Getting a Feel for Empathy
-- by The Crisses
Empathy is a much-misunderstood phenomenon and I, as one amongst many empaths in the world, would like to share my thoughts about it with people. There are many other possibilities for how empathy works, and how to be a healthy and happy empath. I'm going to address the ones that I'm aware of here, so please don't get annoyed if I haven't covered your way or if I'm stepping on toes a little to get my many points across. If you have another point of view, then the only thing that I have over you is that I've written an article about mine. You can change that ;)
Empathy, as I define it, is the healthy and normal act of being sensitive to other people's emotional state/s and being empathic is making some type of accommodations for them. It is implicit that most people are raised to be empathetic. Someone who exhibits no empathy whatsoever is considered to be very damaged, i.e. a sociopath, or antisocial personality disorder. This is a normal portion of what people are taught, and part of the normal genome or psyche. Other than being raised by empathic role-models and being redirected when one shows a lack of empathy, this normal empathy should not require specific or extensive experience or training.
An empath, as the term is used in magically, psychically, or spiritually aware communities, is someone who has the ability to feel people's emotions when they are not otherwise obvious, or in detail above and beyond that which is readily apparent for normal everyday empathy. This would be performing an empathic reading.
Empathy vs. Empath
Not all people experiencing empathy are necessarily empaths. It's akin to the difference between someone who can read and understand street signs compared to someone who can translate many foreign languages and is skilled at finding and translating rare and out-of-print texts. The former is a survival trait, and very commonplace, the latter is specialized, skilled, requiring years of experience and/or training.
It isn't clear how empaths receive their information, the process may be similar to how empathy works for the common person: empathy works as a communication medium based around a complex set of culturally accepted facial expressions, body language and vocal tones. Empathy also plausibly centers on projected energies from the person being read. It is also possible that empaths are simply more skilled and refined at telling when someone is hiding something, perhaps by reading more subtle clues. I believe the prevalent thought is that empaths are actually more sensitive to the emotional energies of the subject and more skilled at determining the root emotional cause of the energies or circumventing protective mechanisms used to hide one's feelings.
Empathy is an entirely subjective experience. It might be hard to tell if you have the ability to become an empath or not, because almost everyone experiences some level of empathy. Most empaths I know come to the conclusion that they are an empath after going through a period of being unable to tell if uncontrollable emotions are internally generated or coming from another person. They have feelings which are experienced as stronger than warranted by the things going on in their own life, or they are in close proximity to people who are experiencing strong emotions, and find that they share the externally-generated emotions.
Often the empath feels these externally generated emotions as originating in themselves, and that gives them an out-of-control feeling, or a sense of panic. Empaths will often feel a need to isolate themselves from others, to protect themselves from being torn in several directions by the various energies in emotionally-charged people or in random assemblies of strangers doing their own things. For example, an empath might avoid going to the mall because the experience is jarring and overwhelming, like tuning one's radio between two or more radio stations and trying to dance to several conflicting pieces of music over the background static.
Interpreting empathic sensations is not infallible. Some people seem to have an easier time "reading" the feelings of only specific people, but can't read other people, while some people seem fairly consistent at reading most people. Why some people are hard to read may have to do with how they protect themselves from people detecting their feelings. Protections are covered later in the article. Another likely reason that some people are more readable than others is explored in the cording article.
Cording vs Empathy
Anyone who wants to be a self-proclaimed "empath" ought to seriously self-examine whether they are indeed a skilled empath, or even a raw empath, or skilled at cording/linking. By self-examine I mean really put yourself through the ringer and figure out how, why, where, when, and with what, you are reading people. It is irresponsible to proclaim yourself magically gifted or psychically gifted if you are manipulating people into giving you the information you are claiming as a "gift". I speak from personal experience ;)
I call the type of empathy where you can't differentiate your own emotions from someone else's "raw" empathy. Raw empathy is an unskilled level of empathic talent, where externally-generated emotions override or mask the empathic person's naturally-generated emotions. If you compare exceptionally strong raw empathy with a damaged, undefined or undefended boundary system, they are very similar. I believe this state to be a problematic one for empaths, one which may require attention and training to correct. The damaged boundaries make it impossible for the empathic person to determine the difference between their own emotions and those of others around them.
Discussions of damaged boundary systems can be found in various guises in the psychology, self-improvement and addiction/recovery sections of many bookstores. It is not an uncommon paradigm in the world-at-large. We discuss dealing with damaged boundary systems in this podcast episode New.
It is not necessary to stop experiencing empathy to have a functional boundary system. It is necessary, however, to have a defined line between internal emotions, and the perceptual experience of another person's emotions. It is possible to scrutinize another's emotions, and use the knowledge of how a person feels to choose whether or not to modify your own behavior without taking the emotions on as though your own.
