For a long time I didn’t have a positive image of empaths. I blame Gem.

Gem was a reluctant hero on an episodes of the original Star Trek series. At the age of 13 I watched in a state of wrapped attention as superior elder aliens tested her to see if she could develop her empathic healing abilities.

The Empath Gem from Star Trek

Gem

My abiding feeling towards Gem for many years was a mild form of distastes, maybe even disgust. Not a strong feeling, but definitely not attraction.

How come?

As an early adolescent I perceived Gem’s sensitivity and compassion as a weakness. A weakness I shared. She shied away from pain and resisted her ability to feel other’s pain. She didn’t want to cooperate with cold aliens who wanted her to take people’s pain onto herself. I didn’t want to take on other people’s pain either. I knew what it felt like to do that. No way was I going gently into that night.

Timid, afraid, Gem was destined to suffer because of the way she was made. I didn’t want to admit I was like her, didn’t want to suffer her fate. Everything in my culture told me, boys don’t behave like that. While I secretly, grudgingly, admired Gem, I still didn’t like her. This is the strange meme of machismo. Don’t show your weakness, and show disgust towards those who do. It is self-protection. Don’t associate with the victim and you won’t suffer the victim’s fate. This is how bullies keep their power.

Gem’s abilities made her a target of the manipulative aliens. Here on earth, empaths are also the target of unwanted attention, especially by those who seek to use or control them. Narcissistic, sociopaths, bullies, and con-artists all see an easy mark in the vulnerable empath. The lesson I’d already learned at the age of 13 was, don’t reveal any empathic qualities. I fought to dis-identify with Gem and her kind, but at the same time I searched for alternatives ways to be myself.

I don’t know much about Joyce Muskat who submitted the unsolicited script for the episode, but there is so much right about it, I have to imagine that Joyce is herself an empath. In the episode Gem eventually sacrifices herself to heal others. Little did I know that I would spend much of my life doing something very similar because of my embrace of Evangelical Christianity at the age of 15. I lived for many years believing that self-sacrifice is a noble virtue related to meekness. But sacrifice is a tricky subject and the topic for another post.

Taking the Test

Dr. Judith Orloff in her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People  lists 20 questions to determine if you are an Empath.

  • If you answered yes to one to five questions, you’re at least partially an empath.
  • Responding yes to 6 to 10 questions means you have moderate empathic tendencies.
  • Responding yes to 11 to 15 means you have strong empathic tendencies.
  • Answering yes to more than 15 questions means that you are a full blown empath

Here are my responses:

Yes
1. Have I been labeled as “overly sensitive,” shy, or introverted? 1
2. Do I frequently get overwhelmed or anxious? 1
3. Do arguments or yelling make me ill? 0
4. Do I often feel like I don’t fit in? 1
5. Am I drained by crowds and need alone time to revive myself? 1
6. Am I over-stimulated by noise, odors, or non-stop talkers? 1
7. Do I have chemical sensitivities or can’t tolerate scratchy clothes? 0
8. Do I prefer taking my own car places so I can leave early if I need to? 1
9. Do I overeat to cope with stress? 1
10. Am I afraid of becoming suffocated by intimate relationships? 0
11. Do I startle easily? 0
12. Do I react strongly to caffeine or medications? 1
13. Do I have a low pain threshold? 1
14. Do I tend to socially isolate? 1
15. Do I absorb other people’s stress, emotions, or symptoms? 1
16. Am I overwhelmed by multitasking and prefer doing one thing at a time? 1
17. Do I replenish myself in nature? 1
18. Do I need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people or energy vampires? 1
19. Do I feel better in small cities or the country than large cities? 1
20. Do I prefer one-to-one interactions or small groups rather than large gatherings? 1
Total: 16

According to this I am a full blow empath.

Is this news to anyone who knows me? No. I’ve been appreciated for my sensitivity all my life, but I didn’t start really hearing this or taking it in until the spring of 2013. It was about that time that I finally read Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. I’d had the book for years, sitting on my shelf collecting dust, because like with Gem, I wasn’t ready to face my true nature.

