Did a gift receipt come with this? What’s the return policy?
The next person that tells me how being an empath is such a wonderful gift, gets a slap in the face from me.
Seriously. A real crisp slap that echoes in the brain.
It’s not that being an empath isn’t a gift. It is. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Everyone wants to talk about that. “Empath” has started to become another one of those buzzwords. But no, I don’t want to talk about the signs and symptoms of being an empath and what a magnificent being one surely is by being one. We’ve seen plenty of that, haven’t we?
I want to talk about the unbearable burden of being an empath. Especially after this brutal past week of grief upon grief. I want to talk about the empath’s shadow. I want to talk about the rise and fall of empathy, about the “how much does it hurt?" question we ask ourselves every day. I want to talk about the parts that fucking suck. (Name your pain!)
Semantics and the loss of us...
We define our empath nature by defining how we experience the emotions of others. How we internalize what is outside of ourselves. And often times, we tout this experience as a noble sacrifice we are giving the world. But even in our very simplistic definitions of empath, we are giving our power away by idealizing it. We are literally defining ourselves through others. I mean, that’s the definition of empathy right? So it makes sense.
And this is all true. Being an empath means being attuned to the emotional experience of another being, whether it’s another person, animal, or even places and events. But I want to reframe this…because the ones who tend to get lost in this equation are the empaths themselves. And I don’t want to idolize the process of self-abandonment and martyrdom that every empath has undoubtedly gone through at one point or another in their spiritual development. (And probably many times over.)
I want to define my empath nature by more clearly defining how I experience myself. I want to reclaim my selfhood by defining what is true about me as an empath.
That starts with this very simple, very vulnerable statement:
“I am hurt.”
I have years of hurt locked inside my bones. My cells remember. I cannot and will not wrap up my hurt, put a pretty self-righteous bow on it, and give it away to the world as “a gift.” I am not a sacrificial lamb. I am not a martyr. And neither are you.
So let’s shine some light on the shadows of empathy and talk about why being an empath fucking sucks.
(including Pain Alchemy Affirmations to be used in addition to naming the pain. Note that I said “in addition to,” not “instead of.” We do not replace our pain with fake positivity here, we build onto the truth of our pain and alchemize that pain into more truth.)
8 reasons why being an empath sucks...
1. It all starts with pain.
Unfortunately, most of us realize we’re empaths by way of experiencing the pain of others. For whatever reason, for many empaths, pain and negative emotions are sensed more strongly and more easily than joy and positive emotions. Not that we don’t sense joy and positive emotions, but joy doesn’t energetically grasp at us in the same way. Joy doesn’t desperately grapple for compassion the way that suffering does. When another being is suffering, it’s like their energy is calling out to the void, reaching out for a hand that could pull them. And empaths feel that call more than anything else.
When I was in 4th grade, I watched a documentary about the Titanic on the History Channel. It was the first I’d ever heard of it. By the time it was over, I was crying uncontrollably for hours in my mother’s arms because I was so upset over what had happened to those people. I had no idea why I was so upset, but I felt that loss to the core of my soul, even then. Fast forward to now, I am still affected by movies, music, stories, etc. I have no idea what is going to set me off or not. It’s a very unpredictable emotional process, one that is oftentimes very unpleasant.
Tragic current events are brutal. When I first learned about Orlando, I sat in silence for 10 minutes, staring into space. I got up and started washing the dishes because I didn't know what to do with myself. I cried my eyes out as I washed and scrubbed, desperately trying to feel the loss without feeling like I was destroying myself in the process. And because it affected my own queer community, I felt it through every person I'd ever known. Even mentioning it now brings tears to my eyes.
We can also feel pain pre-cognitively. I remember the day before the big earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011…I was horribly upset and weirded out the entire day. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the wind was warning me of things, and I couldn’t handle the mystery pain I was feeling. To this day, whenever I tell my husband that I feel odd and horrible for some unknown reason, he asks me if there are any natural disasters on the way.
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by the pain and suffering of others. I know that this deep empathy gives me a fuller knowing of the spectrum of life on earth, and allows me to be grateful for my own joy and the joy of others, and feel that joy just as deeply.
2. Our core wounds are usually about feeling unaccepted as sensitive beings.
When I was very young, I found an injured baby bird in the woods of Northern Minnesota at my grandparents’ cabin. I desperately wanted to nurse it back to health and love the crap out of it. My father wouldn’t let me. He told me that it was the cycle of life and he made me feel stupid for wanting to care for this tiny creature.
That was the earliest memory I have about feeling unaccepted and isolated. I remember the feeling, I remember the tiny bird. Growing up, I came across many injured animals. Some I was able to help, and some I wasn’t. But the feeling of a dead bird stiffening in my hand is something I can recall on a moment’s notice with an ache in my chest.
That is one of my core wounds, feeling as though I was “too sensitive” and “too emotional” to adapt to this world. All empaths have been told things like this throughout their lives, and unfortunately for us, they began in childhood.
“Don’t be dramatic.”
“Stop being so sensitive.”
“You need to toughen up if you want to make it in this world.”
Even in my recent past, I have heard things like this from people I’ve trusted with my emotions. It’s especially painful to hear from friends and acquaintances in your own spiritual communities:
“I’m tired of witnessing you creating drama.”
“You’re really negative.”
This kind of talk is discouraging and creates an unsafe space for us to be ourselves. This kind of talk tells us that there is something wrong with us, that we are not suited to live here. We cannot help that we are empaths. We did not choose to be an empath because it sounded like the new age soup du jour. This is just us.
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by the disapproval of my sensitivity. I know that my sensitivity is beautiful and I do not need to change it. It is a vast network of delicate intuitive synapses that begin and end in my heart.
3. Being truly alone can be terrifying.
When I graduated college, I took a fool's journey out west. I rode the train from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, where I met up with a band of lovely people I traveled with for the summer. On the train ride there, however, we got stuck in the middle of the mountains in Montana. We sat on the tracks for hours, miles away from civilization, no cell service, in the midsts of the wilds of Glacier National Park. I sat in the observation car, the mountains looming over me, a taunting cliffside below me. All I could see were trees and rocks, height and depth, in every direction. The sun was shining through the pines, the sky was bluer than blue. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And yet, I panicked. This was the first time I had been so disconnected, so out of reach, from the people and places I’d left behind. Knowing I couldn’t reach anyone I knew, even if I wanted to, amplified my panic.
Here I was, facing the wild unknown, the overpowering and overwhelming beauty and terror of Nature, and I suddenly felt as though I didn’t exist. How could I exist in mountains? I was small and alone. And I realized that as emotionally isolated I’d felt my entire life, I’d never felt that energetically and physically alone. I’d never felt so free of the cords from others. And it scared me because it was so new, so uncharted, so wild, being empty and nonexistent in the trees. I would soon learn that this was the reason Nature is medicine.
For an empath, Nature strips away all the pretenses, all the energetic cords, all the codependency and the obligation, and allows one to simply be nonexistent. To simply be. Without everything else. But even though it is medicine, it’s still scary. Being truly alone forces the empath to question their entire identity and reason for existing. It challenges the inherent belief that an empath exists for others, and begs the question, “Who are you when everyone else is gone?”
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt and scared by the idea of being completely alone with myself. I know that to face this fear with courage, to sink into the wild isolation of independence, is to know myself better.
4. Our boundaries are pretty shitty.
When I was growing up, my parents fought all the time, and it often sent my mother into complete emotional breakdowns. Her pain was so vast and so intense, it was all I could feel when I was around her. My heart broke for her every day, and I learned from a very early age that I needed to mother my own mother. My own emotional struggles of growing up as an empath, even my struggles of sexual abuse when I was a bit older, were always put on the back burner so I could be strong for my mom in her pain. I had no boundaries. She was dependent on me, and I felt obligated to her. I made so many life decisions that were influenced by my need to stick around and mother her when they should have been influenced by my own heart’s desires and wanderlusty yearnings. I held so much pain inside of myself that wasn't mine to hold.
“Boundaries boundaries boundaries!” is the first thing you’ll hear from any empath giving advice on dealing with it. I learned that in my relationship with my mother. I learned what happens when you have no boundaries. But what hasn’t been talked about, is what happens when you create such strong boundaries in your efforts to protect yourself, that you end up on the opposite end of the spectrum into numbness and complacency.
Years later, after peeling back a few layers of my mother wound, I learned how to put up very strong emotional boundaries so I wouldn’t be so miserable and so consumed by her or anyone else’s pain. But in an effort to hold my boundaries, it also pushed me to the other extreme, of feeling numb. Of feeling like I am locking out the feelings of others to protect myself. It can make me come off as cold and unfeeling, which is the exact opposite of what I really am. And this most often happens with the people who are closest to me, because feeling the pain of the ones I love the most is unbearable.
Spending a significant amount of time in either extreme is unhealthy for an empath. You begin to lose your identity and center. Finding a stable balance in an issue that lives and breathes pure raw emotion is so difficult it's almost ironic.
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by the boundaries I’ve abandoned, and the boundaries that others do not respect. I know that my boundaries are the most important thing to my long-term health, and I understand that upholding them means putting myself first, even to the disappointment of others.
I am hurt by the numbness caused by my efforts to protect myself. I know that I can gently hold my boundaries while also opening up the capability to be vulnerable with my loved ones.
5. We tend to slip into abusive relationships.
This is one that I don’t have to get into very much. This is one that most of us are completely aware of. There have been so many great articles about the toxic connection between the empath and the narcissist.
One thing that I’ve noticed, however, is that people with the most potential to be abusive to others are incredibly skilled at hiding their emotions and intentions. For a jaded empath, finding someone that can’t be figured out and read right away can be both very exciting and very relaxing. And it’s a very slippery slope from there…
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by the pattern of abuse I have found myself in. I know that I am not confined to these patterns, and with honest self-work and self-love, I can break free of these karmic plays.