Skill with empathy is apparent when the empath continues to detect other people's emotions while still preserving their own uninfluenced by direct contact with the other person's emotional energies. They do not allow leakage from one to the other. They manage to retain boundaries between their own and others' emotions. To protect from confusing the source of emotions, and to protect from losing sight of one's own emotions or allowing someone else's emotions to overwhelm you, it might be wise to learn some magical and emotional defense skills.
It is my opinion that having a well-defined, functional, boundary system with adaptable shielding and filtering skills (more on those below) is exceptionally important for becoming a skilled or trained empath. Some people choose to perceive raw uncontrolled empathy as "strong" as if it's a *good* thing to get run over by other people's feelings. I disagree. I think this is poor use of the terms...certainly the perceived emotions are subjectively strong, and that is not the point, but there's no skill involved in why this is true. I believe it is dangerous to believe you are a powerful or skilled empath when you are being overridden by other people's feelings and unable to curb or control your abilities well enough to retain sanity or autonomy. This is more akin to your abilities using you than you using your abilities. It is also possible that someone may manipulate you by projecting strong emotions at you (more about empathic projection below, and don't forget to look at cording) and then flattering you by telling you that you have a strong ability in the mystical power of empathy. Meanwhile, they are abusing you by purposefully overriding your own emotions with their own, while you allow it to garner the recognition of having a very highly developed psychic ability; a very dangerous combination. (See our gaslighting article if you think you're being manipulated with alternating compliments and being put down or told that you're unwell, sick, have a poor memory, etc. New)
As an example, other people's emotions can be illustrated as bricks. One's personal emotional playing field can be likened to real-estate property. Boundaries of the property are the equivalent of the boundary system of the empathic person in question. The experience of everyday empathy is like looking at the brick, hefting the weight of the brick in your hand, and understanding that it's a brick in all of its wonderful brick-ness and using the knowledge of bricks to perhaps decide on a project utilizing the brick.
A skilled empath has the ability to understand many bricks, stones, mortar, building principles, and decide how far into the property the brick should go. A raw empath takes the brick and puts it into a pile of their own bricks (thus the raw empath is no longer fully able to tell whether their house is built partially from someone else's bricks or only from their own). A highly skilled or trained empath can build a fence around the property and only allow bricks that they wish to enter the property, can make different piles of bricks and keep their own separate from those from other people. The skilled empath can install a security system, electric fence, or whatever else they deem necessary to ensure that their real estate and house are fully protected, and that they reserve the autonomy of their property.
Empathic Defenses (Boundaries)
Shields (Agile inflexible boundary/deflection)
A shield, in my terminology, is any barrier formed a slight distance from one's person. For a good relative example, an empathic shield would be about as far from oneself as the length that one's "personal space" is from one's body...or perhaps the distance that one's aura extends from the body, or whatever arbitrary length from one's body. Shields can be choosy about the emotions or people that they block, depending on the situation and the people one is dealing with (see below in the section about filters for differentiated protections).
Armor (Rigid boundaries)
Armor is more like wearing a hardened second skin, and may be impenetrable or filter. It is not distant from your own person at all.
Filters (Permeable boundaries)
Filters are a quality of shields or armor: i.e. both shields and armor can be filters instead of hard barriers. Filters can be HIGHLY specialized and discerning, and can also be layered inside of a set of hardened shields or armor, however only things that breach the outermost defenses will hit the filter in that case. You can run around with only a filter on and be ok for the most part as far as your empathic abilities and defenses are concerned, as long as no one is actively trying to breach your defenses forcefully.
A filter is a far healthier way to protect yourself on an ongoing, daily basis. For example, a filter that shields from emotions like anger will protect you from being hurt when someone around you is angry, but will not stop love from coming through.
You can start with armor and learn how to filter. Armor & shields require more effort/energy. Filters can become quite easy, like wearing clothes or a second emotional skin. It's like clothing that protects you from the cold. You shouldn't be running around empathically naked all the time, vulnerable to everything. You should put on different layers of empathic clothes to protect you from different emotional weather. Just like real clothes, you can put it on over or under armor, you can use clothes with a shield. It's another layer of protection.
All types of defenses can be breached. They are not infallible. However, as far as empathy is concerned, filters are probably the most flexible and healthy defense mechanism, apart from an internal intact boundary system. If you realize that your filters are being compromised, you can always raise layers of hardened armor or shields as necessary. In the meantime, filters allow you to choose what can go in &/or out of your personal space, who or what can contact you empathically or make contact with your other vulnerable subtle bodies. It works like an airlock for someone's emotional subtle body.