A few months ago, a friend asked me how my day went. I usually say “good, and you?” but this time, I was honest: the day sucked. It was a long day of dealing with an emotionally-needy person, and I was drained. I briefly told my friend what my interaction with this person had been like, and she nodded, said “You know what I think? You may be an empath.”
I’d honestly never heard the word before. Empathetic, you mean? No. Well, yes, because empaths are empathetic, but empaths take empathy to a new level. They not only listen and try to be supportive, but without trying — or wanting to — they almost physically absorb the emotions. They are highly sensitive, in both good and bad ways. They are the ideal person someone else needs when they have a problem because they try to genuinely listen and sincerely care.
Okay, but why do you think I’d be an empath?
She pointed out a few things that had happened to me in the last 18 months, including a weird colleague situation. “Remember when you said that person drained you? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
Hmmm, okay, I’m starting to understand what you mean.
Then she pointed me to a couple of websites. This one is my favorite, because it lays out the fine points in a list that’s in layman’s terms.
It started to make sense. I’ve always had at least a few people in my life who are what I refer to as “emotional vampires.” (I wrote more about them over here.) They take over conversations, make everything about them, and rarely let you talk about your own problems. If you’re used to that behavior, it bleeds over into your other relationships, and before you know it, you rarely talk about your own issues outside of a select few people. It becomes second nature to laugh and assimilate without sharing your own problems.
The problem is, it builds up. If you’ve got a co-worker who is needy and constantly drops her problems in your lap, she’s filling your emotional bucket far faster than you can empty it. Finally, it’s full and you need to get away. You block your messages, escape to your car, the restroom, a hot bath…you may even clear your calendar and be glad to stay home for a day or two.
Even when people aren’t emotional vampires, you still accumulate their feelings and emotions in almost a physical way. Noisy chewers, large crowds, it can add to the overload. Empaths tend to have big hearts — even if it’s not always apparent — and they want to be helpful. They want to fix problems and make people happy, but they have limits they don’t always realize until they suddenly want to open wine and enjoy it in a quiet, empty place.
All of this explained so much. I used to think I’d been groomed to be a people pleaser because I’d been raised by a narcissistic mother, but the definition of an empath fits almost 100%. (There are a couple of traits I don’t have.) I find myself so frequently listening rather than talking. I like parties and I love fun banter, but I’m happy with small gatherings, too. When things get to be too much, I need alone time. There are times I’m not even into having conversations at home; I’d rather get sucked into a movie or read or fuss around on Pinterest, mindless things that don’t require any emotion.
I am an ideal work-at-home person. I still need interaction, some days more than others, and I am thankful for the friends I have in my life that are available for conversations via text. I just sometimes feel the weight of the empty house, so I am glad for my gym membership, a pretty backyard and money to go shopping or get lunch. Some days, if a particular person is having yet another bad day and her one-way conversation is negative, or I’m the listening ear for others’ issues just a little too much, I’m ready to go to bed at 6pm. I don’t want it to be that way, but it piles up and short of yelling SHUT THE HECK UP, I’m stuck.
It was better when I had my precious Yorkie to snuggle with. She’d listen to me and sit on my lap for hours. She was one of the best conversationalists ever! Never underestimate the value of pets in your life.
Some people think that when you work at home, it’s not the ‘same’ as their work. Technically, they’re right. I don’t have to put up with office politics, smelly people, commutes or someone watching me work. However, I still have work to do and I have to deal with crappy stuff just like those who go in the office. There’s this misconception that it’s not as bad as theirs, so I don’t need to talk about my work and that I’m even more available to be a listening ear. Double-whammy….wait, am I up to triple-whammy?
I’ve learned these last couple of years how to protect myself more. I was tired of being emotionally sapped. I was tired of having my feelings hurt by expecting people to be as interested in any issues I may have as I was in theirs. If I can’t share a positive story about one of my kids or a cool blog gig I got, are we really having a relationship or am I just there so you can download your emotions and move on with your day?
Still, if you’re an empath, I’m learning it’s not that simple to unplug. There are things you can’t avoid, so you need to find a way to modulate and react appropriately. Prioritize your emotions and your time. It’s very important to take that time to interact with the people that get you. They are out there. People who give and take, talk and listen, do exist.
I’m lucky I have a husband who doesn’t get offended when I want a relaxing bath, a good book or TV time on the couch. He listens when I have one of those explosion moments, where I unload my emotions built up from listening to everyone else’s. Some of those days even give me an eye twitch and a ginormous headache, soaking up all that negative energy and it has to be let out….but finding a better way, like going for a run, is preferable.
I’m thankful for friends that make me laugh and listen when I want to talk. I’m so fortunate to have quite a few of them, now that I’ve been able to thin the herd a little so I have time for the right people instead of time for the wrong ones. I miss some of the wrong ones, but I don’t miss feeling sucked dry. Life changes people, and sometimes you no longer can handle what you used to, or those people change and need others who get where they’re at in life. I don’t take it personal, and they shouldn’t either. I’m in a happy marriage, I’ve got a happy home life, I love my business and life is good.
Sometimes you can’t get away from the emotional vampires, and that’s a tricky situation I haven’t yet figured out. If it’s a coworker, you can’t just quit your job. Family members, you can restrict them on Facebook and limit your one-on-one time but you may still have to see them. Small doses, because you don’t want to fill your bucket and make a run for it long before your day is over. You need to leave room for the good emotions and feelings, and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that.
So in my very short time knowing the term “empath,” I’ve learned it’s not a bad thing. You just need to learn about it, use it to the best of your ability, and back it down when you can. Not everybody deserves it, and you only have so much to go around. You need to save space for the loved ones and the random people who really need you. You also need to avoid giving it to those who refuse to learn to modify their own behavior and knowingly, or unknowingly, use you.
As I say all the time, life is short. Give of yourself to your best level of comfort, but don’t let it bleed you dry. Don’t be a doormat. Get joy out of helping when you can, but don’t feel bad if what you can is very little…that person, that day, ever. Don’t feel guilty for finally putting the brakes on a relationship or an interaction. It’s okay to say no so you can say yes to someone else.
I say these things not just to you, but to me because it’s a hard habit to break. It’s my nature to be nice, to listen, to give, but the older I get, the more I resent it when it’s taken advantage of…and I don’t want to resent being kind. Bitterness is ugly and I won’t let myself get that way.
I remind myself that I have new relationships that are strengthening because I finally stood up for myself. I chose to not put up with people who intentionally provoke or manipulate, or those who are mean just for the sake of being mean.
If you find you’re an empath, learn what you need to get through the heavy times without withdrawing from the good things. Do what you need to make yourself available to others, while maintaining your sanity, and do it sooner than I did. Some relationships may be salvageable but you have to speak up rather than let things fall into a routine. Others may not be, so cut your losses before years of frustration set in.