Empathic overwhelm - on purpose

empath Feb 23, 2020

I have a client who thinks of themselves as an empath - someone who feels deeply for the planet as well as for the people who live here and depend upon its survival. The kind of empathy they experience is rarely talked about in the online community of ‘feelers’ and ‘healers’. Perhaps because it’s of a sort that cripples emotionally and torments psychologically.

As such, their empathic genre has never really been given a name or a place in the spectrum of empathic abilities. Which, I suspect, also has something to do with its messy demeanour. Presenting like bipolar disorder (BPD) or, at times, like oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), it’s not surprising there is a reluctance to name and claim this particular experiential [quagmire] especially since many ‘sensitivity’ experts wish to distance themselves from the unpredictably dangerous world of psychiatric patients lest they bring their ‘special’ people cause into disrepute.

Nevertheless, for those of us less concerned with the politics of aesthetics and more interested in what it’s like for people on the ground, in their everyday lives, such distinctions are irrelevant. Not because we think them crazy but because crazy (according to psychiatric diagnoses) is not what it seems. And, since we are not afraid to open all the doors and lay out all our cards, let’s not mince words.

What Is Empathic Overwhelm?

Empathic overwhelm is like a tidal wave. A tornado, flooding the gates of us and me and what’s real, comes bearing down. It’s just as likely to come in the middle of the night as it is in the middle of a boardroom meeting. It lands without warning, where no-one can escape its demands, and no-one can help to decipher its direction. It just keeps coming and coming and won’t let go, like time itself. There’s no room to sit back and play match-maker between the symptom and the cause. You’re all in. All consumed. Overwhelmed.

There’s no space for considering your options. No mind for questions such as, “what do I need right now?” or “how can I separate myself from the danger of this experience and find my way to higher ground?”. If there were, space to do these things, one might seek out counsel with someone who specialises in drama delineation. One might take time out to meditate or swim in nature or take part in some equally rejuvenating pastime, but there’s no room to move and the energy has to go somewhere.

Mostly, it goes into self-violence and screaming at people you care about. Into blubbering panic and driving too fast and not having any control over the words coming out of your mouth or into your mind, as you swirl ever deeper into mayhem. And, at its wildest peak, it goes into pulling everything apart with your bare hands, just to get the energy out.

Where Does Empathic Overwhelm Come From?

In my experience with empathic clients, I have found the nature of empathic overwhelm to be more about where it’s going than where it’s coming from. Seeking out its origins seems less important once we’ve started processing. Oftentimes, the causes of overwhelm are an impenetrable mesh of past trauma, hormones, empathy, current stressors, and intuitive messaging. Being the counsellor for a client during an episode, I can see these clearly. I see parallel troughs of pain and anger that burst their banks to flood an individual’s plane of existence. Whereas, the empath is blind to all this.

The empath cannot see the delineation of their distress because there is no room for perspectivising. They’re completely subsumed within it, with no chance to take a breath. It would be like asking someone to think creatively as they’re being tasered. When our senses are all afire, it’s impossible to function outside that experience, and expecting people to do so is brutal.

How Is Empathic Overwhelm Treated?

First of all, empathic overwhelm is not a disease. It’s a state. Since it’s origins are not necessarily pathological, one need not treat it as a disruption in an individual’s homeostasis. Instead, one might adopt curious compassion as their approach and begin to ask, “where is its purpose?”. With a focus on the state of empathic overwhelm as meaningful, one is more likely to accept the individual as an equal, with equal capacity for assessment and, more importantly, as someone who can be trusted.

In the case of my client, let’s call them ‘Muse’, empathic overwhelm presents an opportunity to articulate what other people are not expressing - emotionally, politically, artistically, or otherwise. Muse also has past traumas and current stressors to deal with that get entangled in the mix, but these are more of a highlight to the issues than a contamination. Rather than distracting from any message that might come forth, Muse’s own troughs of pain and anger add to the honesty and humility of what’s being said. Who better to talk into these areas than someone who is/was both perpetrator and victim, and who now puts their body and sanity on the line to work with the voiceless objects of policy and outcomes, of unspoken truths, of exploitation in the name of human services, and ongoing violence that cannot be separated out from what’s being done to the planet? That, I think, is the point of being this kind of empath.

The Point of Empathic Overwhelm

As an emotional empath, it’s Muse’s job to feel all this pain and anger so that it can be articulated, out loud, in the world, and not hidden away as a symptom of the stresses of modern life or the psychotic break of a social worker or perhaps, worse still, the diagnostic criteria for mental disease. Empathic overwhelm is not any of these things in isolation and yet it can be easily mis-identified as such. But Muse’s overwhelm deserves more.

It deserves to be honoured and privileged for its worthiness. That is, it deserves to be approached as if it is meaningful (rather than as a disorder), valuable (versus an imbalance), and integral to a particular cosmology… to an individual’s natural order. The same way one might honour and privilege the variety of ways of being that exist anywhere on the planet.

Honoured and privileged. Keep these in mind.

For Muse, when an empathic overwhelm episode is approached in this way, in counsel, in process, the strands of distress cleave into more meaningful swatches that can be laid out on the ground and another perspective is made possible. One in which the extent of what is mine and what is not is made clearer. One in which the purpose of what is not can be acted upon just as any intuitive instruction can be acted upon.

For Muse, this means allowing all the blubbering-angry sentiment about personal violations and political violence, the scathing-firey-hatred about being rejected by the world as too much or not enough, and the screeching-frustration with people’s laissez-faire attitude toward all the suffering going on in the world right now, to be a message that needs to go out and meet anyone who’s caught up in the distress of that. Muse’s distress goes out to those in need of knowing that they are not alone, that they are not crazy, and that they are seeing this situation accurately. A message that wouldn’t go anywhere if Muse bought into the story that empathic overwhelm was simply a lack of protection or a chemical imbalance.

Dealing with Empathic Overwhelm on a Regular Basis

Obviously, just because Muse seeks counsel with me to process empathic overwhelm in a nonpathological way, does not mean the experience is any less distressing next time around. A part of the distress is removed. That part that says, “I have a problem that nobody understands and I am completely alone”. But the rest of the distress is still there.

Our time together is not about trying to end empathic overwhelm. It is about meeting it as meaningful and seeing where that takes us. Of course, if at some point Muse decided to cut these experiences out of life, we would look at options to make that happen. To date, this has never been the sentiment after a process. The only future hope for Muse is that empathic overwhelm becomes more natural to process, out loud, without my counsel, and so that is what we work toward.

Since each conversation (and not just each client) is unique, I cannot say for sure what will happen next for Muse or anyone who encounters empathic overwhelm, as a process, using a curious compassion approach. I can only say that asking the question “what would this be if it weren’t a problem?”, has a tendency to flip the distress into a whole new conversation where the client is no longer contaminated by grief or distorted by trauma or otherwise wrapped up by a single label that attempts to explain everything about their experience (and personality, relationships, life, etc).

Asking the question and allowing what happens to be our guide, can be a refreshing and welcome change to the therapy process… as long as we know how to recognise one another as reconfigurations of the same capacities and not percentages of each other’s worth.

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