The term “empath” has gained popularity over the last few years as people seek more and more to understand themselves and their stressors.
I myself am an empathic or highly sensitive person and trust me, going decades without understanding what this personality trait was drove my health into the ground.
When I observe clients with the same traits, I make a point to help them deconstruct this.
Empathic people are highly sensitive to others’ emotions, intentions, and often, even physical sensations. They tend to operate from an “others-centered” place in which we constantly look for ways to reciprocate, recognize the needs of others and meet those, and put off our own needs for risk of feeling selfish—or because we’re waiting for our proverbial “prince charming” or “fairy godmother” to rescue us and finally meet our needs.
In some cases, we also attract people who do not have good intentions for us and actively work to harm us (personally, I did not believe this until I experienced it).
While these are honorable traits and most certainly help others as well as society, empaths run a high risk of burnout and increased physical and emotional health concerns than someone who’s not as sensitive.
The nervous system of an empathic person may operate differently because empaths often feel they’re constantly coming up against threats to their wellbeing. These act as fight-or-flight stress responses and can keep them in a state of constant adrenaline rushes, high or low cortisol, gut dysfunction, high blood pressure (and altered heart or kidney function), nutrient deficiencies, and other hormonal imbalances.
For empaths, it can feel like we don’t have a choice in the matter.
But the good news is, we do! It took me decades to realize I had a choice in how I responded to overwhelming stimuli from others, whether they realized they were putting their difficult emotions and intentions on display for the world or not.
I’ve come up with several ways to help empaths protect themselves from the toxic burden of others’ emotions, expectations, and intentions and now make a point to talk sensitive, stressed clients through these as well.
How empaths can protect their nervous system in a stressful world:
- Identify your triggers. When someone’s presence or an interaction with someone begins to stress you out, stop and consider what about them has left you stressed. There’s usually at least one trigger that has us feeling depleted and overwhelmed (for some of us, there are many triggers).Did this person try to bully you into doing something that you didn’t want to do? Were they too pushy and ignored your boundaries? Did they try to shame you? Did they try to guilt you? Did they seem angry? Did they talk over you and dismiss your thoughts and needs? Did they not show appreciation? Did they seem to not trust you or make you not trust yourself?
- Identify the corresponding wound. Once you understand what the trigger was from the interaction, figure out why that trigger bothers you. Did the anger they projected remind you of an angry parent from childhood? Do you feel like no one ever thanks you? Do you carry shame from an abusive relationship or failed situation in your life? Do you never feel good enough? Did you feel invisible? Did you feel chaotic? Did you feel misunderstood? Did you feel like you did not have equal say? Did you feel trapped?
- Understand your reaction to their emotions and work through it. If you were triggered by someone’s anger and, say, you realize it’s because growing up, your father was always angry and you worried about upsetting him, begin to deconstruct those feelings to get past them. So next time you’re in the close vicinity of someone who cannot control their anger, you can consciously recognize your stress pattern and cut it off at the chase. Instead of devolving into your stress response when confronted with this trigger, you can remind yourself that realistically, this person’s emotions cannot hurt you because, in this example, they’re not your angry father and you are not a small child who can be punished.
- Confront the non-empaths and stand your ground. I’m not proud to say this, but many empathic people are pushovers. I mean that in the most loving way possible, and trust me, I myself was one for over 30 years of my life. I bent over backwards for others, didn’t even consider my needs, and did whatever I could to make other people’s lives easier. They walked all over me and I asked if it was comfortable for them.I had also, without realizing it, attracted people who were good at “using up” empaths for their own agendas. It made me stressed and sick and my nervous system was a mess.
Interestingly enough, just as I was acknowledging my own empathic and intuitive abilities (which I have previously spoken about), I was given a message from an Intuitive professional who said my life lesson for the next 12 years was to trust my intuition and “STAND YOUR GROUND,” which he of course said in a very slow dramatic tone.
I laughed when he told me this but thought, “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.” It wasn’t until I was put in abusive situations back-to-back-to-back in which my old adaption methods of being the wallflower and appeasing others didn’t work that I realized he was right and I had no choice but to stand up for myself or literally end up in the hospital.
I tell you this as a cautionary tale. We must learn to confront the people who are displacing toxic emotions, intentions, and expectations onto us—whether intentionally or unintentionally—and let them know we will not tolerate it.
That said, I also believe in nonviolent communication and behavior. We must be firm both in our actions and words, but we cannot give non-empaths a taste of their own medicine; we cannot be hateful back. We can only be honest and unyielding in order to protect ourselves. Your physical health and your emotional wellbeing is not up for discussion and if we play their games, they’ll just target us more intently.
As with everything in life, getting “good” at being empathic requires constant work.
Many of us were not taught how to enforce healthy boundaries or how to focus on our own needs. As you work to deconstruct the stress triggers in your relationships and environment, you can become better and better at self-care.
Remember, your wellbeing is not up for discussion and recognizing these things is a very important step towards improving your health.