You see the fact is, especially for men, being an empath takes a lot of courage.

My friend Brett says I’m good at facing difficult facts. I have a strange courage in the face of hard realities. My wife Wanda says I’m good at staring into the darkness. Again and again I find something I have been deliberately not looking at. It might be a tender spot revealing a wound from my childhood. It might be someone else’s wound I have been unwilling to see or feel. It might be a choice I or someone else made that hurt others. It might be some behaviour that does the same. One by one, as I become aware of them, I look at them. Really see them. Then I accept them. Then let them go. This is the best strategy I have found for dealing with this kind of suffering. The Welcoming Prayer has helped me the most with this.

“You’re Hurting My Feelings”

When you hear someone say, “Don’t be so sensitive,” it is usually because someone else has complained about being insulted, teased, or criticized. Maybe that someone burst into tears.

The downside of being an empath is that our feelings are easily hurt. I could try and make a case that “empath” and “wuss” are not synonyms, but for most of my life I did not make the distinction, in fact I reinforced the stereotype. I’m not alone in that. But I’m going to try and stop doing it from this day forward.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Ed400px

Fishing for Answers

Empaths are easy to hurt, and so they quickly possess the knowledge of good and evil.

They effortlessly put themselves in the shoes of those who are suffering. They actually feel the pain as if it were their own. As they look around the world they begin to see the causes of all the suffering.

This increased awareness can lead to depression and anxiety. Some empaths repress the awareness so that their own suffering is decreased. Some begin, later in life, to welcome in that awareness, even though it means feeling the associated pain.

Why would you do that?

The same sensitivity and awareness that causes increased pain, also empowers empaths to know deeper and richer levels of solitude, sabi, and mono no aware. They see all kinds of beauty and they tend to see it everywhere. They feel deep connections in nature, and with others. Their heart is touched often every day.  I intuitively knew that if I numbed my pain, I would also numb my joy. I wanted the joy to much to do that.

My interest in subtle beauty, harmony, gardens, and natural materials lead me to wabi sabi. Once I read Basho I began to know who I was.

“The moon and the sun travel night and day. The years trail on without interruption. Whether steering a ship at sea or leading a horse on land, each person’s life is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” – Basho

If you love wabi sabi objects and places, chances are you are on the empath spectrum. You feel the age of old objects, enjoy their character, savour the subtly of things well aged like wine, cheese, and tea.

The empath moves towards or shy’s away from certain objects and places, often claiming to feel something from it’s past or something hidden from normal sensory detection. People who are not very sensitive don’t get it. “Old things?” they say, “I don’t get it,” or “It’s just a barn,” or “places can’t be haunted,” or, “I’d rather have a new one.”

Shedding the Thick Skin

As a child I would walk slowly down a beach for hours, lean over the edge of a boat staring at the depth for half a day, or sit at the edge of a river lost in the endless flow.  That was all I wanted. I was like Ferdinand the Bull. Solitude, slowness, the harmony of nature all around. I could feel my empty places filling up.

“Sure, You like nature, good for you, but you still need a thicker skin.”

Does the wide-spread belief that we need thick skins mean that sensitivity really is a weakness and vulnerability? Brene Brown encourages us to live courageously and embrace and express our vulnerability.

Is it Even a Thing?

I wondered about the veracity of the “Empath” label for some time. “Is it even a thing?” I asked. Well there is this: A Review of the Biological, Psychological, and Spiritual Basis for the Empath Experience.  by Elise Lebeau.

Doctor Lebeau has a lot of great info on Empaths in that article, and a little over half way down it she talks about the challenge of the empath and says this, “Which raises another difficult question in the exploration of the empath experience: how much of it is real?  Is it just delusion or mental illness?  By far, this is the most common concern related by empaths.”

