The Truth About Empaths
What is an empath?
“The trademark of an empath is that they feel and absorb other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities.“ Judith Orloff M.D.
Empath was originally a science fiction term: A person with the paranormal ability to connect with the mental or emotional state of another individual.
Are you an Empath?
I’m sure you’ve heard the term most often used in the self-improvement industry and it can seem like a curse if you’ve suffered the consequences, but also a “superhuman gift” if you learn to use it wisely.
Like a typical superhero movie, there’s the element of the gift and also the burden. Super heroes are always saving everyone else while their own life is non-existent or in shambles.
The term, Empath, can also come up in the Trauma, HSP (highly sensitive person), and Codependency communities as well.
Traits of an Empath:
An instinct to put others before oneself.
Deep concern for all living things.
Intuitively recognizing and anticipating the needs of others.
Sensitive to environment, including thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others sharing the same space as you as well as sensing even the unspoken thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others.
Physically affected by others— Feeling tired around certain people, other sensations, becoming ill (or other physical effects) when giving too much of yourself for too long.
People may overstep their boundaries with you.
Experiences with unexplainable instincts and intuition.
Can be introvert/ambivert.
And much more…
I don’t know about you, but I completely identify with each trait! And chances are if you’re reading this, you do too.
Enter, the Empath! Could someone be an Empath by nature (and I mean this in the most basic form of nature vs. nurture/conditioned)? Yes, of course, but we humans cannot avoid the nurture aspect that is programmed and conditioned with voices and experiences from our past so I don’t believe there are any truly Empathic people who don’t have some overlap with trauma or codependency.
When I first learned that I was an Empath, I read articles and even books that explained my “gift”. Since it was a gift, as they say, I felt compelled to use it. Like a superhero with a duty coursing through my vains!
I’m a Psychology major and geek so I read more about this, but the more I read the more I was reminded of a term in psychology that paralleled the traits of an Empath. Almost exactly!
“Empaths can have codependent tendencies, but not all codependents are Empaths.” Judith Orloff M.D.
I’ve realized that there is always a nature and nurture aspect to even our most fundamental traits.
What is the difference between codependency and an empath?
There’s a lot of interchangeable information out there between empaths and codependents. Codependency can also be related to trauma (big T and little t (CPTSD).
Someone can be born with a intense, persistent nature that gets in more trouble because they do not conform to the sensitivities of their parents preferences. Another child born into the same family with a more subtle and timid nature will become more sensitive to the environment and take on both empathic and codependent traits, depending on how dysfunctional the family unit is.
Think of it this way:
Empath = energy
Codependency = relationships.
Empaths sense energy and are affected by it too. Anyone with a dog or cat knows that our animals pick up on our moods and energies and act accordingly. This is an example of an empathic trait.
Codependency traits are related to your relationships. Do you fix your friend’s problems? Do you have guilt if you do not help of give of yourself? Do you feel like you have to do more to feel needed? Do you constantly anticipate the needs of others before they even ask?
The question to distinguish the difference between Empath and Codependent is: How do you “hear” and respond to your own wants and needs?
When I began using my gift, I realized I was incredibly intuitive about others, but I could not hear my own intuition and even if I did, I probably ignored it and betrayed myself far too often, because I was putting others first. I was conditioned that this is what a good person does. So you see how entangled our conditioning can be with the label, Empath.
What is codependency?
The most inclusive definition I’ve found is “the loss of self by caring and doing more for others than you do for yourself.”
Also, others rely on you to be that person to show up more often than you would show up for yourself or rely on yourself to prioritize your wants and needs.
This is worth mentioning because you may have already heard about codependency in terms of dysfunctional relationships or addictions.
Codependency is not exclusive to romantic partners or a relationship with an alcoholic, someone with an addiction or illness. Although, a codependent relationship early in life can pave the road to future codependent relationships and/or developing empathic traits related to this.
Codependency is the idea that you feel compelled to be a certain way (extra supportive, self-sacrificing, anticipate others’ needs) and this is apparent in your relation to others. Let’s just say the signal is stronger with others than it is with yourself.
I believe the connection between being an empath and codependency is rooted in childhood and how we developed the specific traits we were born with in relation to our family dynamics. And we carry this over into our relationships as an Empath.
Were Empaths born with this (paranormal) gift?
In the metaphysical sense, Empaths may have been born with extrasensory gifts. As I explained above, you can be born with a certain temperament (nature), but the ways in which that is expressed is part of your development (nurture).
How does someone become an Empath?
Chances are you’ll answer, it’s just who I am. We don’t distinctly remember why or how we developed these traits. We can do the deeper work to see how empathic traits were formed, whether healthy or dysfunctional.
Many traits develop in early childhood— typically before 7 yrs of age.
Of course strictly biology does not determine who we become or conversely, any metaphysical gifts we’re given either. Environment plays a significant role too. Genes and natural proclivities are expressed and enhanced when aligned with a favorable or unfavorable environment (more nature vs, nurture).
Similarly, children are not born “good” or “bad”, but we all know some children are easier and some much more difficult. That’s their temperament and it explains why hardships in childhood could either produce a difficult child or a much more sensitive one.
