People are often shocked to discover they are empathic. They simply never questioned their ability to sense what is going on inside others, or their innate ability to take care of those around them.
The empath’s natural compassion, generosity, and caring are wonderful traits—the world would be a better place if more people dared to care for others in this way. As Maya Angelou put it: “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
At the same time, empathic tendencies can backfire when not properly balanced. Spending all one’s energy taking care of others leaves empathic people feeling depleted and unsupported. This can lead to a negative spiral of give, give, give… until you give up!
While navigating human relationships is a lifelong task for everyone, empathic people can make things easier on themselves by understanding a few core principles:
- Differentiate between empathy and compassion
Empathy without boundaries leads to overwhelm and burnout. Empathic people often feel the pain and emotions of others, yet feel helpless about what they can do about it. They simply take on more and more of these emotions until they are overwhelmed. This self-destructive behavior leads to incapacitation and disempowerment for both the troubled person and the empath that picks up on their emotion.
Compassion, on the other hand, feels the deep emotion of others without taking it on personally. Compassion allows a person to recognize the emotion or pain of another, and then to consider possible actions that could be taken to render a helpful service to the other.
Compassion may lead the empathic person to say a simple prayer for the other, or to give them words of encouragement without personally taking on their emotion. At times, compassion may even guide the empathic person to recognize that there is nothing to be done about a situation, and thus to gently disconnect from it.
- Distinguish between service and sacrifice.
There is a fundamental difference between service and sacrifice that is critical for success. Empathic people often think that service entails self-sacrifice, and because they are so caring, they end up giving more than is healthy.
Service and sacrifice are not the same thing—service focuses on the value others get from us, whereas sacrifice describes what we give up for others.
If you come from a limited viewpoint, you may think that others can only receive when you give something up. But sacrifice is not a requirement for service! When you smile at somebody, the other person can receive joy from that smile without it taking anything away from you—in fact, it will typically lift your spirits too!
In fact, sacrifice happens when service is pushed beyond the limits of healthy boundaries. If we are to be effective in our service to others, we absolutely need to be mindful of honoring our own boundaries so we can be of service without sacrificing our own needs.
Empathic people especially need to learn how to take care of themselves first, so that they can have the energy and stamina to take care of others. This will help them focus on true service rather than sacrifice.
You can tell you’ve sacrificed yourself for another when it leaves you with less—less energy, less motivation, less happiness. This often leads to resentment later.
In contrast, when you’ve acted in the spirit of true service, you’ll have a sense of more afterwards- more satisfaction, more connection, more love, and more alignment to your purpose.
- Learn how to balance polar opposites.
Polarity refers to the relationship between two opposites that are interdependent. Caring for self and caring for others are two sides of such a polarity.
Balance is key here. It’s impossible to focus on only one pole and expect it to go well. If we only give to others and ignore the need for self-care, we will ultimately burn out and become a lot less fun to be with. Likewise, avoiding the polarity of self-care, will cause the polarity of care for others to suffer as well.
When we learn to balance the polarities in our lives by giving both poles adequate and equal attention, we avoid burnout.
- Stay open to receive from others.
Most empathic people become so overwhelmed by the energy drains they experience when they are surrounded by people whom they see as takers that they will look for ways to avoid interaction with others. As a result, they may not allow themselves to receive much from other people even though receiving is very different than taking.
Empaths are essentially givers, and while this is a beautiful intention, giving without receiving is imbalanced and eventually becomes unsustainable. When we limit the amount of support we receive, we also limit what we can give to others. In contrast, receiving support from others can help us become much more effective at giving.
Empathic people need to work at finding balance between receiving and giving. This may require asking for help, receiving support and letting go of the idea that you have to do everything by yourself.
- Learn to say “no.”
We all have a limited amount of time in our days. Learning how to make space for the truly important things in each day is critical—and one way to do that is through the power of saying “no.”
Empathic and service-oriented people typically dislike saying no. And yet, learning to say “no” to the distractions in life, will free up precious time and energy for the things that truly matter.
My rule of thumb is simple: Say “yes” when you can do so with a happy heart, and learn to say “no” without guilt. This will ensure that you stay aligned with your core values, your purpose and your inner balance.
Being empathic can be a great gift—and great gifts tend to come with equally great responsibility. When you learn how to temper, channel and protect this gift, you will be able to enjoy the enrichment it offers.
About the author
©Copyright Ada Porat. For more information, visit https://www.adaporat.com. This article may be freely distributed in whole or in part, provided there is no charge for it and this notice is attached.