Empath400px

Feeling the emotions of others

I would agree. My resistance over the years to the idea has been its association with crystals, mediums, auras, and subtle energy. All subjects I approach with a strong skepticism. So yes, I was skeptical of the idea of an Empath spectrum.

Do Empaths really absorb the energy of those around them, or do they just have really responsive mirror neurons? What about chi, chakras, subtle energy and the spirit world? How much of what empaths feel is related to their interpretations of the world rather than some mystical energy? I know for myself a tremendous amount of my anxiety and angst was related to my schemas, not to “picking up” negative energy from people or my environment. Superstitions, taboos, and other unhelpful ways of thinking can take over people’s lives if they don’t exercise some discipline to avoid self-deception.

Here is what I do think is true:

  • There is an empath spectrum within the human population and the majority of people have a health level of empathic response. Those without much empathy are empath-deficit and get labeled as sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists.  people on the high end of the spectrum have extraordinary abilities to sense emotions and pain in themselves and others, and to sense subtle things in their environment.
  • People can develop their sensitivity and empathy.
  • Developing a thick skin is possible, but often involves repression of emotions which leads to eventual pain and disease. Empaths struggle more than most to develop  grit and resiliency.
  • The sensitivity that empaths have can be specific or focused. Some are more sensitive to emotions, to beauty, to nature, and to different aspects of living creatures. Some feel other’s physical sensations, and some feel other’s emotions.
  • There needs to be a lot more research into the concepts of subtle energy, chi, and all related matters. If it’s energy, it can be measured.

We empaths should not over inflate our abilities. We have a metaphorical superpower, not a supernatural one. Gem is fiction. We need to guard against giving the wrong impression about what empaths can really do.

Can we heal the world?

Well, maybe not the whole world, but our presence in the world can be a force for healing. We can join with others, speak up, be kind, and most of all, take care of ourselves.

I’m in, how about you?

I’m really interested to hear from other empaths. Am I way off base on anything I have written? Leave a comment below and point me in the right direction.

 

 

Posted by Richard

writer | canoeist | photographer | empath | My highest value is beauty. I seek it in nature, ideas, and people. My second highest value is truth. I seek it in thinking, relationships, and perception. I trust the great traditions, science, and I study religion, literature, and art tuned as they are for the heart. I appreciate the sparks of genius that come to all who think and question and ponder. It remains strangely evident -- the truth sets us free.

5 Comments

  1. Richard, thank you for openly and generously sharing your feelings, experiences and learning. Your words help us all. Through many walks around Westwood Lake a Companion and I together learned that “walls” are a default defense of the naturally empathic person but “boundaries” are far healthier to hold. Walls block both ways and diminish. Boundaries allow openness and empower. And as your inner strength and light grows, you are far less likely to pick up lower and negative energies around you. Holding this light in our every day life, combined with healthy boundaries has led to a tremendous amount of freedom to go about in the world openly and joyfully.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Paul, yes just the right level of permeable boundaries has taken a long time to establish for me. I still do not have it worked out in many areas of my life, but one step at a time. The temptation to walls (or no walls!) is strong. I’ve always been impressed with your openness and joyfulness, so you practice what you preach.

      Reply

  2. Now, more than ever, I believe men who are sensitive need to speak out that it’s o.k. to share feelings. That’s one of the best ways to mentor this next generation of men to reach out when in pain and trust that being sensitive is a gift and not something to hide. I applaud you for being a courageous teacher!

    Reply

    1. Thanks Gloria,
      I agree, we need to speak our truth and be known for who we are. My goal is to normalize the trait as much as that is possible in our culture and shift the perception of sensitivity from a weakness to a strength. I have watched with interest as people like Susan Cain have corrected the perception that introverts are not leaders or powerful people. Her quiet revolution has done a lot to set the record straight. It all begins by living out my own sensitivity and not hiding it. Your encouragement helps to do that.

      Reply

  3. A nice articulation. Congrats und Mil Gras!

    Wahnfried der Nomad

    Reply

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