Empath is a term one commonly encounters in support groups for mental abuse, particularly at the hands of those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder as someone who is the very opposite and usually a victim of a narcissist. Someone with a high capacity to experience emotions and to understand and forgive an abuser repeatedly. This term and how it is used is problematic for many reasons relevant to the well being of the supposed empath and in itself is a protective narcissistic construct that attributes good qualities to the victim and projects the cause of their suffering onto the world. It conceals several disturbing traits that make them dysfunctional in relationships and vulnerable to harm.
An empath is this much misdiagnosed codependent that I have discovered since the disclosures regarding the end of my previous relationship with a man I believe to be a narcissist. The resultant empathy and sympathy I received also included a lot of people who have had unpleasant experiences with narcissists. In this world of community support for victims of narcissists, the term empath exits the realm of science fiction and becomes a title given to codependents, mostly women, who have offered endless kindness to abusive people. This is not empathy, and an empath has no formal classification beyond science fiction – and in science fiction, the traits are not uniform, they are determined by how an author chooses to interpret them.
Ongoing conversations have convinced me that there is a need to set the record straight on this whole empath business.
What is empathy? What is not empathy?
By my working definition, empathy is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person and to interact with them in a functional manner that supports their well being. The common perception of empathy is often that of a person who has tears in their eyes when they see someone crying. While this may be an indication that they had strong feelings in response to the person, it may not necessarily be empathetic.
Let me provide you with a quick reference most of us have had at some point. Have you, in a moment of grief, been approached by someone who was so upset by what you were going through that you ended up consoling them? That was not empathy. That was a person who had a strong emotional response of their own. The resulting behaviour did not improve things for anyone.
On the other hand, have you had an experience when you felt vulnerable and someone said or did exactly what you needed in the moment? That is empathy, even if the person may not have been mirroring your emotional state.
For someone who studies human interaction with some rigor, empathy is a very powerful ability and like all abilities, it can be developed, even though some may have more of a natural aptitude than others. The more experienced you are with facilitating functional interactions between people, the more you realize that empathy is very complex, but in every manifestation, it has a functional result on the person it is applied to. Sometimes, in ways that may seem counterproductive, like tough love or offering a distraction from overwhelming feelings. It is a wisdom about emotional experiences and an ability to see the larger picture while also focusing on the nuances of feeling both personal as well as interpersonal.
In other words, a person with “high empathy” has a clear view of the emotional landscape they are in and skills to navigate it. It is not merely about being overwhelmed with feelings about what someone goes through – that is just being overwhelmed. An empathetic person is often likely to be moved and aware of their feelings, but not likely to drown in them to the point of losing sight of others. Empathy is an extremely empowered state emotionally.
What is an empath? What are the traits of an empath?
When people are not talking about science fiction and are talking about psychology, an empath is nothing. This is the short answer. The person and traits referred to as an empath check all the boxes for a person with poor boundaries. This is important, because having poor boundaries is not an empowered state of being.
Where does empath come from?
My guess is that it comes from sci-fi, where an empath is often described as a distinct kind of person with inherent abilities to accurately feel what another is feeling. It is a plausible fictionalization, as a person with a high empathetic ability often seems to know a lot more about what each person around them may be going through than others around them. Of course, unlike the empath in science fiction, a person with high empathetic ability has no paranormal ability to know what another feels, but their ability to observe and genuinely care about others enough to invest effort in understanding them gives them more insight than those who don’t. In real life, empathy is not a trait of any special identity.
Just like narcissism is a quality present in everyone in varying degrees, empathy too is present in everyone in varying degrees. There is no “kind” of person who is empathetic without fail, all the time, as community articles and videos imply. The most empathetic, caring person is simply tired, hungry, thirsty, absorbed with our own goals or in a plain bad mood on occasion. Most of us are not focusing intensely on another all the time and that is healthy and appropriate – that would be really creepy and intrusive, yes? As long as you can be empathetic when needed, that is really all anyone with high empathy does. They just do it very very well and so will you, with enough effort.
What are the qualities of an empath as described in support groups/communities?
Empaths, or rather victims of narcissists and psychopaths are often described as people who care about others to the point of setting aside their own interest to the point of harm. They have an immense capacity for forgiveness and give a million second chances. They tend to believe the best of everyone and retain that belief in the face of repeated abuse and facts to the contrary and will usually not give up on a relationship before they endure tremendous hurt.
Why such an empath cannot possibly be an empath
Emotions drive almost every single thing we do. The most mundane, routine tasks, seemingly done without thought are habits born of a need for self-preservation. A person who can see the emotional perspective of situations is never without power to the point you hear stories of hostages or kidnapping victims emotionally manipulating their captors. If you know the emotional state of another person with some reliability, it comes with a tremendous insight into how they would respond to various choices you may make before you make them. This is a very powerful ability in any situation. A person with a high empathetic ability can navigate an abusive situation too and know when they need an exit and ensure it – by knowing the abuser better than they know themselves at times.
The reason for explaining this in so much detail is because this is most certainly not the description of a person who gets taken on a mentally abusive ride – an empathetic person will sense the slightest whiff of abuse before it has escalated into a problem. They may not exit if they believe they can handle the situation or they may dismiss it believing it to be trivial, but they most certainly will not be unaware. That clarity of what is going on on an emotional level, implications of interactions is what makes an empathetic person respond in a manner that uplifts another, and it can be used in a manner to deter another as well.
It is not possible to be empathetic and also be unaware of cruelty or deceit or inauthenticity. Then it is just wishful thinking. Poor boundaries and helplessness being presented as a choice.
