Cultivating Healthy Relationships as an Empath
Empathy and New Ways of Being in the World
When you realize you're an empath, it can clear up a lot of confusion for you, but it can also make your approach to life much less straightforward.
Knowing that the emotions of others can affect you so deeply, you find yourself adjusting your behavior accordingly. You may be faced with the choice of whether to keep or let go of a relationship. When you become aware that everything is energy and you have the power to choose your experience, everything can change for you. But you do experience growing pains as you step into this knowing and power.
The number one challenge that I have experienced throughout my awakening has been relationships - which ones to keep and which ones to let fall away, how to hold space for another and for myself simultaneously, how to be with others without abandoning myself. (Chances are that if you were drawn to this article, you know what an empath is, so what follows here was written with that assumption in mind. If you don't yet understand the concept, some helpful links are provided at the bottom of this article.)
The Complexity of Human Relationships
When I use the word "relationships," I am associating this with all forms of human connection. Familial relationships and friendships are as important as romantic ones - they form the framework through which we approach all interactions. For instance, if you grew up taking care of a narcissistic or sick parent, you may approach all relationships from that perspective - you may feel as though you are responsible for the happiness of your friends and loved ones. Taking care of another may make you feel needed and important, so subconsciously, you may seek out relationships where you can take on this role.
Empaths can naturally be caretakers and take on that role, regardless of our upbringing, because we feel everything so deeply. When someone hurts, we feel it as though the pain is ours, and we want to fix it. We can't stand to see anyone suffer, even if it is someone we've never met before.
It may be difficult to understand what your framework is when you're so close to it. You grow used to what you experience every day. Below, you will find some useful questions to evaluate the people you keep close to you. Keep in mind that your own inner guidance system trumps all others. You can use these questions to guide you, or you can go by your feelings. It is best to tune into your feelings when you are not in intense emotion, such as after a heated argument. Tune in when you are feeling quiet and aligned, when you are in a relatively good (or even just okay) mood.
The truth is, just as no one person is all good or all evil, no one relationship is all good or all bad. Even in the most draining, emotionally intense relationships, you may get some benefit from them or see some redeeming quality in the other person, else you would not have difficulty determining whether the relationship is worth keeping.
Cutting Ties: Is It Necessary?
As a person who previously derived my purpose from codependent relationships, I have cut several ties. Cutting ties was not always necessary, however, and I often found that I only needed to speak my truth with the other person rather than leave them.
I was one who got ambitious with my figurative pair of scissors and wanted to make my life as perfect and baggage-free as possible. I led an isolated existence for a couple of years before I fully realized, I didn't need to cut cords so aggressively. If you find yourself cutting out of relationships left and right, you may want to work on being in your own energy and energy clearing (search "energy clearing techniques" on Google, if you are new to this).
Once you are able to discern which energies are yours and which are not, you may want to ask yourself a few things before you let go of a relationship:
- Is this person physically or emotionally harming me?
- Is this just a disagreement?
- Is this person likely to apologize if they have offended me? Do I need to apologize to them?
- Does this person have a negative view of the world? Do they complain a lot when we spend time together?
- Do I get a chance to speak truthfully when I am having a conversation with this person?
- When we disagree, is this person still respectful of my views and am I respectful of theirs? Are we still capable of being kind to one another when we disagree?
- Can I be myself around this person?
Unless abuse is present, if the person is negative or doesn't hold space for you to be yourself, perhaps you'll only want to minimize time spent around them as opposed to breaking off the relationship entirely. With family members, it can be difficult to say, "I do not want to have a relationship with you." If you are unable to say this, but the person has a negative affect on you, try pulling back and remember you are not responsible for anyone's happiness but your own.
Do I need to cut ties with this person, or do I need to simply tell them my truth? Am I choosing to abandon the relationship before I show my authentic self? Where is my fear here, or where does it hurt?
The Other Side of the Coin
"You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
Now that you've addressed the more problematic relationships in your life, you may be wondering how to approach the ones that fill you with joy. These are the relationships that leave no question in your mind as to whether you want to keep them around, and in fact, the idea of losing them may be the stuff of your worst nightmare. It is only natural to fear the loss of the people you love most intensely.
We have been taught through popular culture to make certain relationships the center of our universe. This can be a romantic relationship, one with a parent, a child, even a friend. I have had codependent romantic relationships and friendships. If I didn't talk to the other person, even just for a day, I felt anxious or as though something was deeply wrong. I focused a great deal of my attention on these relationships. My moods were largely a result of what the other people were doing and how they were responding to me.
We don't need to see, talk to, or be with someone every day, every month, or every year to maintain a connection with them. We will have people that we see every day and don't connect much with, and then we will have people we see once per month, or even once per year, but feel as though we pick up right where we left off with them. You know the type of connection where you reunite with someone after years and have no awkward silences - this is because you have a true, energetic connection with them and it cannot be broken by time or space.
"Mind Games" - John Lennon
"Love is the flower. You've got to let it grow."
-- John Lennon
As we learn to tend more to our own energy, take care of ourselves, and choose interdependent, loving relationships, we have more chances to be around those that truly are sources of joy in our lives. We may gravitate toward people that we never expected, or we may become closer with those we always wanted more in our experience. Anything can happen once you take responsibility for your own energy and learn to stand in your power with others.
I enjoy the above quote by John Lennon (from his song "Mind Games") because true, loving relationships are very much like flowers. Water them too much, and they won't have the chance to flourish. Water them too little, and they can wilt. It is all about finding that balance, learning to love someone without losing yourself, and being honest about your preferences in a compassionate way.
If you love someone a lot, go slowly. Find appreciation for the seemingly small moments of connection. Appreciate their presence in your world. When what you say and do is from your heart, rather than a need to control what the relationship is or where it goes, you'll find love blossoming all around you. Chances are that the connection with that person will be a beautiful and unique expression of what is inside you both without you needing to steer it in any way, if you approach it from your heart center.
Helpful Resources for Empaths
- Are You An Emotional Empath? by Judith Orloff M.D.
Describes in-depth what an empath is and has a quiz to help you determine if you possess this gift.
- DailyOM - Intimacy Without Responsibility by Wendyne Limber
A class by DailyOM with helpful reminders to keep you on track in loving and authentic relationships.
- Feeling All the Things: Coping With Empathy and Social Anxiety
If you would like more of an understanding of what an empath is and how to clear energy, please refer to this other article that I wrote.
© 2017 Holley Hyler