Anatomy of an Empath Part I


1. Remembrance

In the shower this morning I remembered who I am.

Funny how we forget. And remember. And forget. And remember. It’s designed that way.

I often remember when I am in the shower. Something about the water. And the non-linear focus. And the letting go.

“Human beings/are made of water/we were not designed/to hold ourselves together/rather run freely/like oceans/like rivers” Beau Taplin

With the water running down my back and my fingers untangling my knotted mane this is what I heard:

You are a light in the darkness, a wayshower for healers. You are here to help usher in the next evolution of our work on this planet. To help people remember how to not only metabolize the darkness, but to merge with and radiate the light.

I am not special or alone in this mission. I simply know how to receive the download. We all have this ability.

Wayshowers don’t lead, they follow—themselves.

Becoming who we are is a pathless path. Nobody has the instruction manual. We are all learning as we go—decoding the messages broadcast like sonar through our intuition, dreams, traumas, synchronicities, accidents, opportunities, and the mundane happenings of our lives.

We are all plugged into the grid. Those of us who are sensitive just have the added benefit of having no choice but to listen. If we ignore, we suffer. For most empaths, suffering has been our greatest teacher and a prime motivator for turning towards our gifts. But suffering will only get us so far.


2. What’s an Empath?

“You, sent out beyond your recall,
/ go to the limits of your longing.
/ Embody me. / Flare up like a flame
/ and make big shadows I can move in.”—Rilke

Empath = One whose nervous system and energy body are uniquely designed to merge with and feel the emotions of another, and merge with and serve as a conduit for the Divine. Otherwise known as light bearer, shadow magnet, lightning rod, conductor of universal energies, transformer, transmuter, catalyst, and highly sensitive being whose synovial fluids, circadian rhythms, and synapses are influenced by fluctuations of the sun, the moon, the stars, and far off nebulas that don’t have names.

Don’t get me wrong, empaths can also be irritable, defensive, fearful, boundaryless, invisible, and/or the dramatic center of attention. But this is only if we conform to the maladaptive patterns created in childhood to protect us. Only if we are drowning in other people’s pain, and only if we don’t know how to use our gifts. In other words, only if we haven’t yet stepped into Mastery.

The planet is changing and the empaths are changing with it—from co-dependent, energetic enmeshment and being encumbered by others’ suffering, to being our own priests and priestesses and tapping in directly to the Divine.

We are not here to take on, to fix, to be martyrs, to rescue, to be burdened or weighed down. We are not here to self-sacrifice, or to protect, or to be afraid. We are not here to blame or ricochet around the victim triangle, but to accept our crowns, take up our swords, and allow our wings to expand. We are here to take flight. To be light. To stamp a new energetic imprint into the world. To radiate God.


The word empathy comes from the Greek—“en” meaning “within,” and “pathos” meaning “feeling.” So empathy is the ability to feel the feelings of another within ourselves.

The term empath is often used interchangeably with “highly sensitive person” (HSP). And although HSPs are our first cousins, most empath thought leaders agree that empaths are a specific breed of HSP.

While many HSPs are sensitive to the emotions of those around them, not all absorb those emotions into themselves. Empaths, however, tend to not only sense the feelings of others—anger, grief, rage, fear, confusion— but to take them on (and in), especially whatever emotions are not being consciously processed by the feelers themselves. Although empaths sometimes experience vicarious joy, more often than not we are shadow magnets—swallowing the unmetabolized suffering of the world.

Empaths’ fields are open systems. We seem to lack the energetic (and sometimes psychological and behavioral) boundaries that others have. This is often judged as a weakness, especially by the empaths themselves. This level of openness, however, when paired with the power of the Divine to transmute and transform, is a gift.

But when empaths forget that we are meant to be portals, and close down in the face of others’ pain instead of opening (locking the pain into our own bodies), we can experience what academics call empathic distress, otherwise known as serious suffering.

Empaths who unconsciously hold onto emotions tend to feel more pain than other people. We can endure illness, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and lack of trust in ourselves and in the world.

But like other sensitives, empaths also come bearing gifts, such as intuition, depth, great spiritual attunement, healing capacities, and the ability to connect with and bring forth the power of the Unseen World.

How to access these gifts and minimize the suffering, how to learn to run our Medicine through our initiated wholeness instead of through our wounding—these are the conscious empath’s tasks.


3. There Is Nothing Wrong with You

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final. / Don’t let yourself lose me. / Nearby is the country they call life. / You will know it by its seriousness. / Give me your hand.” –Rilke

There are two main fears that empaths run—the fear of hurting others and the fear of being hurt. I’ve run both. But for me, the biggest fear has been of losing access to my own light—being cut off from the Divine. It’s impossible of course, being cut off. We never are, but our thinking makes it so.

For many empaths, the sense of separation we feel when we take on others’ pain replicates our incarnation as humans—the experience of leaving the oneness cocoon of undifferentiated, boundless connection and coming into the denseness of human form. It’s a vibrational fall, and one that we are wholly unprepared for.

