The Misuse of Empathy
I have been talking about empathy and its connection to trauma on my podcast recently. It is a connection that took me a long time to make, and once I did, I was able to see my own relationships a lot more clearly.
I had been seeing through the eyes of an empath who was using hypervigilance to keep myself safe, a maladaptive strategy from surviving trauma. I would use my super-empathy skills to scan the room for pain, and then I would hone in on that pain and try and fix, soothe, change, support, etc. I had no idea that what I was doing was violating the boundaries of others, and that I was sending my radar into places it was not invited or welcomed.
I shared this perspective on my podcast, and received the following email from a listener:
"I just wanted to drop you a line and share that your Plant Witch Podcast helped me have a big AHA moment. I listened to the "trauma and empathy" episode last night and it helped me make sense of a relationship that I have struggled to understand for awhile. This person recently reached out to try to reconnect and I was trying to put my finger on why I was so wary - and listening to how you explain how empathy often comes from trauma, and picks up the pain points in others, and the big work for empaths is to have strong boundaries around that, and your examples specifically about how this can show up in relationships just made it click.
It felt like in some ways I was so close to this person and felt like they could read my mind, but in others like they needed to be in my feelings, energy and sift through it for themselves and it felt really disorientating. And until your podcast I didn't see it so clearly as me being on the receiving end of an empath who is being intrusive into my own experience and feelings and the violation that that can feel like, so of course I was wary of this person - I just couldn't label why! "
This landed hard for me. To hear what it must have felt like for others, when I was energetically "sifting through" their feelings, in an effort to feel in control, safe, etc, was a huge reality check.
When we are projecting ourselves into the inner world of others without their permission, we are violating their sovereignty. When we try and imagine what they are thinking so we can adjust our behavior accordingly, to stay safe (or to stay in control), we are not in integrity. We may be able to sense the vibration of an emotion (thank you mirror neurons), but we have no way of knowing if our translation of that signal is accuarate. And we can spend (waste) a whole lot of energy making up stories about what those signals mean, which can end up derailing our relationships and robbing both parties of our freedom.
To be in integrity and right relationship with another human is to respect their boundaries. If we are catching vibes from someone that we are in relationship with, we can ask them about it, and then we must respect and believe what they tell us. When we grow in this way, we are teaching people that, in order to be in relationship with us, they are responsible to express their feelings and we won't feel their feelings for them. We are also respecting ourselves by keeping our energy focused on our own needs, goals, priorities and safety rather than diffusing our energy in constant hypervigilance.
This can be a very hard pattern to break, especially when it is rooted in trauma. Working with a therapist is very helpful support for unraveling these kinds of patterns, and re-training our brains to behave in new and more supportive ways.
I, personally, am committed to keeping my empathy within the boundaries of my sovereignty and in honor of the sovereignty of others. If I am catching vibes from someone I am not in relationship with, I will ask my intuition and guides what, if anything, I should be doing with this information. For the most part, I am not meant to do anything with this information. It's like noticing a breeze or hearing a thunderclap in the distance. It informs me of the energetic weather around me, so I can take cover or leave the situation, but not so I can fix or change the situation. If the person is someone I am in relationship with, I will share what I'm feeling and ask if they would like to talk about it, and then trust and respect their answer. No more prying, conjecturing, rescuing or energy spent on emotional weather that is not mine, and can change in an instant.
Have you noticed this in your relationships? Have you been on the receiving end of misused empathy? Do you notice yourself misusing your empathy? I love hearing the experiences that others have had because it always helps me gain greater context and to grow in my understanding of these dynamics.
May we all find the empowerment to take responsibility for our inner weather, and to grant others their emotional privacy.