Please don’t call yourself an empath
Before you begin, hold on a second. I used that headline to get your attention. But now, I want to put aside any kind of call out or self-righteous I-know-better moment. Instead, I want to link arms with you and go sit on the couch together. I want to sort something out and I’d rather do it with you than fight about terms and meaning. This is me, sitting next to you, and asking for help in sorting through something.
About a year ago, I had a bodywork experience that, for a few days, completely changed how I experienced life. I was the one receiving bodywork from someone else. The session felt like a clearing, like one of the most spiritual body experiences I have yet had. After it, I could see cells. This lasted for three or four days, but during that time, when I sat across from someone in the bodywork room and directed my attention to some part of their physical body, their tissues would become translucent. I could see the cells moving, see where the restriction was, where blood or lymph was not flowing. It was as clear as the image on this blog post.
Sitting across from the person, I knew exactly where to touch, what kind of touch, and when to let go. This wasn’t because I was suddenly smarter. It was because I could hear/see/sense the person’s body more fully.
I had taken no drugs. I had not fasted or made any special prayers or learned any new techniques. Instead, I had received a bodywork session that felt as though a whole bunch of shit had just cleared out of my system.
I shared what was happening with a friend; a healer who teaches me. I shared what was happening with an elder; someone I deeply respect. They both said the same thing, “Susan, there is nothing unusual about what you are describing. This kind of thing is happening all of the time. It is happening all of the time. It is happening right now. The only problem is that we have forgotten how to feel it. We are the ones in the way of this kind of connection. This is what systems of oppression and dominance are set up to prevent, it’s what we have to wade through and change to find our way back to life.”
After a few days, this vision faded back to where my eyes see only the skin, even as touch and sensing can sometimes experience more. But it’s still there, the feeling and memory of it, the knowledge of it, is there. It’s kind of set the bar for me. Whether or not I ever experience that again this lifetime, I’ve got my sights set on my children’s children living with this kind of normal.
There are a lot of people I come across, in person and online, who self-identify as an empath. Usually, I find out because the person says something like: “As an empath…” or “This is too much for me/overwhelming/too intense because I am an empath..” According to the thousands of sites that “empath” brings up on a google search, an empath is someone who can psychically tune into the emotional experience of a person, an animal, or a plant. It means being affected by other people’s energies and being attuned to their inner lives. It means that you feel and want to respond to suffering.
There is nothing special about sensing and feeling things. This is the connection that is there, waiting for us, in the background always and sometimes, illuminatingly, in the foreground. It is not an identity, not a struggle, not a burden that some people have to bare. It’s about being alive.
I notice three different emotional tinges when I hear people self-identify as an empath: one is a neutral tinge, just naming something that might help us to understand what is going on for them. This is not what I most often hear in the field around someone who is naming themselves as “empath.” Most often, I either sense a kind of overwhelm, the feeling of a burden that has to be carried, something that others who are not empaths would not understand. The other tinge I hear is self-righteousness as in, I know this because I am an empath, implied that if you are not an empath, again, you would not understand. Sometimes both tinges show up in the same body as it proclaims this identity, sometimes only one or the other.
A number of years ago, a friend of mine pulled me up short. When we were talking together, I had started to hear her thoughts before she named them. I would answer questions before she had the opportunity to name them out loud. After a few back and forths of figuring out what was happening, this friend called me out. An important nuance here, this beloved friend is Native and was raised in a cultural normal where none of this way of sensing information is seen as odd or unusual. It’s not the funky weirdness that Western scientific-method culture makes it out to be. Instead, speaking with ancestors and spirits, hearing on more levels than with our ears, this is not a strange or unusual thing. Which means, there are protocols and cultural practices that have evolved to make sure people are in right relationship to each other while they are hearing or sensing the things that are not being said. My friend pulled me up and called me out because, as she shared, this is a kind of power and by tuning in to her unspoken conversation as though it were spoken, I was mis-using my power. And so she brought me home to meet someone I could learn from.
Sensing the feelings, the life force, the thoughts, the pulse of another person, another relative like a plant or an animal, is not supposed to overwhelm you on a daily basis. It’s also not supposed to be something that gives you the power to “know more” than those around you. It’s not supposed to be a burden, a drain, or an insight that makes you special in the most capitalist sense. It’s just tuning in to a part of life that is always there. We don’t and won’t all do it the same way but sensing these things is just another way of being alive. Many of us, and really, in terms of who is most likely reading this post, most of us were not raised with good behavior. We were not raised to be in right relationship with life around us, to feel that deep underlying connection, and to then know how to be polite and respectful with those lives we feel.
