Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Abused Empath

Someone recently asked me an interesting question that got me pondering.  They said, "What are the long term effects of abuse and how do they tie into being an Empath?".  Now in this question, they did not stipulate what type of abuse, or to what age group, in particular.  It was a very general question, even though they later pinpointed more specific questions, based on their own experiences.  But out of respect, I will skip the sharing of that particular information.

 If you've followed this blog to any length of time, you might have noticed other blogs referring to this topic in some way shape or form.  What is generally written is that Empaths are oftentimes, but not always by any means, conditioned through numerous types of abuse to be more empathic toward others.  And despite age, this can develop from a learned response toward their abusers in order to survive.

It is the act of putting oneself second above others, worrying about the needs and wants of others, and being completely reactionary toward others.  What that means is that the person in question becomes hypersensitive to the emotions and emotional states of their abusers, in order to adjust their own behaviors, emotions, and responses accordingly.  It is a survival mechanism born out of a moment of great need.

Later on in life, say if one was abused as a child for instance, this kind of instinctive behavior can translate itself into a pattern in which a person is still hypersensitive to the wants and needs of others, as well as the emotions and emotional states of others, puts others needs before their own, and is still quite reactionary.

Because of these types of behavior patterns, a person like this potentially runs a high risk of falling into having low self esteem/self worth, depression, addictive behaviors (drugs, alcohol, gambling), suicide attempts, anxiety disorders, aggression issues, and many more.

But does this speak to everyone who is Empathic or who has been abused? Oh no, certainly not.  This is just one workup of developmental behavior over a long period of time, based on the variables of things like abuse and a general hypersensitivity toward the emotional states of others.  And it does not necessarily speak to all or even a majority of the people who are Empathic or have been Abused.

So, lets take a deeper look at some of the long term effects of abuse, in the general sense (which means it can be all inclusive of the different types of abuse) and see how these things can play havoc on the life of a person, who was born hypersensitive or who has been conditioned to be so.

Long Term Effects Of Abuse

Child physical abuse damages children both physically and emotionally. The longer physical abuse of a child continues, the more serious the consequences. The initial effects of physical abuse are painful and emotionally traumatic for the child. The long-term consequences of physical abuse impact on the child in their adult life, on their family and on the community.

In many ways though, emotional abuse is more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even in the most violent families, the incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity, but not genuine compassion. (The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, "Never mind the damn flowers, just stop hitting me!") Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. The effects are more harmful because they're so frequent.

The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it's easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle - saying or implying that you're ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you - you are more likely to think it's your problem. Emotional abuse seems more personal than physical abuse, more about you as a person, more about your spirit. It makes love hurt.

Children are vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their age, size and innocence. When a child or youth is molested, she/he learns that adults cannot be trusted for care and protection: well-being is disregarded, and there is a lack of support and protection. These lead to grief, depression, extreme dependency, inability to judge trustworthiness in others, mistrust, anger and hostility. And as if all that isn't enough, children's bodies often respond to the sexual abuse, bringing on shame and guilt.

Effects of Physical Abuse

Initial Effects of Child Physical Abuse
  • Immediate pain, suffering and medical problems in some cases death caused by physical injury.
  • Emotional problems such as anger, hostility, fear, anxiety, humiliation, lowered self-esteem and inability to express feelings.
  • Behavioural problems such as aggression by the child towards others or self-destructive behaviour, hyperactivity, truancy, inability to form friendships with peers and poor social skills. Poorer cognitive and language skills than non-abused children.
Long Term Consequences Of Child Physical Abuse
  • Long term physical disabilities, for example, brain damage or eye damage.
  • Disordered interpersonal relationships, for example, difficulty trusting others within adult relationships or violent relationships.
  • A predisposition to emotional disturbance.
  • Feelings of low self esteem.
  • Depression.
  • An increased potential for child abuse as a parent.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.

Effects Of Emotional Abuse

Physical Effects
  • speech problems
  • lags in physical development
  • failure to thrive (especially in infants)
  • facial tics
  • eating disorders
  • substance abuse ( provides information and resources for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.)
  • self-harm - burning, cutting
  • attempts at or completed suicide
Behavioural Effects
  • low self-worth
  • irritability
  • overly reactive
  • sleep disorders
  • inability to trust others
  • depression
  • inappropriate behaviour for age
  • withdrawal
  • profound sadness
  • habit disorders - sucking, biting, rocking
  • aggression
  • stealing
  • lying
  • self-harm
  • prostitution
  • engaging in risky behaviours
  • attempts at or completed suicide
Emotional Effects
  • inability to control emotions
  • questioning of religious belief
Effects Of Sexual Abuse

Emotional and Physical Sexual Abuse Effects:

Molested children suffer many losses, including:
  • self-esteem and self-worth
  • trust
  • childhood, including the opportunity to play and learn
  • the opportunity for normal growth and development
  • intimacy
  • control over his/her body
  • normal loving and nurturing
  • safety and security
Behavioural Sexual Abuse Effects:
  • nightmares, phobias, and regressive behaviours such as thumb-sucking and bed-wetting
  • learning problems
  • clinging and smothering
  • insecurity, which put the child at risk for further abuse and exploitation
  • psychosomatic complaints such as stomachaches and headaches
  • precocious sexual activity--a young child knows more than they should about sexual activity; child may exhibit seductive behaviour
FACT: 17% of abused children exhibit age inappropriate sexual behaviour (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.283).

