The Unconscious Empath
We all have dark thoughts about ourselves and others. Some of mine came to light whilst I was in therapy a while back. I was feeling deeply troubled, thinking that I might have strong narcissistic traits. Given I sit in the therapist’s chair with vulnerable people every week, I was very concerned that I might be harming others without even realising.
With a knowing smile, my therapist said he could see how upset I was and suggested that was all the evidence I needed to ease off on my concerns. It turns out narcissists have a very low capacity for empathy, and those with narcissistic personality disorder have none at all. (For the purposes of this article, narcissists are thought to be deeply insecure people, who project a false 'grand' self to mask this hurt - often unconsciously.) My concern was soaked in irony - in raising it with such strong emotion, I was actually demonstrating how much of an empath I am. This is one of the many reasons why I believe giving our dark thoughts a voice is so important, but maybe that’s another blog.
If you’re an empath, you’ll probably recognise some, if not all of the following traits:
You feel other people’s pain as if it’s your own
You crave peace and calm
You have strong intuition
People call you “over sensitive”
People gravitate towards you with their issues
You get bored easily
In the right environment with the right person, you’re very loving
You avoid conflict
Empaths often attract insecure people. The insecure person unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) deeply desires what they think the empath can offer – unconditional love. To empaths, these people stand out like beacons - empaths feel another person’s pain as if it’s their own and desperately want to heal it. It’s an incredibly powerful attraction and it almost always happens at a subconscious level.
When an unconscious empath meets with an insecure person romantically, it can feel like the planets have aligned. Expect fireworks and a storyline that could compete with some of the best romantic novels. It is indeed a powerful match – someone who needs healing and someone who loves to heal. This initial attraction is not only evident in romantic relationships. I’ve seen the same magnetism between friends and family.
However, the “unconditional love” of an empath is not what is seems at first, and when an empath gets hooked into the psyche of an insecure person, it can feel like an impossible task to unhook. One of the greatest tragedies of this dynamic, is that as the insecure person becomes resentful of the “gifts” of the empath, it’s very common for the relationship to become abusive.
Empaths feel the pain of the people they are close to. With that in mind, in order for them to feel less pain, they often set about trying to reduce the suffering in the insecure person. They try to “fix” their partners, friends or members of their family. They see the hurt and want to heal it. I’ve experienced this first hand more times than I can remember. Giving advice, grand gestures of love, kindness and endless amounts of forgiveness - are all habits of the unconscious empath.
To leave or detach from people who are suffering feels like an impossible task for the unconscious empath. Leaving will likely be experienced as abandonment by the insecure person and the empath will experience the pain of that abandonment as if it were their own. It’s a case of “If I stay, I feel pain, if I leave, I feel pain.” The kicker here is that the pain empaths sense is almost always in part a projection of their own deeper, unreconciled hurt.
I’ve been in this dynamic myself and it’s really easy to make out that it’s all about the other person. Why won’t they change? They know their behaviour hurts me, why do they do it? I have tried everything, why won’t they follow my advice? The hard truth is that people have a right to live their lives in suffering. It may not be what we want for them, but it is their right to make that choice. Contrary to what most people think, when you take responsibility for someone else’s healing, you actually prevent it.
Empaths are often hailed as being the best healers. I believe there is some truth in that, but only when that empathy is used skilfully, consciously, and they can be honest with themselves about whose hurt it is they are seeking to heal. Empaths have often experienced similar trauma to narcissists and deeply insecure people. The difference is that narcissists and insecure people lock away their empathy to the point that sometimes it perishes, whereas empaths have learned how to survive whilst keeping an open heart.
But empaths have to take some responsibility too. That’s where I encourage all empaths to move into being “conscious empaths”.
If you identify as an unconscious empath, ask yourself some of these questions - why do you stay connected to people who continually hurt you? Why do we think it’s your place to “fix” someone else? And crucially, who are you really seeking to heal? We can tell ourselves the story that it’s a selfless mission, but it is highly likely that if you’re an empath, you’re carrying a great deal of hurt, too. Perhaps the pain you feel when you think about leaving is actually your own fears of abandonment? Perhaps your feelings are projections of your own feelings of guilt and shame, and leaving the relationship means you’ll have to face up to them?