Most of us reading this article were not brought up with cultural practices and protocols for dealing with the information that comes from life around us. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Sometimes we do get a download that can knock us off center. But this is not the norm of it, this is the sometimes. This is where I sit on the couch and turn towards you, potentially a bit too intense as I think this through with you.
Dear beloveds who call yourself an empath and feel it as something that takes energy away from you, that makes you exhausted and unable to be in the chaotic mix of real people in real time, whether with a group or just one: notice if what you are naming as being an empath isn’t maybe about the impact of trauma. Highly activated trauma is like a parallel stream to feeling the deep life connection of all things. Highly activated trauma means that we can get quickly overwhelmed by the stimulus of other people’s feelings. Literally, our emotional physical selves are full. We are carrying too much around inside and so we can’t take on anything else. Feelings and sensations, stimulus, from outside starts to feel like a blaring foghorn that makes our heads ache, our bodies want to recoil, and our energy deplete. Elements of this are USA-normal, as life here gets faster with more people needing to work more hours in order to make ends meet. It is more shared than not, with stimulus going hyper-speed via the electronic signals of technology and the towers that boost them, a planet with a low grade fever that isn’t settling, and all of the things that usually support us like food and water and air also being impacted by this sped-up truth. And elements of this are not USA-normal. They are what happens to a body that experienced too much when younger (or in generations past) and did not have the space, time and support to process that “too much” so that it could be integrated and turned into wisdom.
There is something so deeply capitalist, so intensely supremacist, about turning the normalcy of life connecting with life into something special, something unique, that gets traded as a kind of elitism. There is something so dangerous about turning this experience of connection into something fragile, something that has to be protected, the overwhelmed deeply spiritual empath in our midst.
There is nothing unusual about feeling the suffering (or glory) of another life. This is how we are designed, to live in intimate relationship with all life around us. This doesn’t mean we are naturally kind or caring or attentive to that life. It only means that we are designed to be intimate with other life forms. To be attuned to them. To feel them, their joy and suffering, their presence and absence. This is why we have to learn ways to hold this information, to be in right relationship to the life around us. This is also why we have to heal, to get the support we need to integrate the trauma we carry so that we are not in a feedback loop of loud noise on top of loud noise that means, in order to survive, we have to separate ourselves from the rampant expression of life. And this is also why we have to end systems of domination as they are held within our bodies and within the systems around us because domination culture is going to keep ramping up the trauma individually and collectively. This is how these systems function, focusing on Black and indigenous and immigrant and fem and fat and queer and nonbinary and disabled and poor and crazy bodies to be surveilled and controlled and tracked while also numbing out those who are the descendants of domination so that they can’t and won’t be aware this is happening and/or fight against the awareness and knowing..
Please don’t call yourself an empath as though this makes you different from others around you. Instead, notice that you are feeling the life around you. And then ask, for what purpose am I feeling this? What are the stories and projections I am bringing to these feelings? If I am overwhelmed by what I am feeling, why am I overwhelmed? What is not finished inside of me, what needs care and support, so that I can come back to sensing life around me as a gift rather than an act of harm?
Recently I had a conversation with someone in session who named themselves as an empath. They explained that the intensity of what they experience from other people makes it difficult to be in large groups. I had heard this before and so I asked them if we could go deep with this, rather than just assume that this was some essential quality they had, something that would not change. They said yes and so I asked questions. They listened to their body. They listened to these sensations and feelings that they were picking up from others and what came up as they sat there was grief. Deep gut wrenching grief, about their life and the lives of their people and about the lives around them.
We are all empaths, as are the oaks and willow, the bees and salamanders, the air we breathe and the water that breathes us. We all need learning to be in right relationship to this mix of life. And oh, how badly we need to end or resolve or integrate everything that is getting in the way of this, from domination culture to the targeted acts of individual violence from family and kin.
As long as we can not feel/sense/be these things, assume that this connected sensing is our normal and teach each other the protocols and processes for being in respectful relationship with it, then we will continue to destroy the earth that is here, even as the earth is, without confusion, feeling us, responding to us, sensing us, even when we can’t do the same in return.
I want to add something to this piece. I want to remember right now and in front of you, every single person I know and don’t know who already knows what is written here and lives with the impact of severe trauma and/or is neurodivergent. I know that this means the experience of connection is one that does and can cause pain. That literally too much sensation and stimulation, too much connection, can cause harm. I see you within this story, too.