When I was in my first year at school, the teacher gathered us together one day and started reading the story of Peter Rabbit. I loved stories and I loved animals, so I loved this…until the point when Peter Rabbit was almost captured by the farmer.
Tears welled up and I started to shake – I was terrified for him. The teacher was either oblivious or didn’t care because she just kept reading, while my 5 year old classmates tried to reassure me Peter would be ok. But the shaking didn’t stop until Peter was safely home with Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail once again.
I have occasionally referred to myself as an ’empath’ but never fully understood what it was, just that it might be a handy way to justify being called ‘too sensitive’. The only things I knew about empaths came from watching the tv show Charmed.
Last weekend I went to the Mind Body Spirit festival in Brisbane. There were dozens of psychics available to give readings, and I chose one seemingly at random. I didn’t really consider anyone else.
She didn’t communicate with my guides or contact loved ones who have crossed over, no angel cards or tarot. She just sat with me and told me what she felt. “You’re filled with doubts’ she said.
As I’m continually wondering where my career should go, whether I should move house, if I should start a new course or maybe get a dog …well I had to agree.
‘The reason you’re filled with doubt is because you keep looking for answers from other people, instead of trusting your own answers’, she said. I guess that’s why I was consulting a psychic.
Given that I learnt not to trust myself from an early age – from simple interactions like being told I wasn’t cold / hungry / tired when I really was, to more serious ones such as being told by teachers, neighbours and relatives that what I was experiencing at home wasn’t really happening – how was I to trust my inner voice now?
She tapped me on the head and shoulders a few times and gave me some suggestions about dealing with my suspicious behaviour towards myself. I felt heard and understood, even if I still didn’t really understand what to do about it.
Empaths and HSPs
Late in the day there was a talk scheduled on ‘Empaths and Highly Sensitive People’. I planned to stay and listen for a short time.
In walked Heidi, a woman I recognised from a reality TV show a few years back. I only watched a few episodes but I remember she was the one I was hoping would win. The show was called ”The One – Search for Australia’s Most Gifted Psychic’. She was billed as an empath – I remember she cried often and she finished in third place.
She began to reel off a checklist of possible signs that you could be an empath. Things that I would never have connected with being highly sensitive were listed, along with the more obvious ones (like crying often). Although I had intended to leave after a few minutes, and despite having sat directly under the air conditioning vent and feeling frozen, I stayed for the whole hour.
I heard my whole life described. I nodded, I took notes, I tried not to cry.
Maybe some of my feelings of isolation aren’t from being damaged by my childhood and therapy not ‘fixing me’, maybe it’s because I’m actually an empath who doesn’t know how to protect herself so I withdraw into solitude instead.
Maybe the reason I stayed in relationships that weren’t working, despite having done an extensive 12 step program in overcoming codependence, was not because I failed the program, but because I’m an empath who doesn’t want other people to experience hurt and rejection.
Maybe the reason I feel uninformed and unable to contribute to conversations on world events is not because I’m ignorant, but because I can’t bear to see all that suffering the news reports cover.
Maybe the reason I stopped working as a psychologist last year isn’t because I’m a commitment phobic who can’t stick to anything, but because while I have a strong desire to help, support and guide people, I also feel overwhelmed by them.
It was like I saw myself for the first time.
When I got home, I had a look at the websites of both women. It really didn’t surprise me to discover that the woman who did my reading had trained with the woman who gave the talk, even though they live in different cities. I felt led to both of them.
Here are some things I discovered:
An empath is someone who feels other people’s or animal’s emotions (even fictional ones!) as though they are their own.
Not just Peter Rabbit – don’t put Lassie or even a nature documentary on if I’m around, ok? Even if there’s a happy ending, I don’t want to watch.
An empath’s nervous system will mimic what’s going on around them.
I remember a personal trainer laughing once while he was measuring my heart rate – it was matching the beat of the music in the aerobics room. This also happens with music used to build suspense in movies, my heart beats faster and faster as the music speeds up – NOT pleasant.
Someone who experiences compassion feels FOR others, whereas an empath feels WITH them, experiencing their actual feelings.
I remember once being at a cinema with my parents and their friends. In one scene a woman was pushed off a cliff and fell to her death. I burst into tears, which my highly embarrassed mother ordered me to stop immediately.
A previous partner became exasperated with me because I refused to watch the news. He couldn’t understand that I found it debilitating and would poise on the edge of my seat ready to run from the room if details and images of violence, cruelty or suffering appeared, which they inevitably did.
Highly sensitive people are more likely than empaths to be activists. HSPs are here to change the negativity whereas an empath just wants to clean it up and move on (although apparently you can be both an HSP and an empath).
Since high school, I have given money to animal and children’s charities, but I would insist they not send me any details of what my money was used for. The early images of baby harp seals being clubbed to death on the Canadian ice took me months to stop thinking about every waking moment. I wanted to help, but I was too incapacitated by the graphic details to do anything other than sign petitions, donate money and raise awareness. Empaths aren’t built to be on the frontlines
Empaths adore animals and crave being in or near water.
I have had this litany of wants going through my head for years:
- I want an aquarium
- I want a pool
- I want a bath tub
- I want a beach house
- I want a golden retriever / boxer / pitbull / rottweiler
- I want a horse
- I want pigs / goats / llamas / giraffes
- I want to safari in Africa
- I want to swim with the dolphins
So I think I can tick that one as a ‘yes’ 🙂
Empaths are drawn to the healing professions, but they can end up turning away after qualifying
I am trained as a psychologist. I spent years in this profession listening, empathising, validating and being with people in their pain. Until I couldn’t do it any more. I enjoyed my job but eventually I realised I had to take an extended break.
Now I know why.
During my ‘hibernation’ during the winter months, I plan to learn all I can about thriving as an empath instead of becoming overwhelmed, resentful and withdrawn. Once I emerge from my cave in Spring (that’s September for me), I anticipate my career direction will be clearer than it’s ever been as well.
It seems like I finally know what my true gifts are, and how to use them effectively for the benefit of others and myself. Stay tuned for my explorations (I think there’ll be many posts on this topic!) on how to survive as an empath in a world full of raw energy and emotion.Share