Kelly Wendorf, MCC, MECD
The Care and Feeding of Empaths
Are you an empath? Or do you have a beloved empath in your life? People who acutely feel the emotional, mental, and even physical states of others are called empaths. They are porous individuals who sometimes find it difficult to sense the difference between their realities and the realities of others. Empaths are the nurturers, healers, carers, the highly sensitive people that give (and give) often to the point of exhaustion and burn out.
It is estimated that empaths make up 15-20% of the population, meaning that there is a chance that you could be one, or most certainly know one. Perhaps you are lucky enough to be loved by one, or even lead by one in your organization.
Empaths have the makings to be uncommonly effective leaders because they care, not only for each individual, but for the whole of the company, vision, or system. They “get the world” of others which makes them naturally cooperative and innovative with a larger vision. They tend to lead their companies through a ‘power-with’ mindset, rather than ‘power-over’ dominance. “Empathy is now a major skill needed in growing an innovation mindset in an organization as it helps business leaders come up with better solutions,” Google LLC’s Chief Innovation Evangelist Frederik G. Pferdt said recently. Pferdt goes on to declare that empathy is a ‘skill of the future’… (this sudden epiphany does cause me to chuckle––since when has empathy not been a valuable skill?).
What makes life challenging for empaths is that they live in two worlds: their own, and that of the external world that they feel and experience all the time. For some, both worlds feel primary. Both worlds are experienced internally as important and valid. This can lead to people pleasing, acquiescence, boundarylessness, confusion, duplicity, and ultimately poor health.
Successful empaths have found a way to honor their unique gift, while at the same time remaining resilient to burn out, discerning of predators, and clean with their motives. How do we as empaths become successful in those ways? I’m still working on it, but thought to share some of the insights I’ve gleaned while on this journey. Below are six ways to care for yourself and support yourself to benefit from your compassionate gifts.
Regulating the nervous system – Empaths are feeling things all the time. We walk into a room and we feel the space; we engage in a conversation and we feel the tone; we wake up in the night and feel the next day. So part of caring for ourselves is learning how to regulate our own nervous system. Notice when your body is giving you signals of distress: a cramping in your stomach, a quickening in your chest, a tightening in your throat. The earlier you catch the sensation, the easier it will be to bring your nervous system back into equilibrium. There are several ways to self-regulate and you can do a deeper dive on this through a bit of research. However, here are two key processes:
- First, take a few deep breaths, and be sure to make a longer exhale than inhale. If you inhale for four counts, then exhale for six. This sends a parasympathetic volley to the brain that your environment is safe.
- Second, allow yourself to feel all feelings as is. Drop your awareness down to the level where emotions are merely sensations. Without labeling the sensations as anger, sadness, anxiety, etc, just get curious about the sensations themselves. Are they hot, warm? Are they jagged or pounding? Where are they in your body? Notice that while they may not be comfortable or pleasant, they are not dangerous. Simply welcome the sensation as is, and do it consciously and mindfully for at least two minutes. You will notice that they cycle through with their own half-life. This powerful practice naturally regulates your nervous system. We at EQUUS call this practice ‘Stop, Drop, and Deal’.
Feed and nourish well – Empaths are emotional athletes, and their bodies process a lot of information, working hard all day and into the night. Feed your body like you would any athlete, with attention to vitamins, nutrients and minerals. Don’t skip meals or let your blood sugar drop because that stresses not only your body, but your nervous system. If your adrenals are working hard, and you find yourself in a chronic state of anxiety, then you need some good calming support. Minerals like magnesium and zinc are very important here. But if you’ve taxed your adrenals and you are now burnt out––no energy, listlessness, detachment––then give yourself minerals of calming support at night, coupled with vitamins of stimulating support during the day such as B12.
Exercise – Keeping your body healthy through movement is also important for overall well being. But as an empath, you might be better served taking a walk in the park, or a hike in the forest rather than stuffing yourself in a gym with loud music and a bunch of other people that you’d be sensing. It may in fact be better for you to do lower impact activities than high impact. Let your exercise time be a time where you take psychic and emotional space, and are in the good company of other empaths (i.e., trees, plants and animals). You may also want to keep those earbuds out of your ears, and leave the podcasts elsewhere.
Live in Your Way – Consensus reality is hard for empaths. As an empath, you may need more sleep. You may like to stay up late and sleep in, or go to bed early and rise before the rest of the world. You may not like parties. You may prefer to dance alone in your living room. You might need to occasionally leave the world behind for no good reason, and have a day in bed just to binge watch New Girl. Whatever it is, you do you.
Watching for Warning Signs – Empaths are vulnerable to burn out. Our two favorite mottos, “I feel happy when everyone else is happy,” or “I go along to get along”, lead us to put ourselves last, and manage, caretake, or protect others in our midst. Look for the warning signs of: resentment, exhaustion, numbness, disconnect, and anger. When those show up, it’s time for some major self-care, and also an honest reassessment of your boundaries.
Boundaries – Research professor and author Brené Brown interviewed some of the most compassionate people in the world, folks like monks, clergy, and social workers. She found that they had one thing in common: they are the most boundaried. In an interview with Maria Shriver she said, “Put your thoughts, feelings, and needs on par with the needs of others.” Without boundaries, your availability can be a ‘dishonest kindness’. This not only costs others, but results in resentment and burn out for you. Learn to say no. Learn to be ok disappointing others (I know, I know…you feel their disappointment and that is challenging). Learn to let go of what others think and expect of you.
The world needs you and your empathic gifts. But it needs you to be clear, healthy, balanced, sane and happy. Treat yourself like the unicorn that you are and learn how to take care of yourself in the unique ways your body, mind, and heart need.
Join EQUUS Founding Partner Kelly Wendorf and EQUUS Faculty Adam Ramcharan for a special course designed to assist empathic and sensitive people to navigate the complicated world of human dynamics with healthy self-entitlement, clear and respectful self-agency and self-care.