Saturday, March 3, 2012

Empathy In Excess

A dear friend of mine recently showed me a question someone had posted on the internet, asking a very interesting question about Empaths.  Does excessive empathy, or more to the point  being an Empath, mean that you will be lonely for the rest of your life because you give more and/or feel more than other people? This is a complex question, so lets explore it a bit.

The Initial Feelings

As Empaths or HSPs, we can often feel as though we give more, do more, love more, feel more, and/or sense more than other people.  It almost feels like everyone around you is going through some kind of sensory deprivation and they don't even realize it.  It's as though no one recognizes the depths to which love can go or how much one word can truly wound the heart.

Friends seem to feel as though you know them inside and out, while you feel as though they are talking to a stranger.  It is as though, no matter how long they've known you or how close you are, they just don't quite get it.  So there is always this distance that you feel you have to compensate for in order to keep some form of balance in the relationship.

Perhaps you even feel taken advantage of by most of the people you call friend.  It's as though anyone who knows you remotely, because who can really ever know the true depths of your deepest emotional self, takes advantage of the fact that you give so much so openly and so willingly to all of those you care for.  So you end up feeling used and abused, even amongst your closest friends.  It can leave you feeling bitter and angry.  It can make you question why you are so different from others.

And then there are those people, probably some of whom you love the most in life,  who end up walking away from you because they say things like they feel inadequate compared to you.  They tell you they just can't love you the way they love them.  And it leaves you broken hearted, wondering why god put you here and if you will ever know real happiness.

Romantic relationships are equally as difficult.  You find common ground with someone and fall in love.  You give, as you always have, while expecting some semblance of the same level from your partner; the heightened passion, the touchy feelly love, and the near obsessive need to be in each other's pocket.  In other words, you carry the expectation of their boundaries blurring as much as yours to the point of not knowing where you end and they begin.  And when they don't, it again leaves you broken and wondering if all you will ever truly know is loneliness.

It's like standing in the world and at the same time being utterly separate from it at the same time.  You are set apart from the world by the gift, or curse depending on how you see it, of being emotionally hypersensitive and highly emotive.

In the end, all of these cumulative experiences make you feel like you've 'settled' for less than you deserve all your life.  They make you wonder if you will ever find someone like yourself, who you can be a soulmate (romantically) or a kindred spirit (friendship wise) to.  It makes you doubt.  It makes you question.  And it hurts so deeply, that the loneliness echoes through you like a black void.

It doesn't matter who you are, because you know what I'm talking about to one degree or another.  You understand the underlying emotions I speak of which rise out of those experiences: the disappointment, the sadness and depression, the bitterness and resentment, the anger, the hate, and the unending loneliness that screams and claws at you from the inside out.

Perception and Self Concept

Let's talk about perception and self concept and what this has to do with your experiences and emotions now.  Perception is defined two ways: 1. The ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses. 2. The state of being or process of becoming aware of something in such a way. While self concept is defined as: The mental image or perception that one has of oneself.

In the case of this discussion, we are talking about the journey you've walked in order to develop how you perceive yourself.  Your experiences, both good and bad, shape how you view yourself, as much as how you view the world, the people in it, and the role you play in the bigger picture of things.  Your self concept is based on your perception which in turn is based on your experiences and the emotions that rise out of those experiences.  And those experiences can cloud your judgement, even at the best of times, and dictate how you will react to other people and situations.

Now, if we travel back to the initial feelings, what we discover is that we feel set apart from the world, even as we go about our daily lives within the world.  We feel different.  Some feel like they are lesser than others for those differences.  Some feel like they are better than others for those differences.  Both of these, though, are based on how you perceive the ability to empathize with others...feel their pain and share in their it pertains to you.  Is it a gift or a curse?  Is it the bane of your existence, something that holds you down, binding you to loneliness and being misunderstood?  Or is it something positive that you can utilize in productive ways to enhance not just your own life, but the lives of others, as well?

But again, all of this is based on your own self concept.  All of this is drawn out of your own perception.  And doesn't always tell the truth, does it?  It can be clouded or skewed.  And it can lead you to perceive things one way, while at the same time, halting you from perceiving things in other equally valid ways.

