The Struggle with Empathy Overload
Anxiety Or Empathy?
My name is Christina, and I am an Empath.
Some people believe that empaths are a myth and that people who have too much empathy can control it. Perhaps there are ways to cope with being an empath and the challenges it brings, but I have yet to figure out the “key” for coping.
Often, after I explain what an empath endures, new friends or family look at me quizzically, with the doubt of a raised eyebrow, and give me the all too familiar advice, “Why don’t you just tune it out? Turn it off.”
Thanks Susan, but it’s not like that.
So, What Does an Empath Feel?
In a word, we feel EVERYTHING. Even when we don’t choose to feel, we feel. We can’t hold a conversation or have a conflict with anyone, without sliding into their shoes. I have to feel what everyone else around me is feeling before I can feel my own. It becomes a confusing ball of inner voices, emotions and mixed conversation as I try and sort out who is feeling what, and how to handle it.
When I am faced with a conflict or am dealing with someone who I need to cut ties with, I panic. I stayed in a 9-year relationship because of my empathy, and I honestly should have had the clarity to leave many years before. But, I stayed, because I felt his feelings and his loss every time I considered leaving. It jaded me. It made me feel guilty for wanting to have my freedom from a controlling person.
Empathy can cause guilt. Guilt is a feeling that we carry around often because when we inflict sadness, or anger in another person, or disappointment, we feel THEIR emotions as well as our own. It is a vicious, crazy tornado inside of us.
Empathy is a strength, yes, but it is much like having a superpower that is mixed equally with kryptonite. Sometimes it feels like I am surging with powers but tied down and unable to use them. It becomes very confusing and can be easily confused with anxiety.
I have been told that my empathy is a quality that makes me lovable. However, not everyone understands what it’s like inside my heart and soul. If they felt how I often do, they would see that it is not a fun quality. It is a constant inner battle and struggle.
I Suck at Conflict
I am not healthy in environments where there is conflict. If the conflict is between myself and someone else, I may as well just leave the room. It is too much.
I avoid arguments at all costs because the feelings that emit from the other person seep in, and take over. I become confused and lose my voice. If the conflict becomes heightened, I try and slow myself down to sort through my own shit and their emotions, before I respond. Often, that pause enrages the other person further and results in a full-blown fight. I just can’t even. I either need to walk away or swallow my emotional struggle. With my ex, this resulted in screaming and yelling coming from both of us. He had no patience for my taking time to process, and he pushed me to the point of confusion, stressful, explosive words. There were times when my words made no sense, as I tried to source my own feelings and his. He would look at me in indignation and think he won the battle. I would become exhausted from feeling too much and crumble into bed. This happened every time I felt hurt or betrayed by him. He made me feel like I was the crazy one in our relationship, and I could FEEL his frustration and superiority over me.
It was a very toxic relationship for me.
I am currently in a relationship with a beautiful, sweet man. He also has empathy challenges and has the most compassionate heart I have ever known. Together we are an emotional mess, but it works well for us, so far.
We have the ability to help each other sort through emotions and find the sources of them. I do, however, foresee that there will be challenges down the road with our mutual empathetic superpowers. We will overcome them, though, because we are extremely aware of each other’s feelings. I feel like we will only struggle if we are both going through empathy overload simultaneously. Even then, we are able to see it in each other, so that is a plus.
Currently, he is dealing with the separation fallout of a 35-year marriage. The marriage fell apart because it was “time”. They simply fell out of love, and he needed to find his own path. Fair enough.
When you have too much empathy, however, separations can be much more emotionally charged. Not only do you feel your own loss, but you feel the loss and collateral heart damage of everyone you left behind. Guilt takes over and it becomes easier to simply give in and hand over everything that the other person wants, just to get the pain over with. In essence, it becomes very easy to become a doormat for the non-empathetic person in the split.
As an outsider to my guy’s battle with his ex, I try and stay emotionally detached. It doesn’t work. I see his stress, I feel his frustration while his ex makes her demands, and I can’t help but feel EVERYTHING.
I feel his ex-wife’s sadness and loss. I feel his torture of being pulled in different directions. I feel the anxiety of his adult daughter, as she struggles with her parent’s pending divorce. And, on top of it all, I feel my own fear that his empathy will take over his beautiful heart, and I will lose him. I fear that his guilt will be too much and he will give in and make everyone else’s lives easier and sacrifice his own happiness. He has reassured me that this won’t happen, but I feel how he feels, and I can’t help but prepare myself for the worst. It is for my own protection. As I stand in his ex’s shoes, I feel what it’s like to lose him, and it kills me to the core. I understand her pain and I wish I didn’t.
Empathy Can Be Easily Confused With Anxiety
This was a gigantic A-HA moment for me, and it reared its head very recently.
