Definition: Empaths are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empath to describe a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense.
So, are people born this way; or are people shaped into this based on outside factors such as upbringing, beliefs, instilled morals? For the longest time, I have always thought that people are born this way, or that this was just a natural part of someone’s personality. But the more I take the time to understand myself, my own mental health, I’m starting to question this.
I am the second of 3 children. I have one older brother and one younger sister. I won’t get into the whole middle child issues subject (I’ll save that for another day), but I do want to delve into some of the experiences that I believe shaped the person that I am. My brother and I are only 18 months apart, while my sister is 4 ½ years younger than me. Naturally, the older siblings should look out for their younger siblings, right? But to what extent?
“You have to watch out for your little sister.” “Don’t let her walk in there alone if she doesn’t want to.” “You have to be brave for her, you’re the big sister.” I heard statements like these on a regular basis. Not just from my mom, but also from most of the adult figures in our lives. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old, I inherently “mothered” my younger sister without much thought or instruction. I was able to anticipate her feelings, fears, needs, etc. with little thought by the time I was 10, in the same way, I can for my own children now.
While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I do look at how much of this has played a part in how I interact with other people that I love and care about throughout my lifetime. I have always been taught, and I do firmly believe, that when you love someone and care about them, you put their feelings and wants ahead of your own sometimes. Of course, you shouldn’t be a doormat, but you should be selfless.
I believe that people can sense this about me, and are drawn to me to vent, to confide in, etc. And I am happy to be that person for the people I care about. I try to listen and remain nonjudgmental and allow people to get out of their thoughts. I empathize with the pain of the people that I care about, and my goodness—for the people that I love, it’s indescribable how much of their pain I actually feel myself!
But thinking back on my upbringing, I think about who was there for me to vent to? Who was being “brave for me” because I was the little sister? Who had to walk me in? Even as a pre-teen and teenager, my friends came to me to vent or for advice. I was “the strong one” in the friend group, and even called “the mom” of the group. Over the years, I grew used to being the strong one, taking on everyone else’s pain and problems, so much so that I was even able to act in this capacity for not only those that I care about and love, but also for people who are newly acquainted with me.
Those words and expectations of how I should deal with my sister that was drilled into me by my mom, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, and other adult caregivers did shape me. The way I learned to discern and absorb her feelings taught me how to discern and absorb the feelings of others. These interactions taught me how to take on the feelings of others so much so that I don’t even realize what my own feelings about certain situations are.
So did my mom and older family members see something in me, something naturally in my personality that they knew that I could handle this? Was I “born an empath”? Or was this quality developed in me just by chance of birth order?
Transparent honesty: I have never struggled with this as much as I have in the past 2 years or so. Being an empath did not use to bother me, and was actually something I took pride in. I was happy and proud to be that person for the people I love and care about. But now, it’s becoming more and more exhausting. I don’t want to not be there for them, but I want to know how to not “feel” so much. I guess the real question is who is there for the empaths?
Brandlyn Owens is passionate about exploring and educating herself and others about mental health topics. She's a momma of 2 kiddos and she resides in Durham, NC.