels for others while our own identity fades into the background like a wraith.
With excessive empathy we are prone to habitual feelings of guilt, always feeling as though we should be doing more to help others, as though the circumstances and emotions of others are somehow our responsibility. Admittedly, we want others to feel better because we don’t want to feel their more unpleasant emotions, but it’s more than that. Empaths have this strange tendency to take the world around them personally and it can be incredibly difficult for them to stand back and say ‘not my problem’. Instead, they ask themselves “How would I feel if that were me?”, and immediately launch yet another rescue mission.
What some excessive empaths don’t realise is that they are tripping themselves up with mental health traps. Empaths need to stop and remind themselves that what they imagine another person or being is feeling is just an idea or an impression. Yes, we are all intuitive and our empathic impressions can be accurate, but they can can just as readily be inaccurate or at the very least, exaggerated. Excessive empaths project imagined feelings onto others and then treat this projection as though it were a reality, rather than checking in with the other person to see how accurate it is.
Excessive empaths over-focus on the world around them while developing very little mindfulness or self-awareness. With mindfulness the previously blurry boundaries around our sense of self firm up and start to take shape. We get to know ourselves. And in knowing ourselves, we start to recognise our own stories and habitual emotions. When you know your own stuff, it gets harder to project it onto the world around you because you knows it belongs to you. And when we start to own our own stuff a bit more, we realise the value in allowing other people to do the same thing.
For entrenched excessive empaths, words like detachment and boundaries leave a bad taste in the mouth. They don’t understand these concept or why we need them. They don’t want to be separate from the world around them and they can’t understand why anyone would want to be. As their mindfulness grows, they start to understand that the word ‘boundaries’ is really no different to the term ‘self-responsibility’, and detachment is akin to the buddhist concept ‘non-attachment’.
We need to stop frantically projecting our emotional state all over the place and search for our centre, keep our personal space clear and have healthy boundaries. We need to take responsibility for our own emotions and let other people do the same. We are not responsible for how other people feel and we don’t have to mind their feelings all the time. Neither should other people be made responsible for how we feel. You can have beautiful, heart-felt values based on compassion and integrity without being a bleeding heart. Centre your heart in your own body while you exercise loving kindness. Start with having loving-kindness for yourself.
If you are an excessive empath, you need to balance empathy for others with empathy for self. Do other people the honour of letting them get on with their own lives while you focus on your own. Attend to yourself, rather than neglecting yourself in favour of others. Let people look after themselves. How else will they grow and know themselves? How else will you grow and know yourself? Remember that empathy can be misplaced in so many ways. We might imagine emotion that isn’t there, blow it out of proportion or take responsibility for an emotion that has nothing whatsoever to do with us.
Before I finish writing, I want to introduce one last idea. This is the idea that we can be overly empathetic with ourselves. We not only belong to an interpersonal community, we belong to an intrapersonal community. We have many selves (sub-personalities or perspectives, values systems and patterns of behaviour) within us. If we over-empathise with an aspect of self we can lose ourselves in it and in the process, lose touch with a broader perspective and a more well-rounded sense of self. We need to take care not to get caught up in the various sob-stories our inner selves can tell us. Self-pity can be just as crippling for us as excessive empathy projected onto others can be for them.
Both self-pity and excessive empathy for others become unhealthy when we imagine ourselves or other people to be helpless victims. I think this is rarely ever true and taking this approach is disempowering. Step back and give people (and inner selves) the space to step up.