Is Empathy a Gift or a Curse?

Feeling for Someone Else Can Be Detrimental to Your Mental Health

I have lived my entire life, as an Empath. I had no idea what that meant, until I became an adult, who has survived abuse. My empathy has proven to be one of my most profound, positive qualities over the years, yet it has dragged me down some rabbit holes that I will never un-feel, or un-see.

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The Gift of Empathy

From an outsider’s perspective, having empathy for others, allows people to trust you. It gives people you care for a shoulder to lean on, a crutch to support them, and an open heart to speak to.

People who exude empathy are the ones who others come to with their problems and challenges. There is an unconditional open mind attached to empaths that others sense, and tend to go to, for strength, help and support. Having empathy means you are kind, understanding and able to put yourself in the shoes of others, in order to offer advice, a quite ear, and consideration. Empathetic people can blend into many situations, circumstances or challenges, without having to endure all of the affects.

One of the qualities that I am most proud of, when it comes to my personality, is that I am willing to sit down, listen, and place myself in the mind space of others. It helps me understand what they are going through, and it gives me the perspective to offer feedback and support. It makes me feel like I am a good human, and gives me a kind of self fulfilling prophecy that many people don’t comprehend. I am an active listener, a friend who will sit and feel what others share with me, and I am experienced enough to know when I can help, and when I can’t. It is a gift that I cherish.

People who know me well, know that I won’t judge them. They understand that I have a dark past, and that I have seen and dealt with multiple blows and hard challenges in my life. My empathy will not allow me to judge how others react or respond to struggles, because I can see how they feel on a deep level. I just “get it”. Typically my help or support offer is based on the feelings of them, not on my own. I offer myself to those who are close to me, without question. Sometimes I can offer them guidance or direction, but often, I am their venting bag, rather than their punching bag, and that is quite okay with me.

The way I see human beings, is this: There are two types of our race. Those with empathy, and those without. Possibly, the people who seem to not have empathy, hold it, but they don’t comprehend what it is, and they choose to shut it off. Or, maybe they are vacant of feeling for others, due to the convolution of their own narcissism. In some cases, there are people like myself, who carry TOO MUCH empathy for others, and that has multiple facets of challenge. There are good days for empaths, and hard days, but we muddle through. It is virtually impossible to turn the noise of other peoples’ emotions off, yet, it can be rewarding as well.

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Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

An example of the day in the life of an empath:

My mother and I have a strained relationship. My father and I have been “working” on our relationship for the past 2 decades, as I try and decide how to forgive him for being an abusive alcoholic when I was a child. It is NOT easy, but I still try, and I persevere.

On Father’s Day, my mom asked me to plan a celebration for my Dad’s 80th birthday. I had my own reservations about celebrating his 8 years of life, surrounded by family that I had let go of over the years for my own healing. Yet, my empathy drove me to contact my brother, plan a gathering, and celebrate my Dad’s 8 decade journey. Why? Because it was not about me. I put myself into my parent’s shoes and made their hopes and desires mine. Not because of my own comfort, but because I felt the pain in my parents’ hearts, their regrets and their apologies for being less than desirable parents.

In the end, it was worth attending the birthday celebration. I have zero regrets in seeing the look in Father’s old eyes when we all surprised him. Being an empathetic person forces us to do for others, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We see how others feel, and power through. We feel the sadness and discomfort of others, but we also feed on their happiness, making it our own.

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Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

The Curse of the Empath

The complexities of empathy is like no other emotion. It is not a trait we can turn off or on, nor can we control when it takes over our own emotions.

There is a vicious circle when we see others with seemingly zero empathy for others. We allow ourselves to be hurt easily, and still try to find ways to put reason to the hurt. In my 51 years, I have allowed more than 8 people to cause me emotional, physical or sexual harm. I have been abused, taken for granted, and tossed under the bus more times than I can count.

Why? Because I have too damn much empathy for others.

I see people who lack empathy and TRY to find the good in them. I give people the benefit of the doubt, because my empathy won’t allow me to see people who have no consideration for others. My own empathy believes that everyone, somewhere in their dark souls, has some semblance of this trait.

I was abused in a toxic relationship, for close to a decade. I refused to see it. I denied that the person I was with could have no consideration, remorse, respect or empathy for others. I firmly believed that I would never allow myself to be with a callous human being. This was a hard lesson.

People around us would point out the obvious to me, time and time again. “He treats you like shit”, they would say. But, in my empathetic heart, I would make excuses for his behavior. I tried, a multitude of times, to see his feelings, to hear his validations and how he perceived me, but it was like a brick wall between us. I struggled in trying to place myself in his shoes.

