I Feel Your Pain: An Empath’s Guide to Staying Balanced

Do you often wonder which emotions are yours, and which belong to someone else? When people you care about are hurting, do you feel their pain so deeply that it’s hard to separate—even after they’re out of crisis mode? In relationships, do you donate so much of your own natural resources that you suffer from a chronic energy shortage? And with those you’re close to, is it hard to figure out what your own needs are—or even what you want for dinner? If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that you’re an empath.

What does it mean to be an empath, and why is it fraught with these basic life challenges? Derived from the Greek “em” (in) and “pathos” (feeling), the term empathic means you’re able to “feel into” others’ feelings. But for empaths, this sensitivity is magnified to the nth degree. An empath is more tuned in, more empathic, and more sensitive to others than the average empathic person.

Being this tuned in, empathic, and sensitive is an asset—but it comes at a cost. Empaths are unusually vulnerable to emotional contagion, to “catching” others’ emotions in much the same way that you’d catch a cold or flu. But it doesn’t stop there: Empaths get physically ill and suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic stress, professional burnout, and pain syndromes more often than their less empathic counterparts. And empaths often need lots of down time after social engagements, recovery periods at the end of a workday, or extended intervals of being alone. They can feel fundamentally different from others: As a conference-goer recently put it, “It’s like I’m an alien from another planet—no one understands me, and sometimes I don’t even get myself.” The empaths I work with often confess a deep-seated fear that this “alien thing” means that something is wrong with them, that they’re somehow damaged.

As a clinical psychologist and yoga therapist, I’ve supervised psychotherapists, yoga teachers, and yoga practitioners for more than two decades—and it just so happens that many of them are empaths. I’ve helped them identify who they are and develop the skills to lead more balanced and healthy lives. And as a recovering empath myself, I’ve had to walk a parallel path. From this personal and professional immersion, I’ve found that it helps just to name the issue first, to hammer a framework of understanding around it. Then, armed with tools from the yoga, mindfulness, and psychology traditions, we can work on balance. We can create a blueprint for physical well-being, emotional health, and more rewarding relationships.

Are you an empath? Here are five signs that you might be.

The Empath Checklist

You struggle with boundaries. It’s tough to know where you leave off and others begin, which experiences are yours and which come from others, when to open your channels for connection or to close them.

You’re often not in your body. For empaths, all that “feeling into” the experiences of others means that you dissociate: You leave your body or “shuttle” out of direct experience as a matter of course.

You’re vulnerable to emotional contagion. You absorb the emotions of others: your boss, your colleagues at work, your family and friends, even the checkout guy at Whole Foods.

You’re prone to nervous system overdrive. It doesn’t take much—sometimes just a draining conversation or a party that’s loud and overpopulated—to propel your nervous system into alarm mode.

You have trouble with intimacy. Your relationships are filled with intense bonding—and equally intense separations. You can merge with others at the drop of a hat, but get so entangled that “emotional exorcism” is often the only way for you to get space.

Even when we’re aware of them, these patterns are hard to change. They’re wired into us at levels the conscious mind can’t reach. For that reason, to be a healthy empath requires daily practice. Here are the key issues and therapeutic practices that form the heart of the journey. The challenge is that much of the healing needs to happen through the body. And, for empaths, the body can be a wasteland of sorts, a long-abandoned battleground.

Rx for Empaths

Empaths have an extraordinary capacity for union. They’re great in a crisis; people in need call forth their deepest abilities. They make gifted, intuitive healers. They see others deeply, well beyond the surface. And they have a magnetic quality that draws people to them. Yet, flanking these positive aspects of being an empath are several shadow aspects. Here’s what you’ll want to focus on to help you live in a state of physical and emotional equilibrium.

Develop boundaries. As an empath, you give too much space to others’ emotional lives. You solve their problems with ease and help them restore equilibrium, often at the expense of your own energy stores. But even when no one needs you, the habit of “trolling for crisis” makes it tough to return to your own emotional center.

Empath Rx: Creating boundaries isn’t a matter of mental discipline, of “just say no.” For empaths, limits need to be felt throughout physicality, and the core body is your seat of power. What helps is a yoga practice that brings your focus into your deep, intrinsic core, promoting awareness, strength, flexibility, and the capacity to release. This helps you ground back into your body and replenish your energy stores. Mindfulness tools can also help you monitor where—or on whom—you’re focused and notice when you’ve migrated into someone else’s direct experience.

