Being an empath- Illness, boundaries and the dark side…

I am an Empath. I am also a Highly Sensitive Person, and an Introvert. I had never heard of these terms growing up, and in this time now where labels and identity seem to have taken on much larger importance than ever, I was at first reluctant about calling myself what I am.

As though by labeling it, it either implies my essential nature is a like a disease, or that I am being self-important by implying I am a ‘victim’ of my spiritual gifts- thanks to how some people throw the term ‘empath’ around, it can sound like sort of a spiritual ego kind of label. Something that justifies me feeling sorry for myself because I attract selfish narcissists and there’s nothing to do about it but wallow in my lonely little room, crying for myself and for the world. Whatever.

Being me is none of those things, although having a cryfest every now and then is super healthy and I recommend it. And I have attracted people with narcissistic or selfish tendencies, but I have learned a lot from them. They are my greatest teachers. More on them later.

From my experience being sensitive, empathic, emotional, introverted and intuitive in a patriarchal society that values extroversion, superficiality, facts and rationality, emotional dissociation and competitive individualism, its hard for folks like us to feel like we belong, or have a place in this world.

My ‘gifts’ can also make me sick. Living in a big city, sometimes just taking public transit can sap every last bit of energy and sanity I have left. All it takes is one fight between strangers or being wedged in on a streetcar during rush hour on a hot summer day, picking up on all the emotions, thoughts, and smells around me to give me a headache, nausea or backache.

I have also had anger, jealousy and energetic vampirism all directed towards me by other people—and physical symptoms often arise shortly after.

20181019_140937It is hard being an empath, a highly sensitive person, and an introvert. It really is. Not only can it be hard to be accepted or function in society, we struggle on a daily basis carrying much more than our share of the emotional and energetic pain load- silently, invisibly. Some of us may even struggle with chronic pain, or our own trauma history, and never be quite sure if the pain we are carrying is ours, others’ or the collective’s. Perhaps its all three. 

I know that when in the throes of severe endometriosis pain I have had strong feelings of rage and grief stemming from what felt like hundreds of thousands of women through the generations, all over the world. Images of dead babies, women being raped and beaten, and of war came up, all trapped, living inside of me, begging to be heard. I could feel all of this inter-generational pain, anguish, grief, all this painful blood, inside of me– in a womb that’s had enough, that’s so done, yet screams because there isn’t enough screaming going on. Talk about overwhelm on all levels..

Being an empath can be hard but we are not victims! Being this way comes with responsibility- learning how to use it constructively rather than letting it destroy us.

We are gifted with a 6th sense- other than just feeling what others feel and knowing what they need- we can also get intuitive impressions of who wants to hurt us, and why. We can sense danger way ahead of time and avoid it.

I can feel when someone is angry with me. I also feel and ‘see’ their old childhood wound it stems from- I feel them and their pain- it’s crystal clear.  I find compassion for this person, for their wounds, and forgive. The next step then is to LET GO. That last part is the hardest for me- because the energy may have latched onto one of my existing wounds, or a physical weak spot. And shaking it requires some extra effort after forgiving and mentally letting go. Suggestions on this, to come..

The point is: We don’t need to carry others’ pain load on top of our own. Even if their stuff reminds us of our own, we must recognize that it’s not.  Just because I empathize with them does not mean I need to carry their troubles for them.

That’s right- we don’t need to rescue. Just because we can sense what someone needs, doesn’t mean we always need to fulfill those needs. We are only responsible for ourselves. We are responsible for creating our own life to the best of our ability. 

Sometimes the most kind, loving and helpful thing to do is to allow people to deal with 23632498_10159431570100212_3594777028949179900_otheir own issues. That’s their path of growth. We need to focus on our own stuff. That’s why I appreciate the ‘selfish’ people I’ve attracted in my life. They showed me that I needed to be a bit more like them. That my energy is my own and I choose how I want to spend it in this one precious life. Narcissists are ill and hurtful but they reflect back to us that if we focus on ourselves once in a while we can avoid being weighed down by others’ pain. And then, we will have more energy to pursue our dreams, passions and help people in more effective ways.

I spent my entire life carrying other people’s pain because I thought it was somehow my job, my responsibility, something I did since I was young to survive. Self-sacrifice is highly valued on my catholic side of the family. It is a virtue to be lovingly resentful. You’ll go to heaven if you suffer for others. Feel perpetually guilty and you’re a good person.

Truthfully, thanks to colonization, our society is built on these old, oppressive religious values. But, even the modern and ‘woke’ among us can fall into a judgmental, pontificating trap- if you aren’t vegan, eco-conscious, politically correct 100% of the time and super ethical, shame on you. You are a bad person. If you bottle-feed, raise your voice, or go to work all day, then you’re a bad mom.

