Sunday, December 19, 2010

Empath Issues

Recently I got asked to explain a subject most Empaths and HSPs don't really like to touch on. This is because if it is openly spoken about, it can make them feel like frauds sometimes. But in understanding the reality of this particular topic, after the initial shock, it can ultimately help you grow in your abilities and in your own self awareness, both of which are so important when interacting with the world around you as a highly sensitive/empathic person.

The Examples

Before we look at what the topic of this blog is, lets look at some examples of it and see if you can find what it is.
1. A woman came to me and said that she was in her home when she started feeling these very random emotions hit her. She felt angry, enough to hit someone and yell at them for no apparent reason. She automatically thought it was someone else projecting those emotions onto her. Even though she lives alone, she lives in an apartment complex with several very loud families. Later on that same day, she said she heard raised voices, though they were muffled, and something crash inside the other unit.
Now this seems like an obvious case of her being an emotional sponge and absorbing the emotional energy of the people next door, doesn't it? But what you didn't know was that she was also having her own frustrations at work with someone who acted superior and attempted to delegate their work to her, even though they had the same job title. So she had her own pent up emotions to contend with long before she might have picked up anything from her neighbors.
2. Let's look at another example. Two people, a man and a woman, were talking when she became livid for no apparent reason. She started telling him what he was supposedly to thinking and feeling, because she was 'reading' him. She began saying that he wanted her to be 'perfect' and he was a cruel hearted man. She proceeded to get hysterical and even threaten suicide, after that.
Now what you don't know about this situation is that these two are nothing more than acquaintances, having never met in real life. And she, who was confronted about a minor issue, immediately went into a victim mode and began projecting her 'abuser's' qualities onto the one who held even a modicum of power.
3. Woman A walks into a restaurant and sits down with her friends. Suddenly Woman B appears, whom some of the group of friends dislike. But Woman A personally has no issues with Woman B. But as Woman B walks by the table, some of the group begin to make snide remarks loud enough for her to hear. Woman B responds and a verbal argument ensues. Woman A begins to offer up her own negative and/or derogatory comments to Woman B, as well, even though her group started the argument.
At the end of verbal match, Woman B leaves the restaurant in tears, feeling ostracized and utterly embarrassed. And the group of friends begins to laugh and make snide comments about how pathetic Woman B is. While Woman A sits quietly between her friends, feeling ashamed and wondering what just happened, because she had no problem with Woman B, even as she attacked her verbally.
The Explanations

Do you think you found the topic? It's about projection and emotional contagion. These two things often get confused with Empathy. And it can sometimes upset people to realize that there might be another cause to what they are feeling, rather than the gift of Empathy.

Emotional contagion is the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. One view developed by John Cacioppo of the underlying mechanism is that it represents a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.A broader definition of the phenomenon was suggested by Sigal G. Barsade—"a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes".

Projection, also called projective identification, involves the tendency to see your own unacceptable desires in other people. In other words, the desires are still there, but they're not your desires anymore. The objective is to make yourself feel superior.

An important motive for projection lies in the 'projector's' wish to control the person who is reminding them of their low self-esteem, or feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and worthlessness, to prevent him or her from making the 'projector' feel bad.

In the first scenario, we find projection. This is because she seems to be picking up emotions from outside herself that she later associates with the fighting couple next door. But she fails to consider some of those feelings might be coming from inside her, because the issues she is going through at work which leave her frustrated and often angry. Her first and automatic thought is that it has to be coming from outside herself. And if one assumes this, one can eventually find a place that it could be resonating from.

In the second scenario, the woman's issues of low self esteem are brought to bear by being confronted about an issue, despite how large or small the issue is. So she begins to project those attributes within herself she finds abhorrent and perhaps those of people who have hurt her in the past onto the person she is being confronted by. And in this way, it gives her an escape from having to deal with what she's being confronted about. It shifts the focus from her as someone who did something wrong, to her as a victim at the hands of the other person.

In the third scenario, we don't have one of projection. Instead what we find is that of emotional contagion. As we described in the definition, it is when one catches another person, or group of people's, emotions and mimics them. In this case it became something like a mob mentality, where one person assaulted another and everyone else jumped in to back them up, even if their personal opinions differed. It was about what was going on in the heat of the moment when there were heightened emotions all around.

Empaths As Emotional Beings

Alot of people who are Empaths and HSPs tend to focus outwardly, on what others are feeling. Often times they are people pleasers and are almost hardwired to be sensitive to the emotions, emotional states, and emotional needs of others. And this tends to leave them with a moderate to huge blind spot in their line of sight and perception.

It is easy to forget that we, as people rather than Empaths/HSPs, have feelings, needs and desires that need to be expressed and acknowledged sometimes. It's easy to disregard oneself and allow oneself to become secondary when one is solely focused on the needs and wants of others.

And in doing this, alot of the emotions that we find are not conducive to the persona we play, as people pleasers, are buried and ignored. Anger, sorrow, conceit, frustration, resentment, and anything else perceived as negative are repressed and bottled up. And when things become repressed, and confrontation happens, it's like someone has discovered your 'dirty little secret of shame'. Thus projection can occur as a defense mechanism to keep the spot light off of one's own issues and refocus it on the other person.

But while projection is an issue a vast majority of Empaths must deal with, emotional contagion is one that everyone must contend with. It doesn't matter how aware you are or self confident, because it can still happen. It is a very natural thing, that happens subconsciously and we tend not to have much conscious control over as we mimic those around us to fit in better.

Most of the time this isn't a bad thing. It helps you acclimate to the people around you and the setting you are located in, at any given moment. It's part of whats known as a pack mentality. But at the same time this can also turn detrimental if the leaders of that group behave erratically, violently, or without care for others. Peer pressure can lead people into drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, criminal behaviors and much more. Those are on top of things like bullying and over inflated opinions of one's self (which tend to mask low self esteem).

This is particularly true for Empaths and HSPs, because a common trait for them, though surely not for all, is that of being a follower who is submissive, to a certain degree, one who serves and is a people pleaser. Being this way, in a pack mentality, leaves one open to suggestion, leaves one open to potential behaviors they wouldn't have imagined, much less considered, otherwise.

These two things are two of the hardest things for Empaths to acknowledge sometimes because it hints at the fact that they have emotions and flows that they do not wish to acknowledge. It points to the idea that they might have a blind spot in their perception. And that their self awareness might need some work.

Ultimately it means acknowledging and taking responsibility not just for one's actions, but for one's emotions and thoughts, as matter how ugly they are. And it's much easier to hide, and continue those patterns of projection and adhering to the pack mentality, rather than learning to think for oneself, because the road is painful and riddled with embarrassment and shame.

Think about it.


  1. Here's a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion. The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  2. Insightful post. I remember as a kid when that pack mentality would come up. I could literally feel the pressure of doing what every one else did. Then I would get hot in my body. The heat from my body would in a way break that wave of pressure to follow everyone else. I be able to say no or get out of doing what I didn't want to do.

    It was only years later did I realize the heat was my intuitive reaction to shielding myself. That self awareness like you said is the key.