Empath’s Dilemma

When you create intimacy very quickly and very deeply, in a way that other people can’t possibly reciprocate, what does that cost you?

Penn Gillette talks of a TV segment they did with a then girlfriend of his who was a great improv performer who learned to do “cold reading,” a technique used by psychics which lets you create an emotional connection with another person and mirror back to them in a way that feels spooky and mystical.

I remember the first time someone tried it on me.  I was in junior high and spending time at a monastery.   A fellow talked to me and then told me he was going to read me.

“Wow!” was my reaction.  “You got all that from just what I said to you!” thinking it was cool to listen that hard.

He was let down, wanting to be seen as magical.   “You are also very smart,” he told me.

While I have never tried to pass my power off as psychic, people have often been amazed and mystified when read them.   As Gillette says in the clip  “What you learn from cold reading is that we don’t listen to each other.”   Just listening close feels like magic to many.

To make the TV show, they had this woman sit with twenty different people over the course of two days, listening close and then pretending to connect them with the spirit world.  They were all astounded, feeling magic and power, at least until she took them aside and told them that they were being tricked, that there were no mystical forces invoked at all.

For her, though, the experience was draining and upsetting.   It was like having twenty intimate relationships and twenty breakups in two days, according to Gillette. It really messed with her head for a month or two afterwards.

If you are an empathic person, this uneven intimacy is always a challenge.   You enter into a deep relationship with others quickly, reading them so fast that you are swept into their emotions, but they never really reciprocate, listening to you deeply and feeling who you are.

Part of this empathy is who we are, a very femme trait which seems rooted in the maternal need to enter into the world of the children and others we care about, to help them find ways to express and manage their feelings.

This trait gets magnified in different ways, one of which is being forced to live with other people who have trouble regulating their own emotions.  We quickly understand that our safety comes from entering the emotions of the big scary people around us, from understanding their world so we can avoid stirring them and know how to redirect them when they threaten to attack us.

Emotional enmeshment, caring more about other people’s emotions than our own is a component of codependency, unhealthy relationships that share sickness rather than foster healing.

Losing yourself in the sweep of other peoples emotions is very easy for an empath.   It is a kind of service and surrender that can feel good, creating connections that bond and ground you.   Finding a way to not lose yourself in love is a challenge for most feminine hearts which melt at dream of surrender even in the face of rational knowledge that we are going to have to own our own life.

Learning to stop reading and understanding others, to not enter their worlds, learning to wall off our heart isn’t a great solution.   That separates us from a great deal of our power and happiness.

Being strong in the face of rapid and unequal intimacy, though, will always demand focus and always leave the empath feeling a little bit lonely.