The path of ‘compassion’ has a dark side. Caring deeply is fine, but carrying pain hurts and can make you resentful. Perhaps you want others to suffer along with you. You may wish to pull others down when they are happy, or judge and punish those who, in your eyes, have too much good or appear to live ‘selfishly’. But that’s not responsible or kind. It creates a negative spiral, and perpetuates pain. But pain can feel more comfortable than taking care of ourselves and being happy.

There’s someone suffering more than you, so how dare you be happy?

Look out for this underlying message- in your own mind, or in your environment.

For empaths, and for many moms, we often don’t need to be more ‘informed’ to feel the pains of the world. We feel the pain of the world deeply and self-sacrifice on a daily basis. We need to focus on healing our own wounds and protecting ourselves, so that we can give more to our family, and create a richer, happier life for our loved ones, friends, and clients without resentment.

For a long time I’d prefer to carry extra pain than to stand up for myself and draw boundaries, because that was way too scary. I feared total rejection and exile. Then slowly, since about age 30, I awakened to reality. My physical pain was getting terrible and emotionally I was very low.

I started asking myself: Why do I carry this resentment? Does this kindness and generosity go both ways? What am I getting out of this relationship? Where does this ‘need to be needed’ stem from? How come I feel drained after helping people, and how can I be a healer and mother without resentment?


In this culture that doesn’t value emotional awareness, maturity, or self regulation, and rewards women for being self-sacrificing, those of us with the empathy tend to take on too much. Because we can. Because others sense that we can and are willing to. But we don’t have to suffer, we can choose not to take stuff on.

We can be happy and free while still being our genuine, sensitive selves. It just takes some work. And we will have to confront our fears about setting boundaries- remember, it’s often the kinder thing to do for others as well as yourself. When you are happy, you make it more possible for others to be.  

Here’s some stuff that helps me deal:

Be honest about how you feel with others, and set boundaries. Practice ahead of time how you will say ‘no’. This takes time and patience. Reward and encourage yourself when you face your fears and stand up for yourself. It is hard when you are the caretaker in a relationship. The other may get pissed off. But if they are meant to stick around, they will get over it, understand and respect you. If not, they never cared about you to begin with and aren’t worth the energy.

Invest in reciprocal, balanced relationships. Cut out or transmute unbalanced ones. Your energy is precious, don’t waste it.

Time alone in your own space– I do this daily to help me process and unwind.

Salt baths and showers– I find water very therapeutic. I add intention and visualization of all the gunk that isn’t mine being washed away and going down the drain.

Smudging/smoke clearing. I burn sage mostly, but other herbs such as juniper, rosemary or Palo Santo wood. Smoke clearing can help remove excess energy and static picked up from your environment. I have my own prayers that I do along with this.

Visualization: This can be used for cleansing and protection.

For cleansing: I often imagine standing in a flowing stream or river under a full moon. The light flows down through my head all the way to my feet and the water takes it away.

For protection: I like to imagine a bubble of light surrounding me. The color varies- sometimes I imagine black swirls of smoke to ward off really negative vibes. Some people may resonate with a wall, or stronger boundary.

Wearing protective crystal& symbols – such as smoky quartz, jet, a quartz programmed for protection, or any other crystal you resonate with as protective to you. You may also resonate with other symbols of strength and power, such as a sword, arrowhead, hammer, shell, shield, anchor, pentacle, Eye of Horus, Hamsa hand or spiritual symbol you resonate with.

-Cultivate and prioritize your own spiritual practice

Creative expression– write, draw, sing, dance, channel all those feelings!

Honor your uniqueness. Don’t feel guilty about being who you are, even though you are in the minority in a world that doesn’t celebrate you, see you, or understand you. You aren’t alone, and you have a well of inspiration, beauty and love inside you that is worth nurturing, and creatively manifesting. Don’t give up and keep doing you!

If you are not an empath yourself, but have a friend or loved one who seems to be, who listens intently to all your stories- show this person gratitude. Hold space for them to share with you, and make sure to reciprocate.

It may take time, and gentle prodding to get them to open up to you because they are so used to listening and may feel extra vulnerable when sharing. But they wish to be heard too. Be patient, and let them know you care, won’t judge and their words are safe with you.

Be well, and stay true my sensitive friends!







It’s Ok to Sit This One Out. Choosing Your Battles..

For Type A’s, and those with chronic illness or mental health struggles: It’s ok to sit this one out. It’s ok to just walk away sometimes.

We don’t have to be all out, all the time. We don’t have to fight every battle we are invited to. We don’t have to prove ourselves to everyone who demands it, especially our own shadow. Sometimes we just need to be with our pain for a bit, or let it go. Do what we need to take care of our self.  