And now for the most painful lesson I’ve learned – you can’t heal someone else. You can walk alongside someone if they choose to embark on a journey of healing, but you can’t do the healing for them. You will break your own heart trying. Also, by taking on that responsibility, you deny the person the opportunity to do it for themselves. It’s disempowering, and their response will often be to protest this form of control – abusively in its extremist form. NB: I am not suggesting for one moment that if someone becomes abusive towards you that “you asked for it” – we are all responsible for our behaviour and being abusive is never ok, no matter what the explanation.
If someone is deeply insecure, has strong narcissistic traits or simply won’t take responsibility for the issues in their life (these things often go hand in hand), then there are likely to be a lot of layers to heal. If they go on that journey fully (which is rare) it’ll be dark, deep and an empath will be there experiencing every bit of the pain as it unfolds.
How can I speak like this? Who am I to speak so bluntly on behalf of all empaths? Let me offer you another side to this story…
Three years ago, I ended a relationship with a man I’d been with for 13 years. We met when we were both 17 and looking back, I can say for the most part of that relationship I was deeply insecure. Some of my behaviour in that relationship would be classed as emotionally abusive. I was manipulative, unkind, and at times, cruel. My ex-partner was an empath and he repeatedly forgave all my bad behaviour. For years he showed me unconditional love when many others would have walked away. I guess he felt my pain as if it were his own and wanted it to stop.
He thought staying with me would help. He thought my repeated claim of being “a broken person” was best met with unconditional love and removal of all respectful boundaries. But it didn’t work. Because in his forgiving, excusing and unconditional loving, he was also colluding with my insecurities. Whilst in his eyes his intent was good, he was in fact denying me the opportunity to take full responsibility for myself and face up to my demons. The greatest act of love he showed me in 13 years was not taking me back that one final time. I’m forever grateful to him for that.
The end of our relationship plunged me into the deepest depression. Despite it being summer, the days were dark and I frequently contemplated suicide. I turned to alcohol, sex and drugs as a coping mechanism. But somewhere in all that pain, I realised I had a choice about what came next and I found the strength to face my deepest hurts. I realised if I ever wanted to live a fulfilled life and have a chance at a healthy relationship, I’d have to take full responsibility for my past traumas and make sure they never became the source of pain and suffering for me or anyone else ever again.
And so now here I find myself, firmly in recovery. I’m a survivor. Healing has allowed my empathy to fully and consciously emerge. I’m now able to sit in a room with people who are in pain and hold a space for their own healing. It has been, without wanting to sound too cliché, a personal transformation. Before, I felt the real Adam was behind a glass wall, screaming at the insecure Adam to stop his sabotaging and self-destructive behaviour. That glass has since been shattered and I now stand in the shoes of the man I always wanted to be and knew deep down I was. I remain eternally grateful to the family, friends and professionals who have stood by my side as I did the work and deeply humble in the presence of anyone who has had a similar journey.
I believe unconscious empaths all too often get hooked into relationships that centre around pain and suffering. The illusion is that empaths can heal the insecure. But as someone who once identified as deeply insecure, I can tell you that’s just not how it works. In my opinion, it is only conscious empaths, who have reconciled their own hurt, that can engage in deep healing work with others, because only then is it really about healing the Other.
It is not only the two people in the relationship that pay a price when an insecure person and an unconscious empath unite. Those close to the empath who are empaths themselves have to bear witness to someone they love hurting, and they too feel that pain. And those who love the insecure person have to pay witness to a continual process of self-destruction.
But there is a way forward towards less suffering. When you step back and allow someone to take full responsibility for their own healing, if they then make the choice to move from being a victim of their past traumas and step into survivorship, a new dimension opens up. For me, when this happened it opened up the possibility of having a relationship where love is gentle, drama is infrequent, and compassion is woven into the fabric of the connection.
It’s not unrealistic to heal and grow, but it does take hard emotional work. If you’re an empath, it might involve loving someone enough to walk away. For both parties, it’ll involve facing pain like you’ve never known. But I promise you, having lived through it myself, there is a new dawn on the other side of that very dark night, and the kind of love you deserve is patiently waiting for you to feel its embrace.
I'm Adam, a U.K. based Life Coach and Psychotherapist working with people across the globe.
I struggle the same as every other human on the planet, but I think that’s what makes me credible. I’m just a regular guy, with people skills that I enjoy using. My sole focus is to help others improve their lives, which is ultimately how I improve mine.
I am a curious humanitarian and I speak as I find. I love to travel and I buzz off meeting new people. I live in Manchester, U.K.
Read more at www.mebeingadam.com.