Once in a while I notice there seem to be trends in conversations I have with friends and clients, or unintentional themes in the articles that cross my desktop in a flood most weeks. Recently, I’ve encountered a number of people who self-identify as empaths who seem to be struggling with feeling awash or drowning in the emotional tides of others in their lives.
This sent me scrambling after a while for a review of definitions. I was surprised to discover that, while the vaunted Merriam-Webster Dictionary (whose Twitter feed is delightful, by the way, both entertaining and informative in surprisingly equal measure) has definitions for empathy, empathic, and empathetic, it most decidedly does NOT have a definition for empath. This presents a bit of a conundrum, if so many people are self-identifying as something a dictionary doesn’t recognize, what does that mean?
Google defines the word as, “(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.” Urban Dictionary suggests, “A person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.” Many other web sources of varying repute associate empaths with Highly-Sensitive Persons (HSPs), with significant confusion around differentiating between apprehending (perceiving) the emotional state of others, *feeling* the emotional state of others, or simply being highly-sensitive to the intensity of people in highly-charged emotional states (which has little to do with effectively perceiving others’ states and everything to having little to no tolerance for the emotional intensity of others’ distress).
Empathy is an active ability: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (M-WD). The message I keep encountering from those who self-identify as empaths is the aspect of “vicariously experiencing the feelings” of someone else, to the point of their own emotional distress or physical fatigue. HSPs are hard to tell apart from various types of hypervigilant people; they pick up super-quickly, more so than most people, on nonverbal cues or tones and cadences of speech, and they interpret and react to those interpretations faster than many of us as well. It’s much harder to quantify accuracy in those interpretations, especially if the interpretation then results in not just one but two parties being subsumed by the emotional experience of the moment. What this looks like from a therapy perspective is a permeable-boundary issue, when a sensitive person does not possess effective means of differentiating others’ emotional turmoil from their own once proximity to intolerable intensity has triggered their own “stuff” into overdrive. They get swamped when someone else’s state over-runs their own boundaries, and suddenly, “your pain is my pain”… which is a rather *ineffective* way of simply being present with someone in their own moment of distress.
I sometimes come back to an analogy from my younger days when I was training as a teen to be a lifeguard. One of the Big Lessons the instructors always drive home to students is that when you try to save a drowning victim, you can swim out to them but if you get close enough for them to grab on to you, they will overwhelm you and the odds of you BOTH drowning go up astronomically. That’s why lifeguards train with rescue aids and flotation devices they can push to a drowning swimmer; it lets them remain present and calm and AT A SAFE DISTANCE while the swimmer gets a handle on the situation and can (hopefully) calm down. What these recent discussions around empathy are telling me, however, is that we’re raising generations of rescuers who think “empathy” means letting themselves be overwhelmed and drowning in another person’s emotions, and who believe this practice makes them better people for doing so.
Part of the issue of managing empathy effectively seems to be that somewhere along the way the western world’s interpretation has come adrift from a classical Buddhist interpretation. In the west, we have seemingly adopted the idea that “empathy” is the process of feeling what other people feel, literally absorbing those feelings as if they are our own. I’m not sure how we got there, given that in the Buddhist view of compassion and empathy, the empathy is all about “being able to relate to your emotional experience [generally because I have had similar kinds of experiences in my own past]”, NOT about “I must be awash in your feelings myself in order to relate to your feelings”. I think there may be (should be?) another name for the permeability issue when other people’s feelings trigger our own flooding that *isn’t* about empathy, but I’ll be darned if I can think of one. Discussing this with another therapist colleague, she looked at the description of empaths and empathy as sensitive clients have been using these words, and suggested, “Empathy has a boundary. I know I’m me and I know your feelings but they are not actually mine. The flooding you are describing is enmeshment. It’s not empathy.”
Enmeshment, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development“,seems to mirror the described experiences of empaths when they become overloaded by others. They can’t function autonomously when it comes to separating out “what’s mine from what’s yours”, without breaking off from the contact completely and taking sometimes considerable time and distance to de-escalate their own reactiveness. This is not the same thing at all as being able to sit with a person in distress and recognize similarities in experiences in feelings, but holding one’s own emotional experiences (past AND current) gently to the side in order to remain present with the distressed party. When we are subsumed by our own reactivity, suddenly the encounter MUST become about managing that, rather than presence with the Other, and we miss the point of that compassionate, effectively-empathic ability to witness and relate. We have swum too close to the drowning swimmer, and now we are drowning, ourselves.
Working with HSPs and self-identified empaths is challenging from a therapeutic perspective, because we have to first create an awareness of boundaries and teach how to recognize their purpose (and instill a value for that purpose in people who may come from situations in which differentiation was dismissed or actively punished, and who therefore believe they still have a need to remain hypervigilant or susceptible to the silent barrage of non-verbal cues). We work to create an understanding of differentiation, usually through a variety of self-scanning and mindfulness mechanisms, and we introduce de-escalation tools as a final step in the process.
It’s a difficult thing to teach people how to “turn down the volume” on their own sensitivity without deadening them to the stream of input, so it’s very much a trial-and-error process that sometimes has to focus on subtly changing how people relate to that sensitivity, rather than trying to alter the sensitivity itself. But looking for signs of enmeshment, and starting with teaching people how to separate the “my stuff” from the “your stuff”, are critical components of helping sensitive or empathic people find more peace between themselves and the overwhelming emotional noise of the world around them.