“An empath is a person highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around them. Empaths feel what another person is feeling at a deep emotional level.” ~Leah Campbell
When I learned the word empath about ten years ago, it felt like the most amazing relief. I thought to myself, yes, that’s me! Finally, an explanation as to why people exhausted me so much. A reason why I had the ability to read people in an instant and was always in the throes of helping, listening, or supporting other people’s crises.
But now I no longer believe that definition.
I am no longer an empath.
Have I been cured? Or was I not an empath in the first place?
For me, I found a different understanding that unlocked the ability to not feel stuck in the empath-prison I found myself in.
I discovered I could change my responses to people’s emotions so that I no longer managed my life according to them.
When I discovered the concept of empathy, I saw so many of the challenges I faced: attracting people to me who were struggling and in need of my support like moths to a flame; my inability to get out of the stresses and emotions of other people’s lives and focus on my own; my exhaustion from spending time with people.
I started following common advice for empaths, but that started to feel like another cage. I had to orientate my life around avoiding “toxic” people, around “emotional blood suckers.” But I found that even if I covered myself in white light or avoided certain people, it didn’t prevent me from feeling completely overtaken by the emotions of my relatives, my children, my husband, or my close friends on a regular basis.
It felt like I was in permanent reaction mode, and it was highly disempowering.
A few years later I discovered a different word that changed my life in a more significant way—appeasing.
Appeasing is a survival response that gets activated when emotions or situations are too much for us. Just like the fight, flight, and freeze responses, appeasing is a response to a sense of physical or emotional unsafety.
I discovered that I had learned, at an early age, as many of us do, that if I knew how to anticipate and support the feelings of those around me, I would feel the safest.
My survival reaction, the one that helped me stay as connected as possible to the people around me, was to be hypersensitive to their emotions, and to help with them.
When we learn young that a sense of safety comes from suppressing our own feelings in order to be of assistance to others—or to at the very least minimizing our emotional needs so we aren’t rocking the boat, causing a fuss, aggravating our parents, or calling attention to ourselves—we then spend our adult lives in that same habitual pattern.
We feel the safest when our emotions are not being attended to, but other people’s are.
We might draw a feeling of belonging, connection, and validation from being emotionally available to other people, from being the supporter, the listener, the helper, the fixer.
We also might draw a feeling of ease, of safety, of continuity by not expressing our emotions or needs, by not showing our true authentic selves.
I know so many times in my life I felt proud of how helpful I was. What a ‘good person’ I was. How nice and supportive I was. But really it wasn’t a response driven by genuine, authentic desire—it was a response driven by a need for safety, belonging, acceptance, and love.
For me, unravelling my appease response has been a fascinating and challenging experience. It is so woven into my being, to be the person who shows up as a delightful, easygoing, no stress, no drama person.
Someone who doesn’t add to the emotional load of any group or person, but helps take away the problems and challenges of others.
Coming out of those responses has taken immense awareness. I’ve had to learn to attend to my emotions, building a sense of safeness in my nervous system and offering incredible gentleness toward myself.
I’ve had to recognize that other people’s emotions can feel incredibly scary, uncomfortable, terrifying, and even dangerous to me. And that it doesn’t come naturally to me to share what I feel and need because of these habitual survival response patterns laid down in childhood.
But with awareness and the right tools, I have learned to gently walk toward the path of authenticity, of safety in being myself out there in the world surrounded by other people’s emotions, but not overtaken by them as I used to be.
I also learned that the way I had learned to support people—by fixing, smoothing things over, helping, taking over, endlessly listening—was actually not the kind of emotional support that helps to enact change in them.
True emotional support only happens when we aren’t in our survival reactions, and it never comes at the emotional cost of another.
My support should never be something that risks my energy, my time, or my feeling of safeness.
To me, being an empath felt like a lifelong sentence that I could never escape from. But I now know that it’s a learned response that can be unlearned. When we have the awareness and the tools to gently support the nervous system activation that comes when we are aware of other people’s emotions.
Here are some tips to assist.
Creating awareness was, for me, the most powerful first step. We can’t change what we don’t notice.
We can start by noticing: What does it feel like to be around people, or certain people, when they are being emotional? What happens to my body? What emotions activate within me when I am hearing or witnessing another person’s emotional activation?
It’s learning to turn our attention away from other people and to ourselves. What is happening for us?
Do I feel a sense of urgency or doom or feel trapped? Do I immediately want to jump in and help, fix, and support? Does it feel like I need to come up with a bunch of ideas to help someone through this? Do I lie away at night mulling over other people’s emotional challenges?
If we feel this sense of urgency—that we must help, support, do something—it’s a good sign that our survival responses have been turned on. And our brain is sending signals to the body that there is a threat, which, unless there is a real threat to life, is merely a pattern that we need to attend to.
So, when we feel this sense of urgency, the next step is to bring a feeling of safeness to our bodies, so we can move out of this need to help/fix/support that’s our survival response.
Creating a Sense of Felt Safety in the Body
One of the ways I offer my nervous system a cue of safety is to do an orienting exercise when I am feeling a sense of urgency or overwhelm.
Here’s how you can do this orienting exercise.
Start by gently and slowly looking around and scanning the whole room. Let your gaze drift, slowly. You can turn your neck gently. Take in all of your surroundings.
If you’d like to, stop on any objects that catch your interest, not so much as an object but as an interesting collection of colors and shapes.
Slowly look above you and below you. Then behind you. If you have a window, look outside and to the horizon line if you have one.
The horizon line is very soothing for the nervous system and our survival reactions.
Knowing what’s around you, that there is no threat on the horizon, brings a sense of safety to our bodies.
Do this for a minute or two, and then see how that feels in your body.
Do you notice anything happening? Any change in breathing, or sensation?
Allow ten seconds or so to allow any changes to be soaked up by your nervous system, and then you can carry on with your day.
This is an awesome exercise that you can use a few times a day. Just stopping and scanning allows the nervous system to orientate to our environment and signal safety.
Creating a Pause
My final tip is to create a pause. When we are in the world, busy and being asked for things, it can be hard to remember all of the things we need to do.
When people say:
Oh, can you look after my five kids and eleven animals for a week?
Can you stay late for work even though it’s your partner’s birthday?
I know you’re working, but can I come over and have a chat? I feel soooo stressed out.
When we are used to appeasing, it’s super easy for the nervous system to read these requests as urgent things that need our attention, and the yes seems to pop out of our mouths before we realize.
So I encourage my clients to focus on building in a pause.
When we learn to pause, we then get the chance to breathe, to pay attention to ourselves, to notice, to offer a regulating exercise to ourselves like the orientating.
We can notice, do I feel an urgent desire to say yes?
If we feel like it’s an urgent desire, it’s a surefire sign that we are in our survival responses.
I recommend having a few expressions on hand that we can say when people ask us things, or when we feel this desire to jump in and support/fix/save at the cost of our own capacity, time, needs, or emotions.
Thanks for thinking of me. I’ll have a think and get back to you when I know.
Gosh, feeling stressed sounds hard. Let me think through what I need to do today and get back to you.
By taking a pause, we create a new option for ourselves. If nothing is actually urgent (i.e., no one needs to be driven to the hospital), then we can sit with ourselves for a few minutes and give ourselves time to really see how we feel.
We can ask ourselves:
Do I actually want to do this? Or need to?
How is this going to impact me?
Do I have the emotional capacity for this?
By pausing and turning our attention inward, we start the process of disconnecting from other people and their responses and turn instead to our own emotions and needs.
It’s a more connected and attentive relationship with ourselves that we most want when we are people who appease a lot.