During an argument, in our last year together, I was struck down by my empathy for him. He had been viciously disloyal to me, he spoke to me like an idiot who could never live on my own, and he insulted my intelligence, my appearance and my friends, on a regular basis. I had spent so much time trying to see our relationship from his point of view, and making attempts to be who he wanted me to be, that I, ultimately, had given in to his needs. This was dangerous territory. Often, during our relationship, I had to diffuse my own empathy for others, just to survive. I always covered his tracks with excuses like, “He’s not so bad when other people aren’t around” (he was), or “If I don’t love him, nobody will”.

Through this argument, we had battled back and forth over my feelings of the way he spoke to me with utter disrespect, about everything and anything. He had zero regard for my feelings, and he embarrassed me in front of our friends. This was one of the rare occasions that I had enough of his shit. During our yelling and arguing, he blurted out that his Father had been abusive to him, when he was a young kid. This sent me reeling into an emotional tailspin. Suddenly, my partner became human again. I saw him less as a monster, and more of a victim, and I found a way to empathize with him. I let my guard down and he came out, not only winning the argument, but making me feel like a bad human for not seeing the signs in him through our years together. My empathy for him became powerful, and I tried to talk to him further about it, to gain a more clear understanding of what made him e way he was. Not only did his admission cause my empathy to trigger, but I finally felt like we had something in common. I could relate to him on a new playing field.

This was one of the most dangerous moments in that relationship. It was a major turning point, where my mental health was deeply impacted by a man without empathy. It left me questioning everything about my own intuition, my feelings for him, my tolerance level of his abuse, and even my own level of empathy. Not only did I see him differently, but I wished him mental anguish. I argued with myself, daily, after that argument, because I couldn’t decide whether I felt sorry for him, felt the pain he suffered, of wanted him to feel the pain that I endured. His words impacted me on levels I had never experienced, and it frightened me.

Typically, an Empath would hear someone else’s trauma and feel it with them. They would take the emotions from the other person, and absorb them, in hoes to help them. In this moment, I felt the sting of my partner’s dad, when he was a child, but it was distorted by the pain my partner inflicted on me. My empathy became a curse. I felt overwhelmed with my partner’s anger, my own anger, and the need to become overall bitter, hurt and bewildered. This overload led to anxiety, depression and medication that I needed, simply to function. I would function like this for another year, before seeing that I could no longer handle it all.

A wise person once told me, empathy is not a gift to be taken lightly, Not everyone shares it, nor does everyone understand it. With empathy comes great pain, and great appreciation for positive events. Empathy is a trait that needs to be shared, in order to exist.

I will never understand the mentality of people who are able to abuse others. For them, my empathy is painful, angry, confusing and empty. I never know if the anger is mine or theirs, that I feel in my gut. I have hurt people, unintentionally in my life, by leaving, or by changing my direction, and I still feel remorse and guilt for making someone else hurt, at the expense of my own happiness. But, I have never abused anyone.

The empathy, or lack thereof, that abusive people have buried within them is futile. Chances are, the reason that people are capable of harming others, without taking accountability or carrying the shame, have NO empathy. They sleep at night and live their lives in a world of entitlement, greed and lack of respect or compassion. In their twisted moral compass, they have no direction, other than appeasing themselves.

Meanwhile, those of us who over empathize have too much compassion, we feel more than we should, and we need help to sleep, function and be happy. We become flooded with the emotions that abusive people should carry the weight of.

We empaths are vulnerable in nature. We tend to care about the feelings of others and the wrong people can manipulate us through our nature. I have felt the repercussions of this too many times in my life. Not my finest moments of weakness. As strong and as intuitive as we are, we try to find the good in people, and pull it out of them. Yet we are shocked and appalled when we are misused. It is a double edged knife. Because we feel deeply, we are easily attacked. Because we share emotions, we are easily manipulated. We are peace keepers by nature, and avoid conflict, because the empathy toward our adversary becomes too heavy to carry. When we have our own sadness or bitterness, and try to understand and carry our opponent’s, it leads to exhaustion and surrender. People without empathy feed on this and wield it as their weapon of choice. As strong as empathetic people are, we have weaknesses of the heart.

We don’t like chaos, as it overloads our emotions, so we strive to make others happy, in order to stay calm. Walking into an emotionally unstable environment, such as funerals or political demonstrations, where emotions run high, is beyond challenging for us. We will, however, be there for support for individuals who need us, and suck up the noise, in our own ways. Its the en mass emotional level that we cannot compute, as there is too much empathy to try and absorb and decipher. Sitting in a funeral, or memorial, stirs up grief, sadness, anger, loss, denial, cynicism, dread, mourning and love. Some of these emotions belong to us, but most of the feelings come from the energy of those who surround us. It weighs a million pounds.

We are not martyrs. We are not heroes. We are simply caring, compassionate people who are open enough to feel the pain of others. We feel love wholeheartedly, we absorb pain through our cores, and we live vicariously through the emotions that are shared by those around us.

We are Empaths, and it is both a blessing and a curse.

Writer of relationships / early childhood and mental health . Poetry and fiction dabbler

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