The Beauty & Pitfalls of Empathy
Empathy is the beautiful ability to feel someone else’s feelings. It enriches your life and nourishes relationships. It’s vital for our collective quality of life.
But it comes with some pitfalls that are important to know about, especially when you are in a helping, healing, or coaching profession.
Empathy is the ability to feel someone’s pain and happiness. You can ride the waves of emotions with others around you. This means you can join in when they are celebrating, their victories can be your victories, and when life is good, it is GOOD.
Your empathy gives you the ability to feel deeply connected with people. You feel you understand them, you know what it is like to be in their position. When they talk to you, you take them and their feelings seriously.
Empaths make great friends. People can count on you. You will have a very rich experience of the ups and downs of life, including all its textures and flavours. Being an empath makes life truly juicy.
Because of your ability to feel so innately the emotions of others, empathy can make you prone to want to help when things are not good for others. Simply put, you feel the pain, and can’t help but try to make things better. So no wonder that healers and coaches have a very high degree of empathic ability in general.
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And although it seemingly gives you an advantage when you want to help, it doesn’t necessarily make you a better healer or coach.
Why not? Let’s look at some of the pitfalls.
1. Empaths have to learn to distinguish what is theirs and what is not
When you feel everything as if it’s your own stuff, it takes practice to start to tease out the various layers in the emotions that you experience. Even the most experienced healers and coaches often do not get this sorted without very focussed work.
To serve your clients in the best possible way, it starts with becoming crystal clear on what’s yours and what’s theirs.
Here is a way of thinking about it that might help:
My daughter could not watch age-appropriate kids movies when she was young because she would experience in her body any bit of emotion portrayed on the screen. These physically-felt emotions, soaked up from the screen, were at least as loud and full as her own emotions - the physical effects of these external emotions are the same as her internal ones. But, life isn’t neatly organised in ‘on screen’ and ‘off screen’ - internal or external - emotions. They blend together all-the-time, which, incidentally, makes us prone to overwhelm.
To start having adequate ways of processing your own emotions and the ones you pick up from others and in your environment, and to be able to distinguish what is projection and what is the most useful way to work with someone, you have to become very aware of your own experiences, your own emotions, and the underlying stories you tell yourself that trigger those emotions. So when a client or loved one tells you about their ‘stuff,’ you need to know how that stuff triggers your own patterns.
As an example, I grew up with a lot of fear around money. And it took some serious work for me to be able to coach people who were in scary money situations. That work was needed to first get me to a place of neutrality, and then to a place where I could trust that solutions, answers, and change are always near, because anything less is doing my clients a disservice.
When you feel their stuff, it’s SO easy to project, and you won’t even know you are doing it.
Trust me, there are always more layers of our own to peel off.
2. Empaths are drawn in by pain
You notice pain way before anyone else does. Your standard setting for the volume on feelings is turned to ‘High.’
When you notice pain, it is a reflex to try and make it go away, a reflex that you learned as a child. Children cannot know the difference between themselves and others, because a child’s sense of boundaries is fluid and in development. Some say it’s not until the age of seven that you’re fully in your own energetic roots. Until that time, you share your mother’s roots and are part of your mother’s energetic system, which of course, includes her emotions.
Empaths are well-trained in tending to pain because they care about others and because they feel that pain as their own, to some extent.
And because they have no training as a child in how to help in an effective and appropriate way, most people become ‘rescuers.’ Rescuers act on the subconscious belief that the ‘victim’ is in need of help that only they can give; that they have something that will make all the difference. And they are not aware that their way of helping is taking agency and responsibility away from the person in pain.
Here’s a juicy example that I caught myself doing recently:
My daughter has struggled with fatigue because of auto-immune issues that run in our family. As an empath, I am impacted about 100 times as much at this point. So when she tells me she is tired and she couldn’t do her schoolwork in lockdown, and I see this in her physical posture, it’s hard for me to not just say: ‘Okay, then you need to rest now and catch up later.’
It’s even harder for me to hear her dad insist that she finishes the task, especially when she gets emotional about it. But he can see much more clearly that ‘I’m tired’ to her is also a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. And that nothing is lost when she spends another 10 or 15 minutes doing her task.