To make this point, I want to tell you a story about something that happened in the last year of my life.  About a year ago I was left feeling very betrayed by someone I was extremely close to.  It was a difficult and very painful time in my life.  So I turned to two of my very dearest friends for support.  One gave me what I needed, even while dealing with her own issues, and the other didn't.  He shut down on me and closed me out.  Because of this we grew very distant.

In my own pain, I could have shut him out completely.  I could have blamed him for not giving me the support I deserved and had always given to him in full measure.  I could have asked him the question, why does it seem like I love you more and am willing to give so much more than you are for me?  Heck, I could have even displaced or transferred my own anguish over the lose of the first friend onto him and handed him the blame.  In my moments of weakness, any of those things was plausible. I could have taken all of my pain out on him and then walked away. But I didn't.

I didn't do these things because before my issues arose, I had watched him suffer from a very deep depression which left him extremely vulnerable and wounded.  I had walked with him through it and supported him time and time again.  I not only knew about, but also understood, the depths of his suffering.  So even as he shut me out, when I needed him, I could not turn away from him completely.  Instead I distanced myself from him emotionally so that I could heal.

I wasn't sure if our friendship would ever come back from that whole again.  But it has, and for that I am ever grateful.  The friendship meant more to me....that person meant more to me....than my pain.  And because of this, even in my darkest moments, and even when I didn't want to, I forced myself to see from his perception.  I forced myself to understand of what he was capable of offering me at that time, given everything he was going through.  And ultimately I realized I would never forgive him....because there was never really anything to forgive.

The point of this example is to show you where empathy truly comes into play here.  Empathy comes in numerous different forms.  There is the type that Empaths have, which is a kind of intuitive emotional empathy, where in you feel much of what others feel right along side them.  And then there is cognitive empathy, where in one  consciously chooses to rise above one's own personal perceptions and judgments, issues and experiences, to step into another person's perception in order to understand, on a more rational level, something we probably couldn't see before.  It's a leap of faith that doesn't allow for you to stay in your shell or your comfort zone.  And if you are open to it, it can be a harsh does of reality sometimes.

Empathy In Excess

When an Empath, or anyone for that matter, gets to caught up in their own self concepts, of who they are and what they are, about what rights and gifts they have, they lose the one thing that makes them so uniquely human; the ability to empathize with others.  When you are to stuck in your own head, it can become a foreign idea to you to step out of your own comfort zone and view things through another person's eyes, particularly if someone is bring an issue up in your intimate relationships that might pertain to you.

So ask yourselves something?  If empathy in excess within you relationships is causing people to leave you, push away from you, or feel there always something wrong with them alone?  Is it that they are never good enough and you are settling?  Or could you be overcompensating for issues you might have in your own life that you do not wish to face head on?  Or could it be some of both, perchance?

Friendship and love aren't about pleasing others so they stick around, secretly leaving you feeling drained and that the only way you feel worthwhile is when you give.  Your worth isn't based on how much you help the next person that comes along. Friendship and love are about caring, empathy and compromise.  But to much of anything, even empathy, is never a good thing for your own health, your own mental health and the longevity of your relationships.  So think about it for a moment...and see what you find inside yourselves.

Side note:
After letting my friend, from the example, read this blog before publishing it....he told me that I left him sounding like the person who was inadequate.  And I told him something to the effect of, "Never that, love. You weren't capable of offering me that because of your own issues.  It's not that you didn't want to because even then you hated seeing me in pain.  So I will never tell you I forgive you because there is nothing to forgive.  And it's because of you, and whats been hanging over our heads unsaid, that I am able to learn what I did and write what I wrote.  So thank you."


  1. Wonderfully written.
    Really helped me a lot to understand so many pressing issues that I really don't have the answers.
    And it feels great to know that there are many out there and I'm not all alone kind of guy.

    Thanks for all the posting.
    Do keep up the great work.

  2. I only managed to read the first part - The Initial Feelings - I am so emotional right now, my flood gates are open wide... This is totally me and where I am at right now in my life... I don't know anyone who is the same as me, none of my friends understand and I feel really lost....

    Thanks for posting this. :)

  3. This explains so much. I wish someone told me this 18 years ago.

  4. Lovely blog and I found this post well -written. I grappled recently with the idea that I give too much usually when I not getting what I need. It's like I think I need to give more. I like your whole idea of perception. I think as empaths too, we can get lost in our own little worlds, and add that, others' worlds too. :)
    -- Ronni,