Bring awareness into your body. Imagine that you’ve left to visit a friend in another city and forgotten to lock your house. And that’s not all: You’ve left the doors and windows wide open, so anyone can get in. This is what it’s like to be an empath: You can abandon your own home—your direct experience—in favor of someone else’s. The more you do this, the more difficult it can be to return. What makes matters worse is that not inhabiting your body (and your experience) keeps the benefits of yoga and other mindfulness-based practices just beyond your reach.

Empath Rx: Offset this tendency toward dissociation with slow, mindful vinyasa yoga sequences that link movement with breath. Empaths can spend a whole yoga class or practice on autopilot: adding anchors for awareness will help bring you back to your body, and to the present. Contemplative practices such as meditation and restorative yoga give you the time, space, and silence you need to get re-embodied.

Balance your nervous system. An empath’s environment is like “emotional satellite radio” with hundreds of channels. Your nervous system surfs the dial constantly, flipping from station to station to listen to others’ emotional broadcasts: your boss’s complaints about work, your partner’s anxiety over a potential job loss, your best friend’s sadness about a breakup. These information-processing demands can catapult your nervous system into overdrive. This reinforces anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. And the incessant electronic requests of e-mail and social media can overload and exhaust you.

Empath Rx: Learn to notice the signs of nervous system overdrive, such as that inner sense of something “humming” constantly beneath the surface, an elevated heart rate, and increased emotional reactivity. Practice simple breathwork techniques, such as nasal breath (and, if accessible, nasal breath with a longer exhale) to slow your heart and bring your nervous system back to baseline. Regular breaks from social media also help, as do practices that balance your nervous system and quiet your mind, like restorative yoga.

Learn to regulate intimacy. For empaths, intimacy comes down to matters of space and reciprocity. You can feel like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me-Pull-You: Sometimes you crave intense emotional, physical, and spiritual bonding; at other times, you need so much space that having your own personal galaxy might feel too crowded. When you want to merge, you can threaten people with a higher need for breathing room; when you need wide-open space, you can appear remote and withholding. And when it comes to reciprocity, you’re rarely comfortable on the receiving end. Your giving nature attracts narcissistic people, who crave the mirroring and validation you offer. In the meantime, you’re able to live in fantasy and subsist on a diet of “emotional breadcrumbs,” and you can suffer from malnourishment.

Empath Rx: Try bodywork or yoga therapy with someone you trust, to build your ability to receive care from others. You can also balance a personal yoga practice with group classes to strengthen your sense of community. If your job requires any degree of public exposure, or you work as a healer, you may need stretches of alone time to reestablish your equilibrium. Here again, mindfulness-based practices can help you notice feelings of being devoured before you reach the breaking point, and interrupt the cycle of merging and isolation.

Develop emotional immunity. Empaths pick up on other’s emotions and even their direct inner experience so rapidly that it’s hard to indentify what’s happened. As a result, a large part of your anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and immune issues can belong not to you, but to someone else. And, just like your nervous system and physical body, your emotional body and immune system struggle with boundaries. They have difficulty discerning what’s you and what’s not. This leaves you vulnerable to emotional issues like anxiety, depression, and chronic stress as well as auto-immune illnesses such as allergies, lupus, or fibromyalgia.

Empath Rx: Practice interpersonal hygiene. Notice how you feel after spending time with others. You’ll soon learn which people are hazardous to your health, and you can limit your interactions with them. Also try lymph-stimulating asana sequences and restorative yoga to stimulate your capacity for constructive internal reflection.

Empaths often ask me, with great sincerity, “How do I get rid of this?” This poignant request reflects the cost they pay, in time and effort, to achieve a measure of balance. But being an empath is like having a tattoo: The imprint is there for life, no matter what you may do to change it. These practices a do-it-for-three-months-and-all-will-be-well kind of program. Rather, they’re a lifelong journey of self-discovery. But this need not be a life sentence. Having a daily empath-balancing practice improves our relationship with ourselves. It juices our creative process. It improves emotional regulation. It deepens our work life, and enhances our physical health.

Empaths need community, a tribe of our own to belong to, where we have a shared language and can unload the burden of being built as we are. Once we’ve reinforced this sense of belonging, our task is to resist the temptation to rest there forever, and instead cultivate both personal and shared practices that bolster our body, calm our mind, and help us ground into and explore our deepest self.

Being an empath asks us to become fluent in the field of paradox, to metabolize opposing concepts and challenges. For instance, how can we engage in rich relationship with others and the world around us, while finding the silence and space to discover the self and world inside us? How do we find balance between matter and spirit, between inner awareness and outer focus, between self and other? And how might we engage in the dynamic interchange between the concept of evolution—which hints at a future self—and the self we are right here, right now?

Bo Forbes, PsyD, E-RYT 500, is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology,...

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