“Can you sit with pain, yours or mine, without moving to hide it, fade it, or fix it?”
The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
This is a key question for empaths. To develop the skills and ability to sit with pain, be present to it, and allow it to be.
What pain can you sit with? What pain can’t you sit with because it triggers things in you?
And how can you start being present to that pain in yourself?
And how can you stop trying to fix it? Even when it’s a client that comes to you for help? What kind of help is truly empowering for your people? Could it be even more empowering?
Remember that we don’t know what we don’t know yet. It’s wise to stay curious.
3. By definition, you run other people’s stuff through your filters
No matter how much you are able to feel with clarity, and how much you think you know about other people’s experience, you always run their stuff through your own filters. Your beliefs, your experiences, your lenses, your preferences, your character qualities, your history, your languaging - everything that makes you, YOU.
Of course it starts off when kids are small, a subconscious:
‘I feel this, so this is what’s happening to you and therefore, my lived experience - and later, you add your professional experience - tell me that this is a possible solution.’
Of course over time you have honed your filters, when you see where you got it wrong. But they are still your filters. By definition.
And a client walking out of a relationship is never your walking out of a relationship.
Their trigger or heartbreak is not your trigger or heartbreak.
Their frustration with marketing or sales is not your previous frustration with marketing and sales.
Their experience with money issues is not your experience with money issues.
And this principle stands even when you have seen hundreds of clients in a similar situation.
Sure, there will be similarities. But there are also differences and to serve your client best means that you start to understand what is unique about them and their experience, and where you are inadvertently filling in the blanks from your experience.
You will not believe the amount of professionally-trained and highly experienced coaches, therapists, and healers I have seen in shock when they finally realised the extent to which this was part of their being and doing.
This is logical because this part of skill development is simply not taught in professional education.
It’s why I get so passionate about it. Because we have a world to win here:
Your clients win because they no longer have to subconsciously live from your paradigms, and they don’t have to push to make your solutions work, come what may. It’s not because you are out there with a whip telling them to be like you, but because the way the coaching or service provider relationship is set up is based in a paradigm that is not correct. It has a host of beliefs and patterns running that keep this in place and disempower your clients without you being aware of it.
But maybe the biggest win is that life and business get to be SO MUCH SIMPLER for YOU when you learn to navigate this in the appropriate way. Getting results is easier, they go deeper, and you don’t have to work as hard to get there.
It’s like before you were working against the current of your clients life flow and now you can fully follow that flow.
Of course you know all this on some level, but:
Empaths easily get drawn in by the urgency of the pain and the temptations of their own insights - ‘If only they just …., it would make such a big difference.’
And, most importantly, most empaths just don’t have the tools to explore exactly how this situation is for their client. It requires going to their core. And they can’t stay with their clients' truth for long enough to be able to start unearthing the clients’ own best solutions.
So as an empath, it’s vital to deepen your understanding of boundaries, almost regardless of where you are right now in terms of your level of professional experience.
Here are three ways to do that:
Energetic hygiene: Check if your aura has a boundary and fill-up your aura with your energy. Start your day with being present in, and for, yourself, and end your day by clearing any energy that is not yours. Imagining taking a shower with white golden light goes a long way.
Explore your triggers: Keep exploring about the things that trigger you, that send you into a fear response, outrage, or rescue mode. Make this a habit after each client session. What drew you in? Get to know your inner rescuer.
Deepen your ability to hold space: After consciously training for over 10 years, I still find new layers and further unraveling in me, leading to greater freedom and power for myself and my clients and students. For help with this, you are welcome to join us for a free workshop (link below) on the 6 Guidelines to Hold Space if you want to dive deeper and start to learn the skills you need.
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All of this will expand your choices of how you show up for yourself and with others.
It will also save you a lot of energy and it will mean that the impact you have for people increases multi-fold: Even more purpose, more alignment, more value, more freedom, more joy and more money.
Annemiek van Helsdingen is the founder of the Academy for Soul-based Coaching where high quality coaches & therapists are initiated in the realm of Soul-based Change. Sign up for inspiration & event invitations on http://academyforsoulbasedcoaching.com/keep-me-posted/
Article originally published in the pages of SOULACY
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