In coming in to read this discussion, I'll bet you thought it was going to be about me having a crisis. But alas, the Empath in question here is not me. As well, it might be you, or it might not. None the less, this will be an important discussion for all of us, I think.
Empathy & Empathic Symbiosis
Empathy is that ability to know accurately what a person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing, and to communicate that understanding. Empathy bears an interesting and reciprocal relationship to symbiosis. On the one hand, empathy requires a sufficient fluidity of self-other boundaries, so that a person can enter into the world of the other. On the other hand, there must be sufficient integrity of these boundaries so that the person does not lose his or her identity and merge. For example, in empathy "the individual is attuned to the other's subjective states while at the same time maintaining a recognition of separateness and autonomy between self and others." (taken from: http://www.homestudycredit.com/courses/contentMS/secMS26.html )
Empathy & The Parasitic Bond
Sometimes when these boundaries break down, and the empathic personality merges into the other personality empathically, a parasitic bond can form, which becomes unhealthy for both the host and empath. This is particularly true when the host has deep emotional issues such as depression, low self esteem, and emotional disassociation. Because these problems will amplify the confused empath's own emotional turmoil and dissatisfaction with themselves, and force them into an equally lowered state of despair, which in turn, can result in the possibility of suicide attempts on the part of the empath.
Empathy & Emotional Advocacy
Another result of this unhealthy connection is that of Emotional Advocacy, which rises up within the Empath when the person they are empathically linked to has severe emotional disassociation. The empath is confronted with all of the suppressed emotions of their empathic partner and is compelled to act and respond to these feelings. This means becoming an vocal advocate for the one who is repressing their emotions. It means directly shouldering the burdens of another, emotions and all, through this parasitic bond, where in the empath bears the weight of two while the other person stays in their sheltered mentality, usually consciously unaware of what is happening.
Healthy Empathic Symbiosis
Healthy empathic symbiosis on the other hand means that you form bonds with people sometimes much quicker than the other person is comfortable with. An empath can come to understand the inner workings of another within a decidedly short amount of time, and in turn frighten the other party with their intensity of feeling. In a way it can look parasitic, and almost obsessive in its approach because of the Empath's overwhelming intensity of feeling. This trait leaves most empaths being misunderstood and looked at as weird by most. It is a truly rare individual who has the strength to deal with an empath on the empathic level, instead of forcing the empath to repress their own personality to the point of the other person's level.
Truth be told, I think we've all experienced some of these at different levels, if not all of them, at least once in our lives. Friends misunderstanding us. Being bonded so close to someone we do not know where we end and the other person begins. Being used as the garbage can for someone else's emotional baggage.
Question is, what do we do about it?
The first paragraph says it all. We must have sufficient boundaries to keep ourselves seperate and apart from the other person's influx of emotions. We must have sufficient self awareness to keep those walls erected without the need to consciously shield, which becomes mentally draining after a time.