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Empathy: A Superhuman Power or Kryptonite?

Addy Ho, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls

Empathy and Empaths

Empathy is the ability to attune to the emotions and feelings of others. Empaths are people who can feel other people’s emotions on a deep level. They sense the tension between people in the room; can tell if you are sad, happy, or anything in between; intuit the emotional experiences of the people around them, and care greatly for the well-being of others. Some empaths are also highly sensitive to smells, sounds, and their surroundings. Crowds or busy venues like weddings and conferences are often overstimulating for empaths.   

Do you find yourself crying during emotional scenes in movies? Do you feel other people’s physical pain in your own body? Are you highly sensitive and easily overwhelmed? If you answered yes to these questions, you might be an empath.   

The Benefits and Challenges of Being an Empath

Empathy allows empaths to care deeply for others and support their loved ones. They are often very loyal, dependable, and make great friends. If a loved one is sad and lonely, an empath might have those feelings alongside the other person. If someone is crying, an empath might shed tears with them. Empaths know how to sit with others and be supportive in difficult moments.   

Empaths also face challenges that affect them daily. They might often feel emotionally drained because they absorb the emotions of those around them. They might find it difficult to set aside time for themselves and/or say no to things they don’t want to do. Without boundaries, the superpower of empathy can begin to feel exhausting and burdensome.  

Empathy with Boundaries: 4 Ways to Cultivate Better Health and Relationships

So how do you turn the superhuman power of empathy into a healthier state of well-being? While it can be challenging for empaths, here are several ways to set and hold boundaries with empathy.  

 

Identify Your Own Emotions Before Taking on Other’s

It is easy for empaths to take on another person’s pain, discomfort, or emotional state. They understand other’s emotions while simultaneously being unsure how they themselves are feeling. To live a healthy life with fulfilling relationships, empaths need to focus on understanding what they themselves are feeling prior to absorbing the emotional experience of others.   

Think of it this way: if your baggage is full, you cannot add more clothes. The same concept applies to empaths. If you have not processed your own issues and hurts, you will not be able to help others with theirs. 

 

 Aim to Support Rather than Fix

When interacting with someone who is struggling, ask them if they need help. If they say no, understand that you will not be able to solve their problems for them. Empaths tend to blend their emotions with the hurting individual’s, which is exhausting. Understand that you can support and help others, but it is not your job or mission to fix them.  

An exercise that might help is to speak aloud three things that separate yourself from that person. Insulation is a helpful way to realize that while you can walk alongside someone in their struggle, whatever the issue is, it is theirs to experience, not yours to solve. 

 

 Prioritize Self-Care

Compassion fatigue is real and understanding how to protect yourself from it is crucial. Ask yourself, have I taken care of my basic needs today?  Have I eaten food and stayed hydrated? Have I done something just for myself? Do I have the emotional capacity to help someone else? If the answer is no, do not expose yourself to people and situations that could drain you more. Simply say no. While they may not always feel like it, boundaries are also a form of self-care.   

 

 Evaluate Relationships Honestly

Empaths can be susceptible to forming unhealthy relationships, as they tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and see the potential in everyone. Avoid becoming involved with someone simply because you feel bad for them. Do not date or befriend someone’s potential versus who they are in that moment. At best, the experience will be exhausting. At worst, someone might try to manipulate you if they think you can be persuaded to behave in a certain manner. 

Empathy in the Wilderness Context

As a therapist, I enjoy working with students who are empathetic.  I help them learn to meet basic needs, identify core values, dive into their emotional work, and relate to others in healthier ways moving forward. When students are empathetic with boundaries, they learn that they can support others while supporting themselves as well as show up for their peers in ways that encourage them to be vulnerable.  

Open Sky’s culture allows empaths to practice setting boundaries, meeting their needs, and being present in their emotions in a group that is emotionally and physically safe. Students deepen their understanding of themselves and build connections with others through group therapy sessions in addition to their individual sessions. Exploring shared experience through “I feel” statements and reflective listening helps them form authentic, trusting, and healthy relationships. These skills can then be transferred to other relationships outside of the wilderness.     

Empaths are tender-hearted people with compassionate souls. When they combine their empathy with healthy boundaries, they can find powerful self-understanding and form meaningful connections.  

October 12th, 2023

Addy Ho, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls