Empathy Part Five: I’m Not an Empath and Neither Are You
You’d think I’d be immune from the accusation. Given how much I struggle with emotional empathy, given how often my reaction to someone having big feelings is entirely wrong, you would think that no person in their right mind would try and tell me I’m an empath. Unfortunately, travelling in neopagan circles, it happens more than you’d think, and my answer is always the same. I’m not an empath and neither are you.
I don’t have magical powers. I don’t have a gift. What I have is a truckload of trauma spanning decades. As a result, my brain has adapted a way of viewing the world that insists upon monitoring every person and place for possible threats. Because of this, I see people’s patterns more clearly and more quickly than is the norm. I’m not picking up on anything that isn’t openly expressed loudly and often. It’s just that when people say and do things that give me an indication of who they are and what they value, I listen, and I build a map of their behavior that serves me well.
It’s not hard to spot the person in a Qanon shirt in the background of a co-worker’s weekend photos. It’s not a special talent to take note when someone describes their police officer husband walking away from child abuse calls like it’s a funny story. It doesn’t take a magical ability to spot clear DARVO (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender) tactics in someone’s email chain. All it requires is hypervigilance and a long history of trying to communicate with emotional abusers. After that, noticing all the red flags people wave isn’t tricky.
The trouble is, attributing those skills to being an empath isn’t harmless. It allows people to bypass dealing with their own emotions and attachment styles too readily, and ultimately does more harm than good. It also grants the empath permission to confront people with the patterns they’re seeing, often in ways that are invasive and not useful to the person receiving them.
That said, I do understand the temptation. It’s a lovely fantasy. After enduring so much hurt that your mind automatically scans a given space for possible threats, after being so unsafe that you need to understand every person’s emotional state in real time to relax even an inch, believing those things to be a magical gift and not a burden is freeing. It allows you to be both special in a way that most people aren’t and also shrug off the need to reign in those coping skills so that you don’t harm others in your desperation to feel secure. Refusing to do the work doesn’t end the harm done, though, and every self-proclaimed empath I’ve ever known has been living proof of that.
I’ve known too many people who believe themselves to be empaths who attribute every negative emotion they can’t immediately find the source of to someone else. Rather than dig into what might have upset them, rather than acknowledging that maybe the issue is that the emotional response is out of proportion to the stimuli and that further exploration is needed, the feeling is written off as belonging to some third party. That kind of projection causes two issues. First, it alienates the person who is being projected onto, because after all, no one likes being told what they’re feeling, especially when the other person is wrong. The second is that it entirely bypasses an opportunity for reflection and growth, leaving the empath still out of touch with their own emotions, and refusing to take any accountability for what they’re feeling.
Additionally, when we believe that our every thought about other people is intuition or some special gift, we often gloss over our own biases. When empaths have an avoidant attachment style, often the negative traits they’re intuiting about other people are just excuses to cut and run from relationships when they become too emotionally involved. Rather than deal with what might be causing them to exit relationships prematurely, they claim that they simply know something is “off” about the other person. This means the empath will stay in the same relationship cycle until they realize that they aren’t intuiting some secret issue and that they’re simply traumatized and afraid of intimacy. That’s to speak nothing of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. When you believe all of your feelings about other people are universally true, those biases are also left to run rampant.
The concept of empathy as super power also leaves the people around the empath in the lurch. Too often people who believe themselves to be empaths feel that they have a right to tell their friends and loved ones every pattern they see in others that might not otherwise have been noticed. This is invasive and unwarranted. While it might not be hard for a traumatized person to put the pieces together and have a very clear understanding of who another person is and what their hang-ups are, that doesn’t mean we have a right to broadcast that information or present it to the person we’ve read in that way. People need to consent to receiving that information. They need to ask. If they don’t, all we’re doing is beating people over the heads with what we perceive their chief issues to be with no interest in what the other person might need or want in that moment.
Ultimately, the concept of empathy as superpower is no more than religious bypass for the majority of people using that label. It uses a spiritual belief that such gifts are possible as an excuse to leave bad behavior and bad coping styles not only unexamined, but actively encouraged as trusting one’s insight. That’s not healthy for anyone, least of all the people who stumble into a relationship with such an empath.
I’ve been on both ends of the problem. I’ve both had friends who thought of themselves as empaths and been told that my fawn trauma response combined with hypervigilance is a magical gift. Both were incredibly uncomfortable.
On the one hand, having someone tell you on the best day you’ve had in a given week that they just know something is wrong with you and that they’re checking in because they know you need to vent is incredibly uncomfortable. There’s nothing you can say to an empath that will convince them that you’re actually doing great and that they need to examine their own mental state before deciding the problem is yours. Once they’ve embraced projection as insight, all you can do is smile and nod and say that you really don’t want to talk about it.
On the other hand, being told that trauma responses you know are maladaptive and harming the people you care about are a superpower is incredibly invalidating. There again, there is no arguing with the logic. As a traumatized person trying to heal, you’re told that you simply don’t believe in your own gifts hard enough. You’re encouraged to use the same religious bypass the empath takes advantage of to get out of doing the hard work of unlearning those habits. It’s infantilizing and invasive and generally feels gross.
If this feels cruel to you, if it feels like a personal attack, I want you to know that I get it. I’ve been guilty of the same kinds of behaviors, have told far too many people far too much information they never asked for, and have had to sit with the reality that I was violating peoples’ consent in doing so. It is not a comfortable revelation.
What I’ve learned, though, is that leaning into that understanding of others as a special gift that only a few have is not worth it. It’s isolating. It alienates people who care about you and strains every relationship it touches. There is more waiting for you than the gift and curse of hypervigilance. If you do the work, on the other side you’ll find the connection being an empath has robbed you of.