I’ve talked about empaths a lot on this blog, and I realize that one assumption people might have is that empaths are empathetic all of the time.
I think the label can sometimes get in the way of the experience or way of being that we are trying to portray with this word.
I think it’s important when we talk about empaths to know that we’re talking about a specific type of experience, a specific path one takes through their sensitivity. This is to better understand ourselves or make sense of our experiences, but these labels can become unhelpful.
Going back to the first point, it’s not the case that empaths are empathetic all of the time. When we use the term empath it is to describe someone who can/does take on other people’s emotions as if they were their own – like a sponge.
There can be a higher level of sensitivity present naturally, but this sensitivity is also influenced and amplified by our environments.
It’s very possible for empaths to lose their sensitivity or even become cold, because empaths just like everyone else, go through ups and downs. Empath is not a stagnant state, and many people outgrow or decide to drop that label eventually.
In my experience it’s very common for empaths to become so overwhelmed with what they are feeling, that they shut down completely. Taking on so much emotion at once can have the opposite effect – where we become numb instead.
You might have heard the term compassion fatigue, which is used to describe what people in the care field go through; they witness so much suffering that they eventually become overwhelmed and acclimated to it.
It’s not the same, but a similar principle applies here.
What a lot of empaths find is that after taking on everyone’s emotions around them for long, they retreat. They can go from an empathetic empath to an apathetic empath.
What we don’t realize is that in cutting ourselves off, in going into a cocoon of sorts, we protect ourselves from these heavy emotions but also block ourselves from experiencing a similar level of joy, peace or love.
This is similar or can come alongside the hermit phase of spiritual awakening. This is where we take in so much input, that we become exhausted and have to go inward to re-evaluate everything.
So you can see that being an empath often comes with experiencing these extreme highs and lows, alternating between two states. Which is why it is so important to find a balance. Leaving yourself wide open isn’t helpful, but neither is closing yourself down completely.
Understanding sensitivity better
For many people sensitivity means being open to everyone, all of the time. On my journey, I used to see sensitivity as something I was at the mercy of rather than a way I interacted with the world.
Which is to say, I thought that being a sensitive person meant having no limits or boundaries. Sensitivity was also something I saw as a negative thing, a curse; something that made you less strong, less capable and less stable.
The thing is, sensitivity is not just one thing and we can develop our sensitivity in different ways. Our sensitivity can come alongside our strength, capability and stability, we just have to know how to work with it.
Not setting strong boundaries is the main reason people go through this cold phase as an empath. Most people aren’t aware of what boundaries are, let alone how to set them!
A boundary is simply a way to express your limits, preferences and needs. When we set a boundary it’s up to the other person to act on them, but it’s also on us to respond accordingly if they aren’t met.
Boundaries help you define where you end and another person starts, like drawing a line in the sand, albeit not one that blocks people out completely.
Boundaries come in many forms: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
How boundaries might sound:
- I can’t do that at the moment, but thank you for considering me
- I don’t feel capable of taking that on
- I would prefer not to talk about this topic
- I need some time to decompress
- A simple ‘no’
Think of the last time you set a boundary and how that went. Can you even remember a time?
Now think of some of the limits you want to set in the future, why you need them and how you will react if they aren’t met. In the beginning I find it’s helpful to write these down somewhere so you have something to reference.
Boundaries are not magical in the sense that there is no way to ensure your boundaries are followed all of the time – that’s out of our control. Instead, boundaries are about cultivating self-respect and self-knowledge, not controlling other people.
Boundaries don’t have to be rigid, they can shift and change depending on the person and environment. But having boundaries in the first place and sicking to them, is what makes it easier to navigate our sensitivity.
Being careful with labels
Labels are useful in life and make things easier to categorize and contexualize. However labels, even ones like empath, can also become a burden.
When we hear/use the term empath there is often an association with people-pleasing. Empath is sometimes used to describe people who don’t have a strong self of self, and so can become swayed by external energy easily.
Working with my sensitivity has meant noticing where I have unconsciously become an energy sponge or taken on the savior role.
I observed where my instinct was to enter a space or interact with someone who needed help, and rather than stay anchored in myself, take on the other person’s energy (whether they asked for it or not).
Through working on that dynamic the term empath no longer seemed to fit.
If the term empath has been helpful in understanding your experiences, or if you don’t feel ready to let go of it yet that’s fine. But if the idea of being an empath is causing more problems for you, consider reevaluating how you are labelling yourself and the self-fulfilling prophecy that might be creating.
Most empaths go through a phase of detachment from their sensitivity – compassion often turns into apathy.
This is what I call the ‘cold empath’ stage. The good news is that after this stage we have an opportunity to recenter ourselves, to tune back into our sensitivity and approach it in a healthier way for ourselves and others moving forward.
I discuss this phase and exercizes for working through it in my free empath guidebook.
What has your experience with this been?