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The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 8. An Empath’s Discovery: Who Am I Really?
I had always thought of myself and who I was in relationship to something or someone else. My perception of myself and my identity were always changing depending on who I was around or what activities I was involved in.
Who am I in relation to the world? I would ask myself. Who am I in relation to this person? The question underlying it all: how can I shrink, expand, or contort myself and my thoughts, beliefs, and my emotions to fit into this present situation?
I rarely had a solid sense of self, independent of what others thought of me. I consistently felt overwhelmed by the lack of boundaries in feeling my own or another’s emotions. I rarely knew if my feelings or thoughts were my own or someone else’s.
Life, as I am learning, is about relationships. It is a constant relating to all of life. But, in relating, there is and can be a felt understanding of where you end and another begins. This was rarely the case for me; my energy tended to blend and meld with the energy of those around me. Often times, I was inundated with external stimuli or bombarded by the emotional temperature or energy of another, always feeling unsure of whose energy I was in, my own or another’s. Others’ feelings felt as if they were my own.
I didn’t always have a strong sense of who I was outside of these relating dynamics. It was almost as if I blended into whatever setting in which I found myself in. Being empathic and extremely sensitive to others’ feelings and moods, whether unspoken or not, I molded myself (read: shrink, stifled, or contorted myself) according to the temperament of the room, who I was with, or what I was doing.
My sensitivity and lack of knowingness on how to protect myself energetically and maintain healthy boundaries (I would later learn), was the blessing and cursed double-edged sword of being born an empath.
An “empath,” in short, is someone who is able to sense, feel, and connect with the emotional state of another or the environment. An empath is highly in tune, or highly empathic/sensitive to the feeling state of consciousness.
Empaths walk around with hyper-awareness of our own energy and others’ energies. We can become easily overwhelmed by this state of hyper-vigilance and attentiveness to subtle energetic fluctuations.
Empaths are hyper aware of their own thoughts and feelings, as well as others’. Being hyper-aware of our internal fluctuating energy and feelings (as impacted by others’ or our environment) can create a pervasive feeling of anxiety and stimulate manifestations of such energy (i.e. an endless obsessive thought stream flowing through your mind), which only makes an empath more anxious and quickly can become an anxiety spiral. It’s challenging to pinpoint why we feel anxious or overwhelmed; sometimes the feeling seems to “come out of nowhere” at all. But as empaths, we are open to all energies, unless we create awareness and develop the know-how to protect our energy from being bombarded by energies around us.
From life experience (and trauma), empaths learn that hyper-awareness and hyper-vigilance are necessary to survive. We are constantly “on guard.” Our nervous systems are always on alert for the next impending threat. We learn to be in tune to the subtleties of energy so much that we often lose ourselves in the middle of it all. We use our hyper-awareness almost as a superpower to predict, plan for, and prepare ourselves for shifts and fluctuations in the environment around us. It may be a trauma response to use this hyper-awareness to the nth degree, but it becomes our default lifeline to cope with life.
I was unaware I was an empath for quite some time. I always felt sensitive and was told I was sensitive, but I remained unaware about being an empath until later in my spiritual development years. I was constantly overwhelmed by my feelings or the feelings of others’ but I had no knowledge or understanding of how to exist as such. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why I couldn’t get a grip over my overwhelming internal emotional state, or why I felt drained being around certain people.
For an energetically sensitive soul, energy is often drained by others who are not whole and balanced in their own energy field. They unconsciously “steal” or feed off of your energy, like a vampire. Hence, the reason why we feel drained being around certain people, i.e. “energy vampires.” These people aren’t “bad,” but are those who choose to stay unaware of their energy leaks and are motivated unconsciously by need and lack, dependent on another to feel whole in themselves.
Trauma can sever our energy field. It can create fissures, splits, and cracks. Without awareness on where our cracks are, we may be drawn to get that energy elsewhere, rather than healing and rectifying it in ourselves. These are also the areas (wounds) in which our “weaknesses” are and how others’ energy can infiltrate and attach to our own.