One of the most repeated lessons that comes up for me, is knowing when to fight and when to put down the sword.  Sometimes, we have no choice- for some people, especially those more oppressed and marginalised, battle is necessary for survival on a daily basis. And that can be exhausting. For some people, maybe the more Type B personality, or relatively healthy people who struggle with procrastination and lethargy-  good kick in the pants is the right thing.

But, often for those with chronic illness or mental health struggles- self-care is a matter of conserving much needed energy- and sometimes choosing not to fight is the best option.

It may not even be a fight or a battle- just something that requires a lot of our energy- and we need to check whether it is worth it or not. In the last few years, probably thanks to my chronic pain, and innate perfectionist, Type A nature, I am much more keenly aware of how I am spending my energy and whether it is worth it. My body usually tells me the answer through pain, fatigue, or just feeling ‘not myself’. For someone like me- who likes to be active, participate, experience life in as many ways possible, having chronic pain is a real bummer. And so is being an introvert, and a Highly Sensitive Person. Different parts of me are often at cross-purposes, and I need to make a lot of quick micro decisions to keep myself healthy and well. I am sure some of you can relate.

Asian woman with samurai sword on the nature

I find as I get older and wiser about myself, I note the things that use up a lot of energy, and the things that aren’t worth it. Perhaps you’ve heard of the ‘Spoon Theory‘…

The ‘Spoon Theory’ is an analogy those with chronic illness and mental health struggles use to describe to others the limited energy they have, and how going through the motions of simple daily tasks may exhaust and deplete them compared to an average person. It’s pretty simple- ‘spoons’ are a measurement of energy. Some people have more spoons than others. Each task throughout the day requires a certain number of spoons. Some of us run out earlier than others. Some tasks require more spoons for us than others. For one person, taking a shower and going grocery shopping takes up half the day’s spoons. For someone else, it barely makes a dent in the number of spoons for the day. They have plenty more spoons to spare.

Another example, someone may find 6 hours of sleep a night enough to replenish all their spoons. Often those of us with chronic illness/mental health struggles need at least 8 and often more.

Even if we don’t have a chronic illness, I think it is wise to be aware of where our energy goes on a regular basis and honor our own limitations. For instance, lately I have been paying more attention to the nature of my thoughts- I notice my mind has been very busy running around in all directions and how draining that is on my energy. I notice that when I dwell on negative thoughts- past, present or future oriented- it takes up a lot of spoons. So, I am experimenting with catching those negative/fearful thoughts early on- and if they are unproductive for me, I try to move that energy into a productive course of expression. I might do a breathing exercise or do calming visualisations if I am in public.  if I am home, beat my drum, write it out on paper. I also like to use aromatherapy or physical exercise to calm and ground myself. Often, I find my spoons get saved by doing these things.

What about political/social/spiritual/interpersonal conflicts? What about those battles we fight- for ourselves, for loved ones, for those people and causes we care about? Sometimes, it can be extremely draining to try to explain or educate someone on your point of view when you don’t have many spoons left. Especially if that person is highly unlikely to see things from a point of view other than their own and/or simply wants to fight with you for some personal reason. It can also be very depleting if something someone says triggers us, and we go into a deeply wounded place inside of us or have trauma flashbacks.

This can happen anytime, with anyone. It an happen in person with family or friends, or with friends or strangers online. Online is where things can get dicey- because we don’t have the nuances of face to face contact. For me, online conversations take way more spoons than face to face conversations. Because, trying to convey a thing in writing, in a way that is clear, takes more energy for me- and I value the physical and emotional impressions and connection that we glean in person or even through a phone conversation.

With family and loved ones, there are deeper, older strands of emotional baggage to move through, and that can take a whole day of spoons if we don’t know where our line is.

So, I try to check in and see if this activity or battle is worth engaging in. We can ask ourselves:

How many spoons do I have left right now?

Is this battle/activity worth it?

Is it a productive use of my energy?

Will saving some spoons now leave me more for a future time when I can deal with this more effectively?

Is now the best time to handle this?

Is there another option here I haven’t considered?

What would happen if this time I just walked away?

What would happen if I said that while I care deeply about this issue, or this person, right now I just don’t have the energy and that’s ok?

Give yourself permission to be strong yet passive. To care, but rest. To take care of it all by doing nothing.

To hide so you can replenish and emerge anew.

We don’t have to be all out, all the time. We don’t have to fight every battle we are invited to. We don’t have to prove ourselves to everyone who demands it, especially our own shadow. Sometimes we just need to be with our pain for a bit, or let it go. Do what we need to take care of our self.  

My mantra is to be kind to myself. Its simple but it saves me spoons.