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January 20, 2020

How to Be an Empath Without Being a Martyr.

Would the world be a better place if more empathic people stepped into their leadership?

I believe so. I think we could use compassionate and caring people at all levels of leadership, whether that’s within the family, one’s community, one’s profession, or politics. Perhaps Anthon St. Maarten expressed this most beautifully in the following quote: 

“Empaths did not come into this world to be victims, we came to be warriors. Be brave. Stay strong. We need all hands on deck.”

But how exactly can empathic people turn into their inner strength and power? How can we be peaceful and strong advocates for a better world?

Over the years, I’ve learned that empathic people have a tendency to disempower themselves by not realizing that there’s a difference between being an empath and being a martyr. For instance, let’s consider the following situation:

“Go! Just go! Leave me behind.” The woman known as EE bore a painful expression on her face.

“Are you sure?” Her best friend Kara looked down at the sprawled-out figure, deeply concerned about EE’s condition. “You really look like you need help.”

“Don’t mind me.” EE put up a brave face. “You have somewhere you need to be.”

“But what about you?” Mark asked the obvious question.

“I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself.” EE turned to the other side, hiding her face which was contorted into a grimace. “Now go! While you still have time.”

Kara and Mark sighed and turned to leave.

Kara stopped before crossing the door. “Don’t forget to take your antibiotics. We’ll be back from the movies by 10.”

EE—which is short for Empathic Emily—weakly waved her hand at them before collapsing back into her fluffy pillow on the couch, a few used tissues littered around her. She reached for the glass of water but it was too far away, and she felt rather dizzy.

Emily sighed, wishing she would have asked her friends to stay around. But how could she have done that, given that she always put others first? And surely Kara and Mark could think of better things to do than tending to a miserable-feeling, virus-spreading roommate.

While this is a dramatized and fictional story, many of us who are empathic can relate to the core issue at hand — asking for what we want from others, receiving the support that helps us thrive, and meeting our own needs.

For instance, I often talk to coaching clients who bend over backward for others and then collapse exhausted because they don’t receive enough support themselves. These are caring souls who wholeheartedly want to be of service, and it’s a cruel irony that their desire to put others first is also the very thing that limits their ability to help as many people as the could.

The following steps can really help with changing that:

1. Develop healthy self-entitlement
While there are times when it’s entirely appropriate to put the needs of someone else first (such as with a newborn baby), it would be draining to live our entire lives that way. As empathic people, we need to take care of our own needs.

To that end, it helps to develop a healthy sense of self-entitlement (which is different from an unhealthy sense of entitlement). This means realizing that we have the right to take care of ourselves and that our needs matter, too.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton expresses this beautiful in her quote:

“Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”

2. Recognize that self-sacrifice can be really selfish
Speaking of self-sacrifice, many empaths think they need to self-sacrifice for others. For instance, in the example above, Empathic Emily thought that she needed to deal with her illness alone, so that her friends could enjoy a night at the movies.

However, as Marty Rubin pointed out,

“Self-sacrifice is something other people always have to pay for.”

We don’t often talk about this aspect but that doesn’t make it less true. If someone gives up their life for someone else in a movie, they are seen as a hero. And while there’s something incredibly inspirational about people who are willing to do this, it’s also important to keep in mind that their decision has an impact on other people, most notably their grief-stricken family and friends.

While self-sacrifice might be the right choice if you’re a super-hero facing a life-or-death situation, it’s not a helpful tactic in everyday life.

There are many ways in which people end up paying for the self-sacrifice of an empath. For instance, in Emily’s case, the neglect of her own needs sets a precedent for her friends, too. Maybe the next time Kara’s in need of help, she’ll feel too indebted to Emily to ask her for her support. Or Mark might find it too exhausting to be in a friendship with a person who can’t take good care of herself.

Either way, it’s helpful for empathic people to notice that self-sacrifice generally comes at a cost to everyone—and to stop doing it.

3. Recognize that receiving can be good for others
Many empathic people do not want to be “takers.” In the fictional story described above, Empathic Emily didn’t want to take the time and attention of her friends. Even though she would have preferred to have someone around to care for her, she basically pushed away people who were open to helping her.

While it’s great to be attentive to the needs of others, it’s not helpful to assume that those around us can’t make their own choices. In the example above, Emily’s friends might actually have preferred to stick around for her. Either way, Emily didn’t need to make the decision for them.

If Emily’s friends wanted to give their time and attention to her, she could have chosen to receive it. Since Emily is probably a person who gives a lot in relationships, this would also allow Kara and Mark to give back and create a more balanced relationship.

For most people, giving something and being there for someone in need can feel really good. It’s part of why so many persons choose to volunteer. By not being open to receiving from others, we can inadvertently deprive others of the joy of giving.

In my own life, I make a conscious effort to let people support me if they like to. This can include actually receiving compliments (instead of brushing them aside) and saying “yes” if someone offers me something I want.

4. Trust others to be the adults they are
I suspect that discomfort around the word “no” is a huge reason why empaths find it challenging to take care of their own needs and trust other people to be the adults they are.

Because empathic people often find it hard to say “no” to other people’s demands, they assume everyone will feel the same way and have a hard time declining a request. In an effort to not impose on others, they then don’t ask for anything, even when they need help.

By setting stronger boundaries and using the word “no” more often, empaths can change this belief system and start trusting other people to set their own boundaries. You can read more about how to become comfortable with the word “no” in my article here.

For me, it was a huge insight to realize that, barring exceptional circumstances, I can trust others to make their own decision. If someone is allowed to vote on the future of their country or steer a vehicle through heavy traffic, shouldn’t we also trust them to make the right decisions for themselves (or make the wrong decisions and deal with the consequences)?

By implementing these four approaches, empaths can build their own strength and power which in turn enables them to more effectively help others.

Being sensitive is not a weakness. On the contrary, I believe that compassion is a superpower. It can be a great strength if properly harnessed, and that is what we must do. As American actor Max Carver put it:

“Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change.”

Photo: juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

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