My brother’s dog is an empath.
Well, technically, he’s my sister-in-law’s dog, but for ease of use, we’ll use “brother’s dog.”
Last year, I had a particularly acute bout of pain, in the dead of night, when I was staying over at my brother’s house, and Atom came scratching at my bedroom door, begging to be let in. I had no energy to resist, so I let him in.
He slept on the floor by my bed for about an hour, and right about the time the pain eased up, he got up, walked to the door, and scratched to be let out.
It’s as if he knew that I needed comfort, and, in his own way, offered it up to me. Then, when I needed it no more, he left.
How? How did he know?
It couldn’t have been anything perceptual–I was behind a heavy door and careful not to make a sound so as not to wake anyone up.
It’s as if he sensed my energy, my pain, and took it upon himself to join me, and (dare I say it) even share some of the load with me.
I had always thought of empathy as symapthy’s less-shallow cousin, the one who’s willing to hold your hair back after a rough night at the club.
But I’ve learned it’s much more than that. It’s some sort of energetic exchange, where the empath actually holds, even absorbs the energy of people around him/her.
Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom, and leading scholar in the area of empathy, describes it in this way, “Empaths are highly sensitive, finely-tuned instruments when it comes to emotions, [who] feel everything, sometimes to an extreme.” They can sense subtle energy (prana) and even absorb it into their own bodies, which, if the energy is low or negative (anger, despair, resentment, etc.), can be quite draining.
As a result, empaths can often feel overwhelmed in crowds and around people who are suffering.
This makes a lot of sense to me. Even when I was a child, I hated crowds. When I tell people this, they don’t believe me because I am an extrovert with a gregarious personality, so it seems unlikely that I would dislike crowds. But I do. And the reason probably is that I am, inadvertently, picking up the negative emotions of people in the crowd–people I don’t even know, but who, nonetheless, are in my energetic field.
I am especially susceptible to draw in this negative energy around people whom I care about, my children, my family, my friends. One time I carried my husband’s hip pain as my own for over a month. True story.
About three years ago, he injured himself when going on an especially ambitious bike ride. At the time, we thought he had hurt his back. That’s where the pain presented. Two different doctors thought he had hurt his back. One thought it was the sacro-iliac joint, another thought it was his lumbar facets that were causing the problem. Both agreed he needed expensive epidural shots and extensive physical therapy.
So we deferred to their expertise, and offered up our wallets as obeisance.
To no avail.
After both treatments and therapy, he was still in excruciating pain.
I felt sorry for my husband. I had never seen him in so much pain, never seen him so depressed and discouraged by his lack of progress. My heart went out to him.
I was stressed out. So I went to see my massage therapist. I’ve found that a good massage can solve a multitude of problems. Especially stress.
When I walked into the massage therapist’s office, she took one look at me and said, “Looks like we’re going to be working on your hip today. You’re holding it funny.”
Really? I hadn’t really thought about it. I was just going to get an all-over Swedish-type massage, something to relax me, but hey, if my hip needs help, then have at it.
As I made myself ready for the session, she asked me (as is her custom), so what’s going on in your life?
So I told her about my husband and his pain and how I felt sorry for him.
“You’re carrying his pain for him,” she said. “I can tell.”
Nah, I replied. His injury is in his back, not his hip.
She didn’t say any more. She let it go.
Fast forward a year into the future, and my husband’s back was no better. He was desperate. Not only had the pain not subsided, but he was getting a weird tingling that seemed to flow down his leg. This was not good. So on the advice of his physiotherapist (or maybe it was the chiropractor?), he got another MRI done. This time with contrast dye and from a slightly different angle that also included his hip region. And lo and behold, they discovered that he has a labral tear in the joint where is leg meets his hip. Bingo.
One month and one surgery later, he was fixed. And now he is him completely free of hip pain. HIP pain. Not back pain.
So maybe she was right. Maybe I was “carrying his pain” for him, and I didn’t even know. He didn’t even know.
Since then, I’ve had several instances when I find myself carrying someone else’s pain–sometimes physical, sometimes emotional. And each time I have come to that awareness, I’ve made a conscious effort to let it go.
How do you know if you’re an empath?
Consider these questions:
~ Do people tell you that you are “too sensitive” or “too emotional?”
~ If a friend is hurt, do you take on her feelings as well (do you actually feel them)?
~ Do crowds drain you?
~ Do your nerves get frayed by loud noises, bright lights/colors, or smells?
~ Do you prefer to take your own car to places, so you can leave whenever you like?
Yes to some or all of these questions suggests that you might be an empath (take the full quiz here).
Okay, so what if you are an empath? What now?
This is what I have started to do to manage the downside.
~ I avoid crowds whenever I can. Or if crowds are inevitable, I limit the time I spend in them.
~ I put brackets around my social situations. I tell myself, I’ll stay at the party for an hour, no more. Or I’ll be selective about which social events I attend, preferring small groups and familiar people to hang out with.
~ I’ve trained myself to notice when I am feeling especially drained or in pain, and then I try to connect that energy pull to some sort of empathic move I’ve made. The awareness allows me to take action, to cleanse myself.
~ When I come home at the end of the day, I jump in the shower to (literally) wash away the negative energy. Water is the ultimate cleanser, so in the cases where I’m feeling depleted but can’t have a shower or bath, I take the minimal measure of running cold water on my wrists. Even this small cleanse does wonders for my energy level.
~ Finally, I let people know that I am an empath and what that means, so that if I have to leave an event early or excuse myself to detox, my friends and family don’t feel rejected.
You can try this, too.
Last week, Atom saved his son’s life.
In yet another stroke of empathic genius, Atom noticed his son, Asterix, lying, unmoving, on the floor and barked up a storm until somebody (my brother) paid attention and went to see what the ruckus was all about.
There lay Asterix. No heartbeat. No breath.
I’ll let you read the rest of the story for yourself here.
But know this: If it were not for Atom, Asterix would be gone.
Atom, you are my hero.