It is exceedingly difficult to define what an Empath is, as each individual has such unique characteristics. I am a self-professed Empath and also have been told by many that I seem like an Empath. And, I have struggled with my self, and understanding what the heck being an Empath is to me. As I see it, if there is such a thing as a clear definition for what an Empath is, there may also be other wounds and abilities mixed into Empath-ness, that are then defined by the individual as part of their Empath nature. This is what I see for my self, and also for the many Empaths in my community, and the people I have worked with intimately, as both a coach and a therapist. An “Empath” is an ever evasive identity construct. I appreciate this evasive element, and am intrigued by it. This has led me to make an active personal study of Empaths.
Through my interest in studying characteristics of Empaths, I have noticed a commonality amongst most Empaths, and this is what is in their Shadow. By Shadow, I am referring to the parts of the self the Empath may be unconscious of, or perhaps at least parts that Empaths wouldn’t want others to see. I am writing this list and overall article to expose this Shadow, in service of helping Empaths become more integrated and whole, and to help us all start to have more productive, accountable conversations about Empaths and Narcissists.
I feel it is important here to first preface this list with an explanation that perhaps allows some Empaths who will get extremely triggered, to be reassured.
In gazing upon this list of Shadow traits in Empaths, one might also wonder if there is a difference at all between Narcissists and Empaths. I would venture to say they are more similar than different, at the core, in that both Empaths and Narcissists do not have a fully formed sense of Self, and are actually pretty wounded.
However, what makes an Empath different from a Narcissist is their reaction to their core material and lack of Self, as well as the resulting trajectory of their developmental path, given how they have learned to deal with their issues.
Empaths often have more self-awareness through being forced into situations in childhood, where their defenses failed them and they HAD to grow. In other words, an Empath is a Narcissist that failed at being a Narcissist, over and over again, and was not provided with an environment that insulated them from experiencing the consequences of this “failure”.
Due to this “failure”, Empaths also tend to rely on the defenses of projection and blame less often, and the defenses they depend on are not solid enough to get in the way of feeling empathy, and feelings in general. Additionally, they had/learned to develop extra- sensitivity and boundary diffusion (which manifests on a spiritual and energetic level in unique ways) to receive more information in tracking their caregivers and environment for threats, to find secure connections, to become pro-social and loving and reflective enough to be endeared to and loved by others, and to find meaning. Due to this need for added sensitivity and receptivity, their choice defenses aren’t strong enough, or formed in such a way to help them numb out from caring about being abandoned, connected and having meaning. In other words, it was a necessity to survive their early environment, that wouldn’t allow them to be/become a Narcissist. Through this “failure”, they also formed an emotional and relational pragmatism that enabled them to figure out early on that there is such a thing as cause and effect, and interdependence, and to be highly tuned in to this, almost to a hyper-vigilant degree.
And finally, through these differing ways of dealing with the lack of Self and wounding, combined, this creates a marked ability to be empowered, resilient, and vulnerable, and open to, and capable of change.
There is of course temperament, potential karma or spiritual elements, as well as genetics I am not accounting for here, in what makes an Empath start off as someone with the high probability of being an Empath. Again, this article is not to provide an extensive exploration of what an Empath is. All I am pointing out here is a small bit of what I have observed makes an Empath actually different from a Narcissist, to help soften the potential triggering that might come from the list below.
- Empaths often feel exceedingly insecure about their right to have needs and to be angry, rageful, selfish, self-absorbed, and to act essentially, like a Narcissist.
- Empaths often secretly wonder if they are Narcissists, because they realize they are extremely sensitive and lack a strong core Self, like a Narcissist. Empaths also have a very deep sense of mistrust around their own perception of Self, and their own nature. It doesn’t help that many of them have been further brainwashed by a Narcissistic partner or close friend, or a Narcissistic or drug addicted family of origin, to believe at times that they are in fact Narcissistic.
- Empaths often come from families that are extremely dysfunctional, and have become an Empath in response to traumatic conditions that forced them to cope through becoming hyper-sensitive and hyper-empathetic. Sometimes these Empaths grew alongside Narcissistic siblings, who became Narcissistic from the same amount of trauma all the siblings were exposed to.
- Many Empaths are what society would define as “co-dependent”, in that they put other’s needs ahead of their own, to their own detriment. They have very poor boundaries and a sense of Self that is stunted in its development. Many Empaths are also obsessed with distracting themselves from their internal issues, with controlling, managing and healing the lives of others as a means to overcome an internal sense of powerlessness and emptiness when faced with their lack of Self. In essence, what I point to here, is that many Empaths hold the martyr and victim archetype in life, because of their tendency to be co-dependent, and thus disempower themselves by avoiding their own darker internal process and accountability for it, for the sake of compulsively “helping” and “healing” others.
- Many Empaths were initially drawn to working in the healing professions, engaging intensively in spirituality, as well as developing their already extra-sensory abilities (exploring being psychic). They are partially drawn to these arenas as a means to overcome their lack of trust in their self, their intense negative self-talk, intense self-hatred, their perfectionism, and ultimately their clinical presentations of depression and anxiety. These professions or intensive hobbies also provide them with an opportunity to construct a sense of Self identity that is special and positive, that channels their abilities in a way that is productive and helps others, and that helps them feel more meaning and purpose on this planet.
Keep in mind that this list is meant to demonstrate a Shadow aspects that are on a spectrum of unconsciousness, onward to greater awareness, to integration and wholeness. I see that the path of an Empath often involves first discovering these Shadow aspects and then tending to them, in the process of healing, and developing deeper purpose, and greater happiness and fulfillment.
As I see it, when an Empath remains unaware of these Shadow aspects of Self, this leads to great imbalances in their life, serious suffering, dramas with Narcissistic and drug addicted individuals, and perhaps (drug) addiction, severe depression and anxiety, serious physical illnesses, and suicidality.
So, if you are a self-identified Empath, consider today if this list points out some of your Shadow aspects, and where it may be helpful to address your potential areas of unconsciousness or weakness.
I hope this article has helps you be the best possible version of your Empath Self!