I have been medicated for anxiety over the past two years, and recently stopped medicating. I was feeling very robotic, and zombie-like, while I was popping my tiny morning pill. And, I felt less empathy for others.
I lived my life much differently while I was taking medications. I stayed in my own bubble and took everyone else’s opinions in stride. It became easy to avoid what other people thought and felt. In fact, I could give no F’s how others perceived me. If my ex started an argument, I simply didn’t partake. I sat it out and let him vent, before responding with a nod or a slight, “mm hmm” and walking away.
Ironically, he saw this as our relationship finally being “healthy”. He saw the robotic me as someone who was finally worth marrying, after 9 years of knocking heads. I wasn’t myself and he liked that. I stifled and stayed quiet, and catered to his needs because I wanted to feel his happiness. Oddly enough, the more I gave, the more he took, and the more it took to make him happy. Another vicious circle.
He made many comments over the two years I was medicated, like, “Wow, you are so much more content now. I am glad that you finally got a handle on your emotions”. He made it sound like I was an enraged lunatic prior to meds. (I wasn’t). I simply struggled with my empathy for him, as I seethed inside. The oil and water combination that we were, never allowed me to “get a handle” on my emotions. His feelings of superiority, frustration and the need for control always trumped my own emotional state. He finally found happiness with the zombie I became, and he used my condition to gain his own joy. I was his doormat because I had no reason to tell him how I felt. I simply didn’t feel anything.
My New Life
Now that I have a better grip on the why’s and how’s of my emotional rollercoaster, I feel like my own breath is new.
Being off the medication has given me my feelings back. This time, though, I am with someone who understands the struggle with empathy overload. He has the same quality. We just “get” it when each other struggles, and we have no reason to have conflict over it.
I still feel way too much, on occasion, and will still stand at the edge of the rabbit hole looking down. With that said, though, I have the clarity to comprehend the sources of my emotions in a new light. I KNOW that I have too much empathy for others and I KNOW it can get me into trouble if I am not careful.
There isn’t a lot of support or help for people like me. It’s not like you can walk into a therapist’s office and say, “I have too much empathy” and receive a band-aid to repair yourself. But that’s okay. I can seek help for it if I feel the need for it, but it would be a long process.
In the meantime, I stop and take deep breaths and pick apart the sources who make me feel. If I am in a conflict, I take my time to sort through the emotional rubble to find my OWN feelings, prior to reacting. It is a work in progress.
It has taken me 50 years to realize the root of the inner emotional struggles I have had. I have taken some time and energy to reflect on past failed relationships, and in some cases, the rearview mirror has given me a slight pangs of regret for how I left things. Guilt tries to creep in, but I move forward. I cannot go back in time and try and explain that my empathy was the cause. It’s not easy to explain, anyhow.
Looking Inside Your Soul
The lesson I have learned through my breakup, my new relationship, and my new life is this:
I am a true empath and that’s okay. I feel the pain of people who struggle. The joys and love of others surge within my heart, and kindness makes me cry. I immerse myself in other people’s emotions but am now finding ways to sort through the wreckage and find my own inner strengths. The sadness of hurt in animals and people is overwhelming for me, and that can be traumatic, however, the joy and celebration of others helps the balancing act.
It may not be anxiety or depression I have suffered from most of my life. It is pure empathy and compassion for others, and that can be a beautiful thing. The struggle is truly real, but I am learning how to manage it.
Past experiences and dark times make so much more sense to me now that I have a clearer understanding of my superpower. It is not an excuse, nor is it a reason for past failed relationships. It was a lack of understanding myself. It was because it was easier to understand and feel how others felt, and never truly feeling my own emotions. Relationships that were unhealthy were difficult to leave, because of the fear of their rage and frustration with me. Relationships that were not toxic scared me even more because they confused me. (Not that I have been in A LOT of long term relationships, but the ones I was in, still resonate with me). I no longer question why they failed, and that is a valuable lesson.
You cannot TURN OFF empathy. If you are an empath, it is who and what you are. if you aren’t, you aren’t. It is truly that simple. We don’t have a switch to click or a lever to pull to shut our systems down. Yes, we can stifle or suffocate it with medication, but what kind of life is that? Being robotic sucks. It is not a quality way to exist.
If you suffer from anxiety, maybe it’s just a matter of reflecting on your empathy levels. Do you feel stress and fear because of how YOU feel? Or do you struggle because of how others feel and you are wracked with their emotions?
While the empathetic and compassionate quality is positive in human beings, it can also be the cause of tumultuous inner challenges. You may not have the diagnosis that fits you. I know I didn’t.
Anxiety and depression have roots. Determining the root that creates the glaring stare of the rabbit hole, will help you gain a clearer perspective of your triggers. It could be that the triggers aren’t YOUR emotions at all, but are rooted in the senses and feelings of others.
Something to consider.