I Was Never an Empath
Does this New Age concept do more harm than good?
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It was a summer night on a back porch ten years ago when I was first called an empath. I was getting to know my friend’s friend over joints and homemade food, and we connected quickly and easily. After I’d told her a bit about myself, she leaned forward, locked eyes with me, and said, “you must be an empath.”
This word was new to me; it sounded special, mysterious, powerful, even. I looked it up as soon as I got home, and found a plethora of pop psych and New Age websites that described empaths as people who felt their feelings very deeply and who absorbed the emotions of those around them. A number of sites called this a superpower.
This resonated with me. Even as a small child, I was very concerned for the well-being of others. Once I became an adult, perfect strangers would spill their secrets to me on the street. Reading the newspaper could bring me to tears; the suffering of the world was a weight I carried with me everywhere I went.
The empath identity meshed well with the anti-psychiatry leanings of the subculture I was in at the time, and it was comforting to believe that these experiences made me special, rather than unstable or odd. In the end, however, I believe that embracing empath as an identity did me more harm than good.
During this period, I thought of myself as superior to people who weren’t as emotionally expressive as I was, and I found them suspicious at best and devoid of feelings at worst. I felt entitled to react to others however I wanted to; my behaviour was never rude, inappropriate or disproportionate. Even worse, it felt like controlling my response in any way would be inauthentic. I didn’t feel like I could or should have to work on my emotional volatility—it was just who I was, and if other people didn’t like it, they should figure out how to avoid setting me off.
Thus began an emotionally stunted time in my life. I told myself my lack of emotional regulation was the gift of feeling deeply. I confused trauma bonding for intimacy and was convinced I was helping people. My suspicion and resentment were recast as intuition. My hopelessness wasn’t due to being stressed, depressed and poor; it was because I was attuned to the suffering of the world. I was attempting to satiate my low self-worth through codependency, which seemed normal in a subculture that embraced learned helplessness and called vulnerability a strength. Declaring myself an empath romanticized the emotional turmoil and mental anguish I was dealing with. It was a comforting mirage while I struggled to cope.
In the years since, my life has slowly become more manageable through a combination of solid effort, good fortune and dumb luck, and as my material and mental stability increased, I have felt less and less like an empath. These days, I no longer absorb the emotions of the people around me. My own feelings are rarely overwhelming, and when they are, there is an obvious cause. I support my loved ones when I am able to, and recommend resources when I am not. I recognize and reject attempts at trauma bonding. Most importantly, I’ve learned that real intimacy takes time.
These changes in my emotional life parallel changes in my physical life. I make sure I get the nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep that I need. I attend physiotherapy, massage therapy and medical appointments regularly. I make time for my friends and family.
Most crucially, though, I was recently diagnosed with a neurological disorder. I finally know why, despite all of the emotional regulation skills and communication tools I’ve gathered over the years, I still experience a cascade of physiological symptoms at the slightest hint of conflict or distress, such as a loud sound or irritated body language. What I once thought was a superpower is in reality faulty wiring.
None of this is to say that everyone who considers themselves an empath has a medical problem or a mental health issue. Many people are strongly emotional and expressive to a degree that’s not causing them or their loved ones distress, and discovering the empath concept can be reassuring for those people. However, there are three reasons why I think we should interrogate the belief that there is a special type of extra-caring person, called the empath.
First off, when we decide that feeling emotions strongly—both one’s own and those of others—makes one a kinder and more caring person, it’s easy to start treating people who feel emotions less strongly, or who don’t readily express them, as suspicious and even heartless. Rather than evaluating their character based on their actions, we rely on our assumptions about their emotional life. This ignores the fact that there’s a variety of normal and healthy ways that people express themselves and connect with one another. Even if someone seems to have a dangerously low level of empathy, assessing their actions will likely be more useful than trying to read their mind.
Secondly, when proponents of this concept claim that emotional overwhelm is a permanent and fundamental aspect of one’s personality, it sets up empaths to interpret any concern or disagreement as a personal attack. If anyone who challenges them is toxic, many empaths will choose avoidance and isolation, retreating further into themselves and only tolerating people who will provide total validation.
Finally, the empath concept considers concerning traits such as emotional volatility and enmeshment to be neutral and even beneficial. It rationalizes distressing behaviours that are often contributing to relationship difficulties, and this can discourage people from accessing mental health support, emotional regulation skills, or communication tools that could make room for compromise and repair.
I believe there is a natural and healthy range in how strongly people feel their emotions, how they experience the hardships of others, and whether they are outwardly expressive about either. Some of us may always cry at commercials with gurgling babies, and some of us may not be able to cry at our parent’s funeral.
However, I also believe that most everyone would benefit from working on their emotional, communicative and social skills, and that we do people a disservice when we assume that they will never be able change, make different choices or take responsibility for their behaviour.
Has the belief in the empath become yet another way to categorize people into good and bad, authentic and deceitful, worthy and disposable? If so, perhaps we should stick to a much more mundane belief: the belief in each other’s humanity.
PS: For those of you who love true crime as much as I do, the recently released documentary I Just Killed My Dad illuminates the pitfalls of using emotional expressiveness to evaluate a person’s honesty or innocence.
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