The Irony (or Maybe Paradox) of the Empath

Imagine yourself at Point A and you need to get to Point B, which is several winding hallways away. You are focused with this one objective, to get to Point B. However, as you start your way through the halls, flanking both sides of the hall are television and radio sets, every one of them on full blast, images of compelling narratives blinking at you from the glaring bright screens, and you catch snippets of phrases from the radio that sound important, that you wish very much you could stop and listen to acknowledge, but you’ve got to get to Point B and none of what’s bombarding your senses in these hallways relate to your destination.

The practical maybe even all too obvious advice is to ignore the distractions, stay focused, and get yourself to Point B, stat.

Now what if all those television and radio sets buzzing at you also happen to represent sincere cries for help. What if those weren’t television and radio sets but telephones, each one ringing at you and every ring is someone calling for you, hoping you’ll answer and give just one minute of your time, just one little moment, so that you can use your know-how and skill sets to help them solve their life problems.

What do you do? Do you still ignore the “distractions,” stay focused, and get yourself to Point B, stat? Or do you stop and answer those calls? If you stop to answer every call, you’ll never arrive at Point B, which is a destination you really, really want to arrive at. Do you stop to answer only some of the calls but not others? How do you discern which to answer and which to ignore? Speaking of calls, what’s your calling? In the midst of this chaos, you start to wonder: what exactly is your calling anyway? Is it to stop and answer as many of these calls as you can and that in and of itself is your life purpose? Or is your life purpose still to try to arrive at that destination Point B?

That’s the irony, or maybe paradox, I don’t know which, of the empath (which, by the way, my digital device keeps telling me is not a word and keeps wanting me to change to “empathy”).

Speaking of the empath and empathy confusion, I think there’s value in distinguishing empathic abilities from empathy. Empathy is like love, compassion, happiness, sadness, melancholy, all of these feelings that are common when you’re human. Having a boatload of empathy makes you an amazing human being, but I’m not entirely sure it makes you an empath. Conceptually, one could be an empath but not demonstrate all that much empathy. Likewise, you could be an incredibly empathetic human being but not be an empath.

I associate empathy with kindness and emotional intelligence, having a high emotional quotient in a way. Empathic ability is perhaps a bit more clinical. It’s not related to how kind you are. Empathic ability is like psychic ability, where the trait is superhuman (but perfectly natural), is rare, and is not something that makes scientific, psychological sense and doesn’t seem logical. If psychic ability is to know something outside the logical pathway of space-time, then empathic ability is to feel something outside the logical pathway of space-time.

Absent rare physiological conditions, everybody can feel whether the temperature in a room is really hot or really cold. You can feel when the heater is on or when someone has spun the dial of the A/C to maximum. But I once knew this colleague who was incredible and amusing–he could guess the exact temperature in Fahrenheit degrees of any room with remarkable accuracy. It was a fun game we all liked to play with him and make him guess the temperature, in exact degrees, and he almost always got it right.

The first is empathy. The second skill is to be an empath.

Now on to the irony of being an empath. The literature out there on how empaths can shield themselves is overwhelming. Heck, I talk about it all the time. You hear it ad nauseum: empaths must shield, shield, shield.

But is shielding yourself like willfully ignoring the ringing phone calls when you walk down that corridor of life trying to make your way from Point A to Point B?

Then you say, well, there are levels of shielding you can work with and you can just put your shield up to block what’s harmful to you and let in the emotions, so you’re still feeling stuff.

Really? Can you really do that? I’m skeptical. Here’s why.

Can feeling the pain yourself truly be detached from feeling the full extent of emotions that another is feeling so that it rises to the definition of empathic ability? If you understand intelligently that someone is in pain but you don’t actually feel the full depths of that pain yourself, is that the mark of an empath?

Is enduring the pain and suffering of many part of the difficult journey the empath must take? Or is empathic ability just like any other physiological trait that you can choose to use or not use, so even as an empath, you can choose not to utilize those abilities and simply turn them off, or willfully ignore the ringing phones so that you can make a beeline for your destination Point B? You do have your own life to live, right? No one can fault you for saying other people’s problems aren’t your own so they need to deal with it themselves and you need to continue on your way to your desired destination point.

But is anything really an accident or fluke of nature? If you even need to entertain that debate–whether or not you should be shielding yourself so you don’t feel everyone’s pain; whether or not you can live with your conscience if you ignore people’s cries for help–then perhaps the endowment of empathic traits is purposeful and there’s a greater lesson to be learned, or a greater purpose you need to fulfill, which includes you having to feel the pain. And therefore shielding yourself and ignoring all those ringing phones to focus on just yourself is not the path of wisdom for you? Yet is it fair to ask you to sacrifice your own self interests to serve the interests of others, of so many?

