I am always talking about the upsides to being an empath and contradicting the idea that being an empath is inherently a curse, however to have a balanced discussion we also have to explore the ‘dark side’ of empaths.
Being an empath can be both a blessing and a curse; it totally depends on the individual and the relationship they have with their sensitivity.
Growing up in this world as an empath can be extremely difficult, not only do we face being called “too sensitive” but we aren’t given the tools to work with that sensitivity.
Therefore it sometimes seems the only other option is to become cold and callous. When you can feel, absorb and embody all of the emotions around you, apathy can work as a defense mechanism. It can seem a logical choice to close yourself off from the world.
In this post we’re going to discuss that dark side and how to navigate it, because if you identify with the empath label you’ll likely have experienced some of these phases.
Life as an Empath
For many their empathic sense are activated in childhood, empaths are born with nervous systems that are already super sensitive and so living in a home environment that is stressful or anxiety inducing can be like hell for the empath.
Their empathic abilities act as the defense mechanism in a family unit that requires them to always be on high alert. Our sensitivity which is meant to protect us and alert us to danger, ends up working against us and only heightening the anxiety or danger we feel.
It’s for this reason that empaths are often diagnosed as anxious or depressed because their nervous system is being constantly overloaded and cannot relax. We aren’t given the correct tools to regulate our nervous system and bring peace to our bodies.
As we get older we may start being told we are “too sensitive” that we need to “lighten up” or that we should “stop taking everything so seriously”. These comments come from a good place, but without the knowledge of how to work with our energy we instead close off our sensitivity.
The Empath’s Shadow Side
We all have what is called a shadow side: this is all of the aspects of ourselves that we suppress, ignore and would rather pretend didn’t exist. It’s the dark side of us encompassing the unhealthy coping mechanisms, fantasies and negative aspects of our personality.
For the empath the shadow side manifests in the ways we discussed earlier: coldness, apathy, manipulation or narcissism. This can look like a gradual progression over time as an empath disengages further and further from their empathic abilities.
Empaths & shadow work
To see if you have fallen in to the ’empath shadow’ here are a few questions you can ask for self inquiry:
- Do I hide my empathic abilities out of fear or shame?
- Do I close myself off from the external world?
- Do I allow criticism of my empathic abilities to change me?
- Have I become cold and apathetic as a defense mechanism?
- Do I use my sensitivity as a manipulative tool?
Write each of these questions down in a journal with your answers underneath. You might be surprised at what comes up! Think of why you may have these characteristics, and who you have allowed to influence your inner voice and perception of your empathy.
Shadow work like this is all about diving deep and really taking a look in the mirror. It’s about facing the ‘dark’ and ‘negative’ aspects of ourselves without judgement but through the eyes of awareness. We can then use this information to form better ways of being and begin healing.
Go deeper with my shadow work guide that comes with 30 printable journal prompts.
Empaths and Narcissism
Many would argue that a true empath would never become narcissistic, self-serving or cold. I think we can bring more nuance to this subject.
Firstly, the way we use language when talking about narcissists and empaths is sometimes vague, and tends to put people into harsh black-and-white categories. When in reality, most people exist somewhere in the middle.
We also tend to use the term narcissist to refer to people who are generally self-serving or obnoxious and those who have NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) interchangeably.
There is no committee handing out these labels, instead they are used colloquially. Someone calling themselves an empath doesn’t necessarily fit the description, and being labelled a narcissist doesn’t necessarily mean you have NPD.
Here I want to discuss whether those who call themselves empaths can become self-serving.
Can empaths become narcissistic?
People are complex and we aren’t static beings, it is more than possible that our behaviors can begin to contradict our values and what we truly wish to embody. As the saying goes hurt people hurt people, that can often be the case here.
The empath who closes off their heart in order to adapt to the world in this way can become cold, apathetic or even manipulative (some might use the term narcissistic). They might begin to use their sensitivity in order to manipulate or may hide their abilities in order to stay safe.
It’s often remarked that the flip side of an empath is a narcissist and its true that many empaths unknowingly tread this line. This isn’t to say that you are now a ‘bad person’ or anything of the sort, but that you have picked up unhealthy coping mechanisms that not only harm you but those around you.
Empaths and narcissists act as polar opposites; on one hand we have a group of people who survive through a lack of empathy and on the other hand we have a group of people who navigate life through their empathy.
This is why empaths are often the victims of narcissists, as they haven’t learned how to tune their sensitivity and are easily taken in by those will ill intentions. Empaths tend to also be people pleasers as away to avoid addressing their own needs, leaving them vulnerable to abusive behavior.
An empath who comes to realize this can either take it as an opportunity to grow, set further boundaries and cultivate deeper self love or turn their sensitivity off and begin acting apathetic towards others.
As empaths are so tuned into the emotions of others this becomes a double edged sword. We are tuned into the positive but also the negative to an unbearable degree. Learning to balance these aspects is crucial!
It’s also true that not everyone who calls or labels themselves as an empath actually possess a great deal of empathy. Some might lack self-awareness, others might use the label to practice harm undetected.
This is the case for any label we ascribe to ourselves such as spiritual, holy, even good. Calling ourselves something doesn’t mean we are living by that thing, and often the label distorts that quality within us.
When we use labels like this a part of our ego inevitably gets caught up in it. Labels are part of being a human and moving through the world (our name, age, job title but also certain qualities), so rather than toss labels aside completely it makes much more sense to be conscious of the labels we use and how often.
Be open to changing the labels you ascribe to yourself and dropping certain labels altogether when they become cumbersome and unhelpful.
Outgrowing the empath label
I want to finish this article discussing what happens when we outgrow the empath label.
It has been about two years since I wrote this article and a lot has changed in that time, including how I view these labels.
I referred to myself as an empath for some time because I wanted to claim my sensitivity in a real way, and the label gave me practical ways to conceptualize my experience and find community.
However over time this label also became restrictive. Rather than simply practicing empath in day to day life, unconsciously wanting to live up to the label or portray a good image to others. This became counter-intuitive.
When we refer to ourselves as empaths it can also mean placing ourselves in a particular role; one that is self-sabotaging, draining or heavy. We might believe that our role is to take on other people’s energy and be constantly transmuting it.
Stepping outside of the empath label can help us view ourselves and others much more clearly. Rather than placing ourselves in a box and others in contrast to that, acknowledging that we are sensitive beings and seeing what we can create from that.
If this resonates with you, try to go without the empath label for a week and see how it shifts the way you work with your own sensitivity.
Moving beyond the empath label forms the basis of my guidebook ‘Energetic Being’.
Dive deeper into psychic development with my energy work guidebook.
Being a sensitive person can definitely be seen as a curse, however it can also be a mighty gift when we know how to navigate it and work with our energy. Although the world can seem like a hard place for sensitive people and often is, we can consciously cultivate the peace and strength we are lacking within ourselves.
Do you battle with the empath’s shadow side?