What No One Ever Told Me About Empathy

5 minute read


noun  em·pa·thy  \ˈem-pə-thē\

2:  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; also :  the capacity for this


The goal is to be an empathetic person or at least to be perceived as one. It is a noble way of being. We praise empaths and hold them up as role models... like Mother Teresa and other missionaries and faith leaders who have spent much of their lives dedicated to the service of the less-fortunate. We glorify their compassion . We say we wish we could be like them but privately struggle with how much of our lives we really want to dedicate to that kind of in-the-trenches service. We commercialize their quotes and adopt them as mantras but we never truly understand what it means to live a life steeped in "sensitivity to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another."

I am an empath. I don't say that for applause. Being intuitive, being an empath has left me open to too much from the outside and not enough from the inside because I didn't learn how to properly utilize the gift. And it is a gift. No one ever told me the cost involved. And it does cost.

As an empath, it's been my pathology to live from a posture solely of service. My worth has been wrapped up in being pleasing to others since I was about 5 or 6 years old. I can read your body language, spirit, energy and conform my behavior to what pleases/appeases you within seconds. Growing up, this was a survival skill. If I wanted to stay out of trouble, I had to learn how to make the adults happy. The fear of getting in trouble or displeasing those with more dominant personalities kept me numb to who I truly was and more in tune than any child should ever have to be with others' opinions. 

And while I survived my childhood and found moments of enjoyment, I developed this incredibly unhealthy habit. I am impossibly in tune with others' energies, likes, dislikes, whims but all too often I am looking at a blank sheet of paper when it comes to my own. I can feel a shift in energy from a mile away and go into crisis mode desperately attempting to help/please/appease someone else. I apologize for myself more than I should, even when I've done nothing wrong. I work for others' joy. Yet, I sit w/guilt, shame, embarrassment when *I* feel anything aside from happiness. I bury myself inside myself because invisibility insulated me, to some extent (or maybe not), from others' misconceptions, judgments, and shame for much of my life. And now at almost 30 years old, I am unpacking a beautiful life I stuffed away as I step further and further out onto the water in the direction of the passions and callings that have been present but buried for years.

I open this vein publicly because I wonder how many of us are truly in tune with ourselves the way we pretend that we are? How many of us unpack our own emotions the moment we feel them the way we spin into action when we see others' displays of emotion? How many of us long to know ourselves the way we know others? How many of us totally oblivious to the notion that knowing ourselves is of extreme importance? How can we move through the world so courageously for everyone else and never allot some of that courage for our own spirits?

2Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.
- III John 1:2

In that passage, the apostle John was writing to his friend Gaius who was known for being hospitable, maybe even to a fault.  Gaius was a true friend to the growing Christian church as he opened his home to missionaries and passersby who needed a place to stay. He shared whatever he had and tirelessly worked for the comfort of others. John recognized Gaius's diligence and pointed out something that never sank in for me until this year:

You can have the most beautiful soul, the best intentions and serve any and everyone around you but if you neglect yourself physically - nourishment, rest, exercise, etc. - you are doing yourself a grave disservice. 

Working within social justice spaces over the course of the past year (one year anniversary is coming up!) has been incredibly eye-opening to me when it comes to taking care of myself. One cannot counsel women who are trying to heal from the trauma of rape without practicing self-care, self-knowing. One cannot travel day after day into sacred, historic spaces where our ancestors bled and died without practicing self-care, self-knowing. One can't do work to end violence every single day without making sure they have what they need in order to do the work. They will burn out. They will become ineffective. They will lose themselves. It's the whole putting your own oxygen mask on first thing playing out in real life. I had to learn this quickly and thankfully my co-workers are the most supportive of one another. I couldn't ask for a more in-tune team of people with whom to fight such an important battle.

It took entering a field that is essentially a battle zone for me to find myself as wholly as I have  and to put things into perspective. There are certain practices I have had to establish so as not to run myself into the ground serving others. Do I still have a servant's heart? I truly don't think I would still be doing this work if I didn't. It begs the question:

How will you sustain yourself to do this work? 

I have had to both sit with and wrestle with that question and find practices that fit me and nourish me, not only to do the work but to be a fully functioning, intentional, present human being.

There is no one size fits all approach to prospering and being in good health even as our souls prosper but I don't think the key is to find THE solution. Maybe the key is just to realize that there is a problem first. Too many of us are incredibly sensitive to those around us with little to know concept of self-care. So, we pour ourselves out, never realizing we need replenishing. That is a huge problem. How we approach solving it should be a careful cocktail of self-awareness, faith, and intentional practice to ensure the prospering and health of our minds, bodies, and souls.