Is it Good to be an Empath?
There has been a recent trend regarding empathy — right now, it seems like everyone wants to become an “empath.” Now more than ever, business managers, social media influencers, social justice campaigns and more are touting the importance of empathy as an integral part of a healthy relationship to oneself, others and the world at large.
Why is this happening? Part of it might have to do with the fact that we’re moving away from the emotionally distant norms of eras past and embracing a new socio-cultural space. After all, it’s certainly becoming clearer that as a society, our focus is shifting more toward our emotional intelligence, intuitiveness and well-being over old signifiers of strength such as reticence, quietude and stoicism.
While it’s probably good that we’re updating our emotional toolbox to include a warm receptiveness to others, empathy as a concept also presents its own challenges. That’s right: much like the emotionally distant structures of the past, empathy can border on dangerous.
Fortunately, there are ways to go about addressing empathy while still remaining compassionate toward others. We’ll get to all of that in a minute — but first, let’s look at why being empathetic to others isn’t always such a good thing.
Is it good to be an empath?
Being in tune with your emotions is never a bad thing. At the same time, that’s not exactly what it means to be an “empath.” If we want a working definition of empathy, a good way to describe it succinctly would be: “feeling what others feel.” In that case, being an empath means you’re someone who regularly experiences the emotions of others, regardless of what those emotions are.
As an empath, if someone around you is experiencing great joy, you probably feel that same sense of joy within yourself. And if someone in your presence is feeling depressed and miserable, you’re likely to feel miserable, too. No matter what is being felt around you, you relate to someone else’s situation so deeply that you take on their own feelings as well.
This is where most major problems with empathy begin. When you’re feeling exactly what someone else is feeling — say, depression — then that means you’ve become susceptible to the same emotional rollercoaster that person is on. If your friend is going through a harrowing divorce or just lost their job, you’ll feel the same kinds of pain they do, which can be lasting and deep.
If that happens, you’re putting yourself in a position where you’re no longer able to help that person. Since you’re feeling just as blue as they are, you’re not going to have the emotional capacity or tools to take on their situation and provide the support they need. Think of it like someone drowning in a pool: empathy is like watching someone drown and deciding to throw yourself in the pool along with them. Now you’re both drowning, and nobody can help each other.
Let’s make one thing very clear: it can certainly be helpful at times to simply commiserate with others. You’re allowed to let people express their emotions to you, and it’s okay to say, “Yeah, that’s really tough.” Failing to do this can negate someone’s emotional experience right before their eyes.
But ultimately, feeling what someone else is feeling wholly and fully makes the both of you worse off than you were before. The truth is that you can still relate to someone’s struggles without feeling them directly. That, in turn, leads us to our next topic: learning to be compassionate without necessarily empathizing with someone.
Empathy vs. compassion
Remember the analogy we used of someone drowning in a pool? As an empath, you might be tempted to throw yourself in with them at the expense of your own mental and physical health. We don’t want that. Instead, there’s another concept that’ll help you respond more helpfully to the emotions of others.
It’s called compassion. Compassion is defined as feeling concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. What makes compassion so much stronger than empathy is that it replaces the potentially dangerous scenario of feeling what others feel with a new emotion — concern — that drives us to action. Instead of being swept up in a tidal wave of misery, anger or fear, we’re left with an urge to help those suffering.
In other words, when someone is drowning in a pool, compassion is the driving force that pushes us to kneel down, extend our arm and pull that person out of the water. And that’s where we all ultimately want to be: a place where we’re emotionally intelligent enough to recognize the suffering of others while also remaining strong and diligent enough to help them in their moments of darkness.
How to stop being an empath
So, we’ve established that compassion is more useful than empathy when it comes to helping others. But how do you stop being an empath? After all, it’s not easy to simply quit feeling emotions when you’re very susceptible to them. And the truth is that there’s no simple, easy way. If you’re wired to feel what others are feeling, you’re probably always going to have a tendency to take on some of those feelings.
Coaching can help. Having someone at your side when you’re about to throw yourself into that pool who can shout “Don’t do it!” is vital when it comes to helping you grow emotionally. With coaching, you’ll start to recognize signs that you never noticed before. Your coach will point out when you’re getting burnt out from being around emotionally stimulating events, and they’ll also give you reality checks when you’re stretching your feelings too far and too wide.
More than that, a great coach will help you learn how to be accountable to yourself, and not others. That way you can still show up in ways that matter for the most important people in your life while also giving yourself the space you need to rest, recuperate and recharge.
Of course, that all sounds great on paper. But what does an actual coaching relationship look like? You might want to explore our site to see if the process is right for you. My advice? If you’re always feeling burnt out, tired and exhausted by the constant emotional turmoil of those around you, it’s time to look into coaching. They’re going to bring a measure of peace and comfort to your life that you’ve probably been without for quite some time — and you’ll be shocked at how much more energy, drive and satisfaction you’ll have when you get that peace back.