6. We change our behavior and make ourselves smaller to accommodate others’ unspoken emotional needs.
I went to the bank a few weeks ago to make some changes on my business account. I sat with a very friendly banker who was eager to help me. He was very chatty and seemed slightly nervous and distracted. As he told me the required documents I would need to make the desired changes, I found myself very confused. I hadn’t even heard of the documents he was requesting, and I knew very well what I actually needed to make the changes. When I questioned him, he reassured me that what he was saying was correct, and I found myself acting as though I suddenly had no idea what I needed for my account. My voice raised in pitch to sound more feminine and helpless, and I said things like “Oh, I had no idea!” and “Wow, that’s good to know!” and I didn’t argue when he said, “Good thing I was here to tell you these things!”
After I got home, I did some research and found out that the information he had given me was outdated and dead wrong. I had been right all along, and I felt icky about it. I mentally replayed what had happened and realized that I had completely changed my personality and my convictions. I sensed in him a need to be right and automatically responded to it. And without even thinking about it, I made myself smaller to accommodate his unspoken emotional needs.
A week later, I went to a different branch of the bank and saw a woman I’d worked with before. I brought in the proper documents and just said, “Here ya go.” She made the changes without a fuss and without expecting any sort of response from me. It was beautiful. I realized then why I’d always subconsciously accepted jobs with women bosses, and why I turned down (or quit after a short period) jobs with male bosses. My empath nature has been culturally attuned to men, especially in authoritative roles, and that kind of automatic response is very unsettling. (Not to mention it kills my productivity and creativity.)
Empaths often automatically change their behaviors for other people when the other person’s emotions are clearly being felt. Their emotional needs are put on the back burner as they tend to them.
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by my willingness to make myself smaller to accommodate others’ emotional needs. I know that by doing this, I’m not truly helping them or myself. My relationships will be stronger and more meaningful when I fully show up as myself.
7. We’re the unwilling secret keepers of the world.
How many times have you known something about someone before they told you? How many times have you watched someone lie to your face? How many times have you kept the secrets of others, without them even knowing it?
Life is stressful enough with your own secrets and issues, without adding the burdens of everyone you cross paths with. All sorts of complications arise from empath knowing, from knowing who's into who, to the betrayal of friends and family, to feeling completely isolated when no one matches their talk with their energy. One of my least favorite experiences is feeling someone else's difficult emotions deeply, while they talk of shallow things and guard their emotions with smiles, saying that everything is fine. And if you decide to bring up the dissonance, you could be met with bold-faced denial, or outright anger about you being in their business. And if you decide to keep it to yourself, the balance in the relationship may be thrown off and you lose the mutual connection, which slides you further into isolation.
In one of those short-lived jobs with a male boss that I mentioned before, I could very clearly feel my boss's sexual desire for me. I was 19. He never outwardly said anything inappropriate or took any action towards me, but I felt it as if he was screaming it at me, day in, day out. Even though I made great money, I quit after two weeks. I wasn't angry with him. I was exhausted and disappointed, and I know quitting was the right thing for me.
There are few things so isolating as feeling an entire complex web of emotions between people and not being able to talk about it.
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by the disconnection and dissonance that is caused by unintentionally knowing too much about others. I know that the more I trust myself in handling the discomfort the way it feels right to me, the more I will attract people that are honest and caring towards me. And the more I show myself what I am okay with and what I'm not, the easier it will be to handle the situations that I'm not okay with.
8. Chronic health issues? Mystery pain anyone?
Where do you think all that extra pain and suffering goes? When we don’t have a healthy way to handle our empathy, all those extra emotions from others, including the intense reactionary emotions of ourselves, settle into our bodies. Our cellular memory can be a scary thing. Years and years of being unaccepted as an empath and struggling with many of the issues stemming from empathy, have created a somewhat hostile environment in my own body that I am still working on healing. Autoimmune issues, inflammation, chronic pain, mystery illnesses, weight issues, and more, are all incredibly common with empaths. Digestion is usually a problem, as digestion in the body parallels digesting (processing) emotions.
Pain Alchemy Affirmation:
I am hurt by all the excess emotions causing my body harm. I know that I can heal myself, and I know that when I nurture and love myself first, my body will be able to process the excess energy better.
So what’s the point here?
The point is that you’re a fucking Queen. The point is that you are a beautiful, gifted, flawed human being with incredible abilities. The point is that you’ve probably been told time and time again how you’re “too sensitive” and you’ve undoubtedly shirked off the real root feeling of being an empath: pain. You’ve dressed it up in mala beads and skinny jeans and told everyone it was your special gift to help the world. You’ve dressed it up in a power suit and highlights and never told another soul about it. You’ve dressed it up in a funeral gown and have played it the same sad song over and over again.
It’s time to undress it. It’s time to be naked with your pain, seeing every dark crevice that steals you away, every curve that catches the light in an interesting way, every story that wants to be told. No more hiding. Tell your stories. Be brutally honest with yourself. Let the truth of your pain heal you. Be angered by it! And temper your holy anger, your sacred rage, your undying pain, with unyielding self-forgiveness and compassion.
Take this full moon, this solstice, and don't just "let it go." Don't just "release" it.
Embody it. And offer it to la luna in a pained and desperate whisper. Or a haunting howl that echoes through your bones.
And you will find that the purpose of being an empath is nothing like you thought.