With emotional strength also comes resilience. Being empathetic is no guarantee that life will not hurt you. But emotional resilience allows you to recover from the inury and regain perspective and bounce back.
Compare that with the behaviour typically described of an empath. The fact that they are blindsided by their abuser, the fact that they are not able to understand the extent of the abuse till too late, the fact that they allow harm to themselves and live in denial…. these are not the symptoms of someone with clarity on human interactions. These are the symptoms of someone with poor boundaries who are not able to call a halt to situations that are harming them and the abuser basically walks all over their protests.
Even the act of calling themselves an empath and believing that they will always be vulnerable to abusers is a hopelessness that comes from a broken self-worth where they have no confidence in their own ability to protect themselves from harm.
Do narcissists target empaths? Are empaths narcissist magnets?
This is common paranoia among codependents recovering from abuse – that they are somehow destined to land up with a narcissist. This is not true. Narcissists, actually have a very limited perception of others and are more obsessed with how they are perceived. They can’t tell an empath from a psychopath. Narcissists target everyone. They do not see others as real people and couldn’t care less as long as they get the attention and interactions they want. People with healthy boundaries rebuff the narcissist when they experience them being inauthentic.
People with poor boundaries allow the narcissist the power to violate their boundaries and become hostage to the manipulations. Narcissists don’t target empaths. The empaths – or more correctly codependents – are not able to assert their boundaries as healthy people do. Narcissists are constantly, obsessively fishing for sources of attention. Whoever tangles in their net is their favorite dinnner.
It is true that an empathetic person may sense the vulnerability and limited ability to self actualize that a narcissist has, and attempt to support them and see their behaviour correctly as a symptom. There is nothing wrong with this, because an empathetic person will also sense what they can and cannot expect from the narcissist and will extricate themselves if they reach the limits of their ability to ensure their own well being in the relationship. This is healthy behaviour, even if not pleasant or enriching. But this will not be a person you will see plagued with self-doubt years after it is over. It is their empathy that will give them the clarity on what happened, because it is not possible to be empathetic without also being highly self aware.
Why is it important to not call codependents empaths?
Well, for one, it is not factually correct. But more importantly, giving a glamorous label to an unpleasant experience does not make it better. Victims of abusers calling themselves empaths is a way to rebrand themselves as something less pathetic. This not being true makes it problematic for many reasons.
For one, you cannot fix something if there is no problem. If you are this paranormal, superior being who cannot but help have poor boundaries for anyone to walk over you and you are just a magnet for abusers and so on…. well, it certainly doesn’t sound like a bright future coming your way. If you understand that it was poor boundaries that got you into trouble and you work on learning to assert yourself, with time, you can actually become the person you are pretending to be.
For another, it is abdicating responsibility for yourself. Labeling yourself as an identity that explains your problems is one way of saying “I am like this only, this can’t be changed” and now you have understood yourself and the rest of your life is a gamble on who comes your way. And obviously, if a psychopath does, you being an empath are doomed. An identity – “an empath” is who you are, as opposed to having poor boundaries or strong boundaries or high empathy or impatience and so on, which are qualities and things you do and which you can choose to do differently if it doesn’t suit you. And clearly being a victim isn’t a good look on anyone, so we can choose to do things differently and learn and evolve. But to do something differently, the starting point is accepting that what you did was not desirable instead of giving it an esoteric label and pickling your identity in it.
What are healthy boundaries?
To put it simply, think of the boundary as a line around you. It is your space. It may be physical, mental, emotional, financial…. but there is a line dividing what others are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do with regard to you.
For example, “taking money out of my purse when you quickly need to pay for a delivery is fine if I’m sleeping or bathing, etc but you have to tell me at first opportunity if it is a new relationship. If it is an established relationship, your wallet or mine is a non-issue unless I feel uncomfortable, in which case I will tell you to not do it and you must comply. Taking money out of my wallet without me knowing and then concealing it or denying it is theft.”
If you see here, it is a permeable set of conditions. There is a lot of room for trust, but there is also enough clarity about what I would not like and it is clear.
An example on an emotional level could be “The next time you walk out of my space in the middle of a conversation, you are not allowed back in without permission.” Which gives the other person some choice and forgiveness this time, but also asserts what you will not accept. Or they can be hard “Dishonesty is not acceptable” no room for negotiation.
What your boundaries are will be unique to you, and whatever you are comfortable with is fine. Having healthy boundaries is about communicating them clearly and only as good as you assert them. Consequences. A boundary is pointless if anyone can violate it and nothing happens. To assert that boundary is to have clear consequences and make them stick if it is violated. It is better to have small consequences that you enforce without fail than have large dramatic ones that you don’t enforce.
For example “If you lie to me again, I am leaving you” is fine only if you actually leave if he lies again. You must be fully prepared to do what you say you will, if unacceptable behaviour happens. Otherwise, it may be better to “if you lie to me again, I will start requiring that you prove what you say on things that are important to me.” or “If you lie again, I will distance my public image from you to maintain my credibility.” And then doing it exactly as said, if the boundary is violated.
In summary, and to never lose sight of the difference, imagine this scenario. A person is standing on a cliff, intending to jump off. A normal person may care, but feel helpless as to what to say in a situation where stakes are high and there are difficult emotions involved. An empathetic person may instinctively know how to talk them down, whether it is with compassion or by proking a safer alternative. A person with poor boundaries will jump off the cliff with or instead of them.
I would definitely like to hear your views on this. Comments are currently disabled on the blog, but my handle is @Vidyut on Twitter and @theVidyut on Facebook.