FACT: Of the sexual abuse effects exhibited, sexualized behaviour is the most consistent indicator of sexual abuse (Cavanagh Johnson et. al., 1995, pp.50-514).
  • with young children, a preoccupation with sexual organs of self, parents and others--often this shows itself in language and art
  • aggression and bullying behaviours
FACT: 14% of abused children exhibit behaviour problems (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.285).
  • sudden changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
  • depression and anxiety
FACT: 29% of abuse children exhibit depression or anxiety (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.286).
  • refusal to change clothes in front of others
  • isolation
  • obsessively good behaviour
  • obsessed with cleanliness
  • relationship problems
FACT: 13% of abused children exhibit negative peer involvement (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.287).
  • anti-social behaviour
  • unwillingness to participate in social activities
  • running away
FACT: 85% of runaways in Toronto have been sexually abused(Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending, 20008).
  • truancy / long absence from school
FACT: 10% of abused children have irregular school attendance (Trocme & Wolfe, 2001, p.289).
  • long absence from participation in extracurricular activities
  • dissociation--a child's existence is dependent on his/her ability to separate from the pain, which, in the most repulsive cases, may result in multiple personalities
  • risky behaviours such as firestarting, stealing and other delinquencies
  • animal cruelty
  • alcohol and drug abuse
FACT: According to the Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending (200010), sexual abuse effects on children with a history of molestation reflect that they are seven times more likely to become drug/alcohol dependent

FACT: In a sexual abuse effects study of 938 adolescents admitted to residential, therapeutic communities for the treatment of substance abuse and related disorders, 64% of the girls and 24% of the boys reported histories of sexual abuse (Hawke, Jainchill, & DeLeon, 2000, pp.35-4711).
  • dysfunctional relationships
  • avoiding confrontation
  • self-harm, including cutting and burning
  • paranoid behaviour
FACT: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the sexual abuse effects that plague sexually abused children and adult survivors of child abuse. Symptoms experienced are similar to those experienced by Vietnam veterans and may include sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, which negatively impact on their daily psychosocial functioning and for which many seek professional help (Wiehe, 1998, p.5012).
  • preoccupation with sex
  • promiscuous behaviour
  • compulsive and aggressive sexual behaviours
  • self-destructive sexual behaviour and prostitution
FACT: 98% of female street youth in British Columbia reported being victims of physical or sexual abuse as compared to 32% of female youths in schools. 59% of male street youth reported being victims of physical or sexual abuse as compared to 15% of male youth in schools (Beauvais et al., 2001, p.6213).
  • in adulthood, sexual dysfunction--avoidance of or phobic reactions to sexual intimacy
  • becomes the abuser
FACT: Studies done by Haywood, Kravitz, Wasyliw, Goldberg and Cavanaugh in 1996 reflect some disturbing sexual abuse effects. The study found that the odds of becoming a child molester were 5.43 times greater for adult male victims of childhood sexual abuse than for adult male non-victims (Lee, Jackson, Pattison, & Ward, 2002, p.8814).
  • attempted and completed suicide
FACT: Children with a history of sexual molestation are ten times more likely to attempt suicide (Conference on Child Victimization & Child Offending, 200015).

Sexual abuse effects on the child or youth are connected to the child/youth's life before, during and after the sexual contact. We must understand that the effects apply every bit as much to the disclosure and intervention as it does to the abuse itself. Sexual abuse effects continue long after the abuse stops.

Abuse And The Empath

We've defined what an Empath is many times on this site.  We've given them other names like HSP or Highly Sensitive Person.  But let's go over it again.  An Empath is an individual who is hypersensitive to the emotions and/or emotional states of others.  Everyone has some degree of empathy, because it is a very human trait.  But not everyone can lay claim to being an Empath.

Being Empathic also tends to include, because of the person's overall hypersensitivity, a predilection toward  being highly emotional, as well.  This habit can lend itself to types of behavior which can be considered overly dramatic and even somewhat vampiric in nature, because it is overwhelming and draining to anyone who is around it for long periods of time.

While these traits can come very naturally to a person, they are often induced and/or enhanced by environmental conditioning.  By environmental conditioning, we speak of living conditions, interaction with family and friends, neglect, and abuse.