In terms of mythology, to me, the bodhisattva Kuan Yin represents the true empath. She is sacrificing her path to destination Point B (Buddhahood) to stay behind and answer every one of those ringing phone calls, unconditionally, without bias or selection over who to answer and who not to answer, day in and day out, tirelessly, without complaint, without stopping, not until all of the phones cease to ring, and only then will she continue on her path to her destination Point B (Buddhahood). That’s, arguably, from my perspective as a human, a form of hell. Oh boy does that sound like a form of hell to me. And Kuan Yin willfully places herself in that hell. Because that’s what empaths do.

So. Is there something ironic about the empath shielding him or herself and blocking other people’s access to the empath’s energy, diluting the experience of suffering? That’s the question I’m pondering these days.

8 thoughts on “The Irony (or Maybe Paradox) of the Empath

  1. Great post!!!! I felt overwhelmed initially reading it. I jeard the phones, tv, the cries for help….and even before I got to the end of your post, I knew that I would answer all the calls I could…Interesting. Thank you💜

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  2. I’ve pondered this a lot myself. The conclusion that I’ve come to (largely from my own experience as an empath), is that it’s sometimes necessary for empaths to shield themselves and occasionally deny others access to the empath’s energy. In my opinion, this is because at some point, the person in question has to take matters into their own hands. The empath can lead a horse to water all they want, but they can’t make the horse drink until the horse is ready on their own volition. Nobody can change until they’ve made the decision to do it on their own terms. By continually letting someone have access to the empath’s energy, the empath can become drained… and that’s a disservice to the greater good, because the empath has precious, valuable energy… but it’s being drained by someone who isn’t ready to take the next step on their own. I believe that the empath should try to maintain a happy medium – offer some of their healing energy, but also realize when it’s being taken advantage of, and direct it towards more productive pursuits when that realization is made.

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  3. I also tend to ask myself what value there is in empathy alone; in feeling without action. This is something I’ve struggled with a lot, as an empath who is also an introvert and actually not great with people. I sometimes feel people’s feelings so much that I can’t articulate a response. Like, “Dude, that’s so heavy that I know words can’t even begin to help.” It tends to read as dismissive when it’s really the opposite. So, if I’m not going to be able to say the right thing when I pick up that phone, is it better to walk on by?

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  4. The empathic ability of a realized (or almost-realized) bodhisattva is the only really healthy empathic ability, in my opinion. Because the bodhisattva has healed their own shadows, they can remain present with ours. Because they have surrendered to their own self-compassion unconditionally, they can be there unconditionally with us in our hell. It’s only because they have the courage to love themselves so unconditionally.

    Pema Chodron talks about that too (about being unconditionally able to feel someone else’s pain without flinching, because you’ve felt your own pain without flinching and gave yourself the love you needed). I think Pema Chodron comes so close to embodying the mercy and compassion of Kuan Yin, actually. And considering Pema Chodron’s taking bodhisattva vows, that’s not surprising.

    I think the only real shield that an empath can truly use is unconditional self-love.

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  5. Oh the temperature example cracked me up. I know immediately when the room temp is off by 1 degree and it drives my husband nuts because I’m so sensitive about it.
    Great questions to ponder, Bell. My journey in this lifetime seems to be about learning how to navigate as an empath. I grew up thinking that there was something wrong with me, because there was no concept in the 70’s and 80’s that addressed my situation. I was in my 40’s when I found Elaine Aron’s book on “HSP’s” and learned that I was not alone, and I was not abnormal. Now I see the word “empath” used frequently, and arguments over whether an empath is just a person with abundant empathy, or something else. It’s hard to describe how I can feel empathic without feeling like I’m a fountain of empathy for all I encounter. It’s a subtle thing.
    I think there are different types of empaths, too, and I look forward to more information about that in the future. As far as shielding goes, I am certain that many empaths shield pharmaceutically because they are simply overwhelmed and worn down over time. We do all sorts of things to blunt the feelings. Someday we’ll be identified early on (fussy babies!) and there will be training and understanding so that we can do our part to hold space for others, which is what I think we’re here to do.

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  6. I have found the skill of knowing what my feelings are and what empathic feelings im having gave me life. Just because you can see or feel the energy doesnt mean you dont have to expierience it. and sometimes your not empathic your just getting older and wiser, Anyway I cant do these things if I try to control them, and no lightning bolts go off telling me its working

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  7. I think it is a beautiful type of irony in a way. I have only known a few empaths to block everything out to get to their destination. All of the others pretty much become “bleeding hearts” as ive heard them called.
    On a personal level, I have had to learn to choose carefully which calls to answer, and which to ignore. Not because of being overwhelmed, but I have noticed over a many years, that no matter how unbiased, or disconnected you try to remain, it is easy for the calls you answer to stick with you, in the form of stalkers anyway. And even some in the form of energy vampires, that just live to suck the life out of you, almost literally haha.
    I agree with Liz though, i wish I had an indicator light telling me when its working. Some empaths and psychic people make it look so easy, or effortless.

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