Children try to learn how to receive love and safety and sometimes they develop empathic traits through an unhealthy duty and responsibility for the emotional and psychological states of their parents. “I’m ok if you’re ok”.
This is often what drives the “wounded healer”. I know because I’ve been one. I felt compelled to help even when I could not help myself.
Not only do Empaths see and sense the needs of others but the unhealthy version that crosses over into dependency is when it’s woven into their need to make sure others are ok in the hopes that will relieve some of their inner angst.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I got help with my Codependency that I could truly feel the gift of my Empathic abilities.
This creates unhealthy codependency and lack of boundaries in relationships and professional environments as well.
If you are on the fence about whether codependency factors into your empathic traits then think about your relationships…past relationships too. Friends, partners, work relationships.
Do you have the need to please?
Do you over-perform or outdo yourself to feel good enough?
Are you the one people always come to with an issue?
This may not be the story for every empath, but if it resonates with you, it’s worth researching the traits and tendencies of codependency to get a clear view of why you are an empath and expand your ability to heal and harness your extra-sensory power AND empower your relationships by showing up for yourself first.
I can identify with both codependency traits and empathic and I know the two are tied. Twin traits! I did not have siblings, but I had impossibly difficult parents inflicted with a variety of issues and illnesses.
I soon learned that being an easy child and becoming highly intuitive to my parents’ wants and needs, moods and movements, was what made my environment safer and my life a little smoother.
This dysfunctional family dynamic grew into what could easily have dubbed me for an empath with a special gift yet still personally suffering.
If I hadn’t researched and taken the time to determine how much of my empathic traits served me or what my relationship was like with myself, I would still be “cursed” with this gift.
The truth is it wasn’t a gift I was born with, but rather something that was born out of survival.
It CAN be a gift though.
Every hardship can be a gift.
Flaws can become faithful superpowers.
Vulnerabilities can become strengths.
When we step into our personal power we can respond to life with confidence, ride the waves of wisdom and deep understanding while also taking care of our own wants and needs.
In reading about myself as an empath, it wasn’t until I accepted that those traits were born out of codependency (a difficult thing to admit) that I learned to manage my life truly on my terms.
Last year I took a good hard look at my relationships with my parents. Both were quite ill, one terminal. Taking part in some of the care, it brought back memories that forced me to revisit some of the childhood. If I had left the Empath label in place, I may not have healed things within me.
How many of you have said these things?
‘Everybody is being taken care of except me’ (Codependent)!
‘I am deeply affected by the smallest emotional or physical nuances in those around me’ (Emapth and Codependent).
‘I am affected by everyone’s energy, not just the people I am personally close to’ (Empath and Codependent).
‘I can sense things about others that would later come to light’ (Empath).
“I ruminate on how I could’ve or should’ve been there for someone else.’ (Codependent)
‘I gave until I had nothing. Others’ wants and needs spoke louder to me than my own, which was practically inaudible’ (codependent).
‘I tend to help others, but also have boundaries.’ (Healthy Empath)
‘I’m exhausted taking care of others.’ (Codependent)
‘I check in with myself often.’ (Empath)
Sometimes you have to heal the codependent before you can come into your appreciation and true power of being an Empath.
I could throw on a nice outfit and some lip gloss, but the real work will always be on the inside. From the inside out is where the codependent heals and from the inside out is where the Empath’s discovers their ability.
That work included researching, meditation, practicing mindfulness, and I had some extra help with this course: DailyOm: From Codependent To Independent (not affiliated with the author or this course)
If you feel your sense of others above your sense of self, I invite you to try this:
Limit the things you don’t want to do, especially if you have a choice!
Check in with your own wants and needs? How much of those do you honor?
Dig your heels in and say “no” (and for God’s sake, skip the long excuses).
Invest in yourself. Invest money and time on yourself, a hobby, charity or project that makes you happy.
Do not compromise your values.
Do more that directly fulfills you rather than feeling fulfilled vicariously through assisting others.
Empaths and codependents (one and the same depending on what resonates with you), face one big issue. When, what, and how to give. Simply put, it’s our natural tendency to over-give of ourselves.
If you’re feeling unhappy giving, stop giving for a while.
Let your giving be an extension of your purpose, not a sense of duty or urgency (unless you’re in the Emergency field of work).
Do not give to get love, friendship, approval, or a feel-good fix. Did you know that giving for codependents lights up not only pleasure centers in the brain as it does for most people, but also addiction parts of the brain? For us, giving can be an unhealthy addiction.
Pause before giving if you instantly thought, ‘I should’, ‘I must’, ‘I have to’.
Receive, for a change!
In order to know exactly what you want, first ask yourself what you don’t want.
Hint: None of this feels natural at first, but what you practice becomes your new normal.
Once you see the changes you can influence in your life from the inside out, it becomes easier to make it a regular part of your life, part of who you are, and into the gifts you were meant to express to the world.
Meditation, mindfulness, and journaling are the practices that help a personal growth journey like one of the Empath and Codependent.
Peace and Be Well,
So helpful! For years, I didn’t understand why I could feel others pain. It was so draining. This explains everything really well.
So happy you found this post helpful. Codependency and being empathic are worthwhile topics to read more about so you can navigate your life in a way that’s not so draining. Peace and be well.