When we apply factors like neglect and abuse and what long term effects these things have on an Empath, who is already hypersensitive, what we find is that these experiences lower the ability to form healthy boundaries, have healthy relationships, and develop healthy self esteem.  While instead it allows one to fall into depression, addictive behaviors, and more cycles of abuse later on in life.  As well, it can denigrate one's natural instincts of self preservation and destroy any self awareness a person, an Empath, might have.  Thus it can leave an Empath as a consummate victim, unable to defend themselves against manipulation, insult and abuse.

In destroying self awareness and a healthy sense of self preservation, an Empath, who feels at their best when giving to other people, supporting them and caring about them, can end up giving and giving without any awareness of their own limitations.  This means that while they are doing something beautiful for others, they slowly suffocate themselves internally, by offering people support and love without consideration toward themselves becoming emotionally drained/burnt out, physically ill, or psychologically apathetic.  In other words there is no self empathy.

Empathy is a beautiful thing, isn't it?  But when it is mixed with abuse, of whatever type, it can have a detrimental effect on an Empath's psyche.  It can influence sets of behaviors in which cycles of abuse can develop.  It can cause them to become drama queens.  It can cause them to become manipulative and emotionally needy.  It can cause them to be codependent, emotionally immature, and blind, to some degree.

In exploring the long term effects abuse can have on an Empath or HSP it is important to remember that there are places which can offer support.  And there are people who are willing to listen with compassion.  But most of all, there is absolutely no shame in reaching out toward those resources for help.

Think about it.


  1. Thank you for such a thorough & thoughtful explanation.

    I'm both a HSP & grew up emotionally abused at hone, at school & elsewhere. With a lot of work, I was eventually able to use my sensitivity to help others & still keep my boundaries - most of the time. "Progress, not perfection".

    Abused Empathic people usually become co-dependent people-pleasers / hero-rescuers. I believe those who have been abused but are not born so sensitive become to overt narcissists. They still have lots of emotions but not as their primary form of connecting.

    I'm glad to be a fellow empath & grower.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and unromantic letter. Today while searching for information on empaths I was disturbed by so many people discussing the heightened ability/sensitivity as something desirable. What is to be envied is what I say? Having random people approach you and dropping their baggage upon you Daily is Not something to seek out. Feeling others frantic emotions while others only see and sense a false front is burdening. Some of us have gotten past hero rescuing and people pleasing; but you can not really 'tune others out'. So thank you for writing about those of us who have the added burden of abuse; really thank you. What I would have liked in addition would have been a couple of links to help. Thanks again for posting such a well written, researched and realistic portrait of the Empath.

  3. This post is informative and helpful, especially for children who were abused. Do you know of any resources that focus more adult women empaths and the trauma and various effects of being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused?

    I am an adult female empath who's experienced a high amount of horrible experiences, some in particular are extreme abuse from a violent boyfriend as well stalking and rape from a stranger, all in the same period of time.
    A few of the effects have been post traumatic stress, low self esteem, feeling suicidal, depression, social anxiety disorder, fibromyalgia, and phobias to name a few. If you have any information I could refer that could apply, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.

  4. This is helpful to me.

    I have always realized I had excessive empathy toward others, leading to obsessive thoughts about others' hardships and concerns.
    I was not abused as a child, though my mother was a little bit neglectful. She didn't know how to relate to other women, so as I grew from a girl to a teen, she withdrew from me and often seemed irritated with me.
    But then I married an abuser, and for more than 16 years didn't even realize I was being abused. So much of this article hits home for me.

    It seems that I attract predators. I have just ended a 4-year friendship with a young adult who picked me out as an adult/mentor-friend. He had been sexually molested as a child for years, and was deep in depression and sexual addictions such as pornography. Somehow he seemed to intuit a commonality between us and chose to act as though he trusted me and no other adults. He was afraid of and repelled by men. But he initially conformed himself to me--pretending to be deeply interested in the things I was interested in. He molded himself to me and claimed a special connection. I began to love him like a son or a little brother, and I was desperately set on "fixing" him.

    Of course, I couldn't fix him. And after he had gleaned from me all my sympathies and energy, and learned my own hurts, he began to turn those hurts back on me, again, like my husband, I now had an "adopted son" who could manipulate all my fears and self-loathing and turn all my efforts into reasons for despising me and seeing me as overly needy and pathetic.

    Are Empaths particularly prone to draw abusers, even before the first instance of abuse has caused breakage? I was always such an optimist. A bright, happy personality, before the abuse. Now, I cling to biblical promises all day long just to get from one moment to the next. I feel emotionally raped over and over again.

  5. Excellent post and comments. I have read this a no. of times the last few years and find it touched my core every time. I agree with one of the comments. It would be nice to have links/suggestions on resources for help. One good start - Codependency Anonymous. Not every abused empath is codependent and there are various degree of codependency but since the traits of abused empaths are close to the ones of a codependent, at least you would be meeting with people with similar personality, going through similar pain. Good luck and thank you all~!