Our energy is the most precious commodity we have. When our energetic boundaries are weakened (through trauma and painful life experience), we feel unable and ill equipped to tighten up our own energy leaks. So, we continually leak our own energy to others who are unconsciously feeding off of us.
I felt this immensely as a young girl, but I could never put my finger on what was happening. I felt my energy depleted being around certain friends but also gave my energy away too, because I needed and desperately wanted to belong. I experienced severe panic or anxiety seemingly out of nowhere. I wondered why my energy always felt depleted. I discovered later on why I had anxiety (leaking energy) around certain people or groups of people. I also learned that perhaps depression sinking its teeth into me and not letting me go was my body’s wisdom and way of preserving my leaking energy.
I am not saying being an empath was the sole source of my emotional dis-regulation, because heaven knows I am human and emotions are a part and parcel of this human experience. Emotions have always felt like a first language to me, until they became so overwhelming to manage and regulate in my environment, that the only way for me to cope was to silence, quiet, or numb them away. I chose to cut myself off from my emotions because they were too damn overwhelming.
I was always told I was an “old soul,” a “gentle spirit,” a “sensitive person.” Being sensitive (without the proper tools to self-protect) is an inherently vulnerable space to exist in. Your boundaries feel so open to other people’s energy at all times.
“Sensitivity” also comes with its own judgments from society and is seen as an inherent weakness. As a sensitive person, you more easily get your feelings hurt. Thus, you are overall more vulnerable to the pain and rejection that exists in the world.
I felt so sensitive to other people’s perceptions of me, above my own perception of myself. My sensitivity and buried wisdom always felt like a burden, until I began to understand the gift of this sixth sense. I would later learn in my adult life how to better hone and use this ability to my advantage and not be a victim of it.
As someone who is more sensitive or in tune with nature or our environment (most who have an ED are more sensitive feelers and highly empathic), there is an ability to tune into the unseen realms of life, the subconscious, the shadow, the unspoken darkness, and the more feminine “feeling” aspects of life. We deeply feel the judgments, pain, and emotions of others, whether we register it with our awareness consciously or not.
As feelers, our perception of energy changes and we feel the judgment of others’ internal judge and believe they are judging us (even if we are not consciously aware of it). When tuned into the judgment field of the mind, we can feel utterly overwhelmed by what we find and feel. The energy field is a vast one, with varying perceptions, depending on where our attention is.
The human mind has an energy field, as does the heart. The mind is mired in duality and judgment, while the heart is full of love and unconditional presence. Our consciousness is able to tune into differing frequency of awareness, or consciousness, depending on our attention, focus, and perception.
The mistake commonly made by empaths is to personalize the emotions they feel from another. We feel someone else’s anger and believe them to be angry at us. We feel their sadness and feel we did something wrong to cause it. I made this mistake for many years. I personalized the emotions of others around me to be more about me and less about them.
We unknowingly take on the emotions of others because we feel we are the ones responsible for it. We carry this burden of others’ emotional experience. We can feel another’s emotional undercurrent, perhaps one they are not seeing or taking ownership of themselves. We believe it is our duty to maintain the emotional equilibrium so we unconsciously “sign up” to do the heavy emotional lifting for others who aren’t doing it for themselves.
Empaths are highly susceptible to an “open field,” wherein energy can get a bit more tangled up with others and boundaries are harder to find and hold energetically. Learning how to manage energy boundaries is a process of defining your own energy field and understanding what is “yours” versus what is the other person’s.
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.
Read part three of this series: Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival & the Body the Enemy.
Read part four of this series: The Real Toxin: The Harm of our Fat-Phobic Culture.
Read part five of this series: How Eating Disorders Feed on the Insecure Self.
Read part six of this series: What Sparked my Healing Journey from an Eating Disorder.
Read part seven of this series: The Dark Side of Religion: On Religious Trauma & Body Shame.