I dislike the term Empath. You see it everywhere. It’s supposed to signify a special mystical talent that makes you better than most at reading people and emotions.
What it really is, is a survival skill learned in childhood to endure abusive caregivers. If your safety depends on how well you know your parent’s behaviors and moods, you learn pretty quickly how to pick up signals and pay attention. You get really good at reading your parents, knowing when to be invisible and how to make them happy. In the process you learn how to tip toe around people’s moods, how what others want is more important than what you want, how to ignore your own needs and a life filled with anxiety becomes your normal.
There’s nothing special or God given about being Empathic, though some would have you think that it’s an innate gift or a super power. It’s a learned behavior and everyone given the right (or wrong) circumstances will learn this coping mechanism to get through life.
This skill doesn’t translate well into adult relationships. What happens is we become Caretakers. Caretaking is a twisted way in which Codependents try to control their environment and their partners. It’s the belief that if all you can bring to the relationship table is yourself then that’s just not good enough. You’ve got to give more, do more and be more, just to be on a level playing field. What Empaths end up doing is they take on the lions share of the work in the relationship. Their focus becomes the happiness of their partner and everything becomes all about the other person.
It’s true that Narcissists are users, takers and all about me people, but Empaths make it really easy for them because they’ve already been to school on what’s expected of them. What they do is they try to show their partner that they are the best choice because of all of the extra things they will do and give to their partner. The Empath believes that eventually their needs will be met because they were taught in childhood that if mommy and daddy are pleased with you, you’ll get your reward – eventually.
What ends up happening is that the partner has to invest very little into the relationship, while the Empath is fully invested. The partner is free to do as they will – drink, do drugs, cheat, come and go, not work, spend money on themselves instead of contributing, give little emotionally, while the Empath gives all and maintains the home, the kids and the perceived ‘normal family’ status.
If an Empath did have goals and dreams, they tend to fall by the wayside because 1.) They don’t get the support from their partners that they need to pursue them, 2) They’ve established the “my life is all about you pattern of behavior and 3) They’re too busy trying to maintain everything.
When you start an adult relationship it’s almost as if you’re establishing an unwritten contract. You create what your role will be and what you’re bringing to the table and seldom do these roles change. You can’t do and be everything at the beginning and hope that down the line things will change.
That Sandra’s Got Such a Big Heart
People will often say of Empaths, “That Sandra has such a big heart.” What that really means is Sandra gives much of herself and there isn’t anything wrong with giving or being generous. The world needs more of that. But you have to be doing it for the right reasons. The difference between Care Giving and Care Taking is that with Care Giving there is no expectation of any reward. Care Takers give and do because they have an expectation that if I do this then you will owe me. As if it goes into some unspoken emotional bank account. They give until it hurts, even to their own detriment. They may spend their last dollar on their partner, they may engage in sex acts that they don’t want to, they may take on all of the responsibility and leave none for their partner.
- Give/Do because they want to
- Act out of love and kindness
- Have no expectation of reward
- They know when to say no
- They are self-focused
- Giving/Doing has no baring on their self-esteem
- Give/Do because they believe they have to
- Act out of fear
- Expect to be rewarded (with love, attention, affection…)
- They have little to no boundaries
- They are other person focused
- Their self-esteem is tied to what they do for others
It’s important to have expectations right out of the gait in relationships. There needs to be accountability on both sides. This dynamic is established early on, on who will do and be responsible for what and it is very resistant to change. It’s important that you make your decisions from a place of strength and not out of a fear of being abandoned. If someone will leave you because you refuse to do 90% of the work, or because they want to be your top priority, even though you have children, let them leave. There will be no joy for you in a non-reciprocal relationship, with an ‘all about me’ type of person.
Before you decide to do something, you need to asses your why’s. If your answer is – to get someone to like me, to get them to choose me, to show them how far I’m willing to go for them, to show how much better their life will be if they pick me, you’re on very dangerous ground. Give and do because you want to not because you have to – know the difference.
Do you need to talk? Click here to find out how you can Skype with Savannah.
Image courtesy of Nenetus at freedigitalphotos.net.
You have no concept of what an Empath is. You are not one, I see.
Excellent article, Savannah. Any chance you’d start a YouTube channel? More people need this kind of information at their fingertips.
You’ve just summed up my entire life.
Phenomenal article and right on the money sister. Clears up so much of the misinformation about what an Empath really is (and isn’t).
So glad you’re back!
Thanks Savannah and welcome back!
I have always felt confusion around the empath implication, having been “diagnosed” as such. This clearly explains where it originates and I fall neatly into that category. This article has helped me not to put so much emphasis on being an empath but rather understanding my sensitivities from childhood.
This made my day and released me from some strong bondage of the past.
Welcome back Savannah. Thank you for this important post as I can really relate to it.
I agree with what you say, BUT, unfortunately, narcissists are champions at knowing how to groom and test their target. They are con artists and they search for empathetic people. Their universal system is to find empathetic people by pretending to be empathetic too, then the target is like a frog in water on a stove.
I’m not challenging what you’re saying here, I only feel like it’s a bit incomplete in that often an empath finds themself in an abusive relationship and it happens so systematically, it is confusing and crazy-making.
To simply say, “leave” is not always realistic when finances and children are involved and/or the narcissist does a 180 right after commitments are made (marriage, homes, etc) and legalities and finances are enmeshed.
I think the awareness you provided is spot on and once known can be a great way to head-off a(nother) disastrous experience. But, malignant narcissists are an altogether different breed and untangling from them is not as simple as you pose it.
These relationships breakdown people and sometimes kill them.
Recognizing my codependent traits is pivotal in having healthier relationships. But someone who is already in one, needs understanding, compassion, and support. Removing yourself from the spider web is not usually as simple as just “leaving” – esp with a malignant.
Please remember to also include informative, encouraging and validating word in your posts, so people who are already neck-deep in a toxic relationship won’t give up.
I have about 300 posts on this blog explaining just how difficult it is to leave an abusive relationship. That was not the point of this post.
This article was so helpful. I really relate to the child survival phase. I hadn’t equated this as being the start of the caretaking role. In my case my grandparents raised me and my mother was constantly getting me pre-empt her feelings and act accordingly, which arose from her guilt. Under these conditions it would have been impossible not to develop highly attuned empathy.
Yes welcome back I’ve really missed your articles Savannah.
Great insight. The flow from childhood to adulthood is direct as it can be. Too bad we don’t learn about this until it’s too late.
Welcome back Savannah! I’ve been returning to the website weekly and was excited to see a new article! This is wonderful. We missed you!
Always so spot on!! I’m watching a situation with my son and a young lady who wants to force a romantic relationship with him and tries to guilt him when he doesn’t reciprocate her “Care Taking.” Sometimes no amount of talking will show an “empath” that they are anything but SuperSelfless and you are just mean and selfish to not recognize it instead of honest and firm in your own right. Most often it’s REALLY a turn-off. WELCOME BACK, SAVANNAH!! You are a blessing!