The original article I wrote is featured on Elephant Journal read by clicking here.
Empaths are sensitive to all experiences, sight, scent, touch, smell, and body language.
They uniquely tune into the emotions and energy occurring all around them.
For a large part of my life, I thought the extent of what I sensed and felt was about me. The anguish, the irritation, the uncertainty, the shifts of energy, the masked grief, the energy that didn’t match the words—I thought it was my presence due to who I was.
Before I understood why I experienced the world as I did, I spent my days overwhelmed.
Can you remember the last time you were out in public and did not know how to continue with a task, so you looked around for silent guidance? Maybe you were at the library and unsure about self-checkout, so you watched others for direction. Likewise, as a child, I looked around and found no guide for my most urgent task: how do I minimize and cope with everything coming at me?
As a young empath, I watched and had conversations with others. I noticed they were not aware of what I was sensing. They seemed unfazed. The world that affected me so profoundly was living in their lives unconcerned. They either had some strength I did not have, were excellent at pretending and therefore untrustworthy to me, or the easiest one to accept—I was broken.
When an empath or highly sensitive person decides they are fundamentally flawed, they cut themselves off from the idea of self-care. When we believe ourselves unworthy, we assume nurturing the brokenness does not change anything. The answer will appear in the changing of who we are; changing us will bring peace.
An empath who does not understand their experience can lack the skills to cope. When we do not know who we are, we will not care for ourselves the way we need. When we do not accept who we are, we will not nurture ourselves the way we need.
By the time I was a teen, I was overwhelmed by my existence. It felt like I was in a constant state of emergency. I was unsure how to lighten my load, I lacked trust in myself and others, and I was terrified of what I would feel next. I felt alone in my experience, fearful of human behavior, and I was convinced that life would be better if God would answer my prayer and change everything about me.
Empaths are inundated with their and others’ energy and emotions every day. At first, they may try to be strong and soldier on. They make countless attempts at not being affected. They resort to acting like they are not fazed by what they feel. Without avail, they give the “think positively” and “it’s not how you feel but how you look” the good ol’ college try.
But eventually, they accept that overwhelm is normal and conclude there is no way out. They begin to accept that they cannot change their lives, and they stop any attempts to soothe themselves and make themselves feel safe. They believe their life and experience are unmanageable, and resilience comes from exposure to challenging but manageable experiences.
A child feeling consistently safe, understood, and cherished is fundamentally related to how they will manage life’s difficulties. In addition, resilience research in the last 50 years points to the quality of our close personal relationships, especially with grown-ups and caregivers, and social connectedness is a critical part of human adaption.
The young, mostly overwhelmed empath above will grow into an adult empath who lacks the mental resilience to overcome stressors efficiently.
Without mental resilience, an empath will feel under attack each time they experience a room’s heavy energy. Without mental resilience, an empath will take weeks or longer to recover from heavy emotions and energy. Without mental resilience, an empath will resort to unhealthy coping, isolation, avoidance, distraction, and blame. An overwhelmed and under-resilient empath will experience trauma-related symptoms like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, adrenal fatigue, and depression.
Although our early experiences sculpt our brain and affect our mental strength, we can learn new ways to cope today and overwrite yesterday’s programming. How we manage our stressors depends on what is in our resilience toolbox. Once we know what is in our toolbox, we can take what is not working and replace it with something that makes us feel safe, strong, and capable.
You can think of resilience as an assortment of skills that we can often acquire. We can learn them as children or struggle into adulthood and learn them when we have reached a breaking point.
Coping healthfully with our stressors has many benefits—our level of resilience aids in protecting us from various mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. Second, the strengthening of mental resilience can help offset difficult circumstances that lead to mental health difficulties. Third, when we are resilient, we can bounce back. Yes, we are struggling. Yes, it sucks, but we are solution-focused instead of blaming. The benefit of bouncing back is that we lose less time and momentum; therefore, we achieve more of what we desire.
Sensitivity and resilience are two character traits that seem at odds with each other. When you think of sensitivity, do you think of someone who frequently feels intense emotions? When you feel more profoundly, you are more likely to be pulled into your body’s stress responses. On the other hand, when you think of highly resilient people, you may envision someone unbothered by their circumstances and someone who bounces back quickly from an emotional situation.
Empaths’ sensitivity describes how they notice and react to the emotions and subtleties all around them. For empaths, resilience is about responding to what they are feeling and how they perceive it.
Being resilient is not due to a lack of complicated circumstances or never feeling intense emotions. An empath cannot escape complex feelings, but they can embrace their strengths, care for their needs, and get to know their nervous system’s workings to create more resilience in their life.
That is what a resilient empath is—a beautiful balance between sensitive and resilient, with the capacity to fully feel things but not be overwhelmed or dominated by what we feel.