Part 1: Wounded Empathy
If you identify as an empath, then unfortunately, this means that you have grown up in an environment which has conditioned you to take in others’ emotional energies to your detriment and also largely, if not completely, to the exclusion of your own.
If what you’d been experiencing was just pure empathy, you wouldn’t have needed to separate it as an identifiable part of your character.
Labeling your empathy means you’ve had to deal with something very traumatising. Pure empathy wouldn’t have felt like a tortured state that you’d want to escape from, it would have just been love and understanding between you and others.
So, this wounded type of empathy is not what people generally would associate with being empathic; it’s not necessarily caring about others’ feelings, but instead it’s primarily about being burdened by and afraid of others’ negative emotional states.
Wounded-empathy is an imposed state which makes us feel trapped, attacked, and powerless. In essence, it is the result of being assigned others’ emotions and not of simply feeling what others feel.
Natural empathy is not something that automatically happens to us, it is a state of choice, where one desires to tune in to how others feel, out of compassion. While it feels instinctive and spontaneous, it’s not an imposed experience by others, whereas the wounded type of empathy is a helpless and martyric space.
Additionally, natural empathy cannot be a space that feels negative, even when the emotions are extreme, because it is a secondary space of feeling, a place of sweetness in the face of sadness, grief, anger, fear – the primary space being the one happening inside the owner’s feelings. So, being there with others in their own experience of their feelings does not feel heavy, it’s like the way one might cry at a movie. It is still crying, but in empathy, on the outside of the actual life of the character.
So how do we end up with this wounded-type of empathy to begin with?
Empaths are the scapegoated children of narcissistic parents, made to identify with giving only, and to be attuned primarily -if not completely- to their parents’ needs, which they then take on to their adult relationships. And the abusive aspect of what we have falsely learned to call “empathy” is that element of responsibility.
Empaths have been conditioned to sacrifice their own experience and substitute it with the other’s. This is not empathy, it is a one-sided, abusive type of relating.
That is why this type of false empathy feels so powerless, because if the feelings aren’t our own, they not only aren’t ours to solve but they cannot even be solved by us.
Emotional energy carries a unique to its bearer message, therefore, if it is transferred, the message does not reach its destination.
But, the empathic child unfortunately learns that it is both their fault and their responsibility to deal with the parents’ emotions instead of them. In that way the child also avoids their parent getting to the point of attacking them through their unresolved emotional energies.
The empathic child is at the same time disallowed from tending to their own needs. This teaching happens through punishment by the “self-sacrificing” parent whenever the empath-child is acting in self-loving ways, as if self-care was supposedly a hating, rejecting or abandoning act towards the parent, when of course it’s only been assigned this false symbolic meaning for abusive purposes.
Part 2: Empathic Connection As A Substitute To Two-Way Connection
Apart from staying safe with an emotionally abusive parent, there is another important reason the child learns to take on the energy of the feelings of others around him/her: to substitute the much needed connection they are not receiving from their emotionally absent and abusive parents.
This works like so: The parent accepts them only as the negative to their positive; meaning the parent gets to be everything good, while the child represents the bad, when in fact those are the very aspects of the parent which the parent rejects in themselves.
If the child were to abandon this assigned role, there would be no other avenue to experience relating with that parent. It would be as if the child simply did not exist for their parent.
So, negative connection in a twisted way presents itself like a better option than no connection at all. And the child naturally accepts this dysfunctional connection.
However, the objective truth still remains: a negative connection is not a connection (love). It is instead a constant devastation much more detrimental than the acceptance of no connection, but the option to recognise it for what it is and thus deny it is only available to us as adults.
Another reason the empathic child would choose to maintain this connection would be to use it as a continuous plea towards the narcissistic-disconnected parent: “Look! I feel what you feel, therefore I am part of you (=love me)!”.
From these relational wounds, empaths naturally tend to conclude that all other people don’t want to take responsibility for their own emotions and/or that they can’t.
However, others are not only perfectly able, but also in complete freedom as to whether and how much they go into their own emotions. After all, we are all built “human” (with full access to all emotions).
It is not true that their parent(s) “couldn’t” deal with their emotions, that they were “too hurt” or that they “needed the empathic child’s help”.
That’s the original lie: that the parents “couldn’t”, when they simply weren’t allowing themselves to or they didn’t want to. The parents aren’t actually asking for the child’s emotional presence either.
They are simply trying to “receive love” by doing what their parents taught them: to not have any emotional needs.
What they are asking for is an act of sacrifice that to them means love, but of course isn’t. In a mentality where love is sacrifice, there is only ever space for one; it is impossible to create a loving relationship. As soon as the other has needs, it feels threatening and disapproving to them.
The key to escaping wounded-empathy is to not take responsibility for another’s emotions more than they do.
When we are desperately trying to rescue others, it’s ultimately because we have accepted responsibility for their unhappiness.
The important thing to realise is that they don’t want to be rescued, they instead want to keep receiving “rescue” (=the feeling that somebody is putting their needs ahead of themselves).
The truth is that nobody is emotionally incapable. Choice does not imply disability. Besides, nobody can grow emotionally if somebody else (the empath) is always rushing to save them from developing their own emotional “muscle”.
So, empaths must learn to not take responsibility for others’ emotions and to not confuse this with natural compassion (which includes both people’s emotional needs).
As an “empath”, you must learn how to put your energy towards your own emotions first – and that’s what you crave after all, isn’t it?
Because through these patterns, you have learned it’s appropriate to feel guilty for your emotions taking too much space, too much energy, so you are constantly pulled to take care of others’ emotions for them.
You must reverse this false direction and lovingly apply your energy to yourself too. You will be pleasantly surprised to gradually find both others being happy to tend to you too and that it doesn’t diminish your capacity and desire to be there for them either.
Because your sense of reality has been severely distorted by the lie that your parent’s supposed self-sacrifice was love, and that the parent’s hatred was because of your “selfishness”, you now hope for somebody to release you from that torture, by accepting that the pain you have been in is real: that you have indeed been hated, not loved.
You now have the opportunity to recognise the truth that you have been the subject of pure hatred, that none of it was actually love. That is the saving that you’ve been so desperate for! So give yourself this gift, point those saving efforts towards yourself!
Real empathy does not negate the self; it does not hold responsibility that values the other more than the self. Empathy is “and”, not “instead”.
Part 3: Helpful Practices
Lastly, let me leave you with some practices to assist you with distinguishing between pure empathy and wounded-empathy, because empathy is after all a beautiful and essential part of relating:
When you find yourself feeling burnt, overwhelmed or broken by “empathy”, notice and ask yourself:
- Are you relieving the other of their emotional energy in order to be “good” and/or avoid being shamed or punished?
- Are you tuning into them to be able to solve it for them so that you’re not burdened by them and/or so that they become “healed” enough into choosing to bond/connect with you?
- Are you subconsciously attuning to them because you feel obliged to give priority to them?
- Are you assigned their emotional energy so that they don’t feel bad?
- When somebody is in emotional distress and requires your assistance/presence, do you abandon your own energetic space to show that you’re with them?
Try emotionally disconnecting (temporarily) or even physical distancing to see if your symptoms withdraw, so that you have a clear space to be able to examine what is yours and what’s not from a neutral space.
Finally, lovingly remind yourself: It is not your responsibility. They are powerful to solve their own problems. Tell yourself also that you don’t have to “pay” others to be with you (by accepting being burdened by their emotions). And make this your mantra:
It’s totally ok to feel however I feel. It’s totally ok to be in my own energy.