When we come into the earth plane as tiny infants and enter into these vulnerable bodies, heart first, and look around at physical reality, often the first eyes we see have forgotten that they are Divine. We can’t see ourselves as the sacred creatures that we are reflected back in them, and this breaks our hearts.

For many empaths, this is the proverbial fall from the garden, the shift from the visceral bliss bubble into a separate sense of self.

Developmental psychologists tell us that this separate sense of self doesn’t happen until later, that the brain isn’t mature enough at birth to even make these kinds of associations. But the learning I’m speaking of doesn’t happen in the brain. It’s a deeper, soul-level imprint.

When we incarnate and can’t find the light, many of us falsely conclude that we are alone, unworthy, and that there is something wrong with us. And every time we drop in vibration after that, every time we absorb someone else’s shame or anger, or run into our own dark emotions, every time we pick up some wayward malaise, we are unconsciously reminded of that first bitter fall from grace when we decided, for the first time, that “there is something wrong with me.”

“There is something wrong with me” is the empath’s credo. Most of us run this belief, below the surface, as an explanation for the sudden shift in vibration that we feel when we pick up on someone else’s shadow or wallow in our own pain. We spend our lives fighting against this belief, trying to prove it right or wrong, all the while forgetting that what we are feeling is just a passing wave through our sponge-like energy fields. We were never meant to make a home there, to set up shop and paint the walls.



4. Finish the Job

Like many empaths, my gifts were fortified by a childhood spent absorbing the energy of those closest to me. This was further cemented by later traumas—invasions, car accidents, falls, and illnesses—that thinned my energetic field.

I am not stating that becoming an empath is simply a result of childhood wounding or later trauma. To the contrary, I believe that empaths are born this way—with a specific karmic mission to learn how to come into mastery with our nature. We are here to learn about power, boundaries, self-other differentiation, energetic sovereignty, sacred service, and how to be a channel for the Divine. Childhood just happens to be the training ground for these karmic lessons.

As a girl at the dinner table, I used to flinch if somebody looked at me the wrong way. I had thin skin and wide antennae and was an expert at sensing the unnamed feelings of others. Unfortunately, most of the time, I mistakenly thought that what I was sensing had something to do with me.

Like many empaths, I also lived with energetic identity confusion. When I would drop inside to check in, I had a hard time finding myself. Instead I would feel the unprocessed rage, grief, pain, shame, self-doubt, and corresponding thoughts that I took on from my family, and falsely conclude, once again, that there was something wrong with me.

As empaths, 90% of the time, this is an attribution error. There’s nothing wrong with us. What we are feeling is not even ours, it is just something that we picked up in passing, something that we have identified with and are mistakenly carrying. What many empaths forget is that picking up on other people’s emotional debris isn’t the problem, holding onto it is.

This reminds me of a parable:

Two Zen monks were traveling together down a windy road. After many miles they reached a river with a strong current. On its banks they saw a young woman afraid to cross. The woman asked the monks if they would be so kind as to carry her to the other side of the river.

The younger of the monks refused, while the older one picked the woman up, placed her on his back, and swiftly transported her across the water. Grateful to be on the other side, the woman thanked the monks and continued on her way.

The monks walked the rest of their journey in silence, the younger one brooding and angry. Finally when they reached their destination, the younger monk spoke to the elder. “Brother, our training teaches us not to have physical contact with women. And yet, you not only touched that woman, you carried her on your back. What do you have to say for yourself?”

The older monk paused, took a breath, and replied, “Brother, I set that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

This is the question we should be asking ourselves as empaths. Not, “What is wrong with me?” or “Why won’t this energy leave me alone?” but “Why am I holding onto it?”

When I was first learning about my gifts, my energy work teacher, Carol—a reformed-Catholic, football-watching, Guadalupe-loving, bad-ass healer—schooled me hard on this lesson. She was on the massage table and I was practicing energy work on her. I had my hands on her head and was working with her nerve tissue when suddenly I sensed something dark in her heart. Before I knew what I was happening, it felt like my hands had a life of their own. They seemed to reach down into Carol’s chest and draw the darkness out of her body and into mine. My heart quickened, I started sweating. What was really going on here? Was this just my imagination? Was I supposed to take this thing out of her? Could I trust what I was sensing? This was my teacher and I didn’t want to screw it up.

I held my breath and worked in silence, scared of what I was feeling, and unsure what to do with it. Finally, from the table, Carol, in her typical brusque manner, barked, “Well don’t just stand there, finish the job!”

“What?” I asked, bewildered and not really sure what she was referring to.

“Oh for God’s sake, the energy!” she replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Don’t just take it on. Open the back of your heart and hand it over.”

And in that moment, not knowing exactly how to do this, I did. I widened my peripheral vision, sunk down into the earth with my feet, softened my back body, and let myself become an open door. And just as quickly as the energy came into me, it travelled out and into hands of the Divine.


 5. Why Are You Still Carrying Her?

When an empath absorbs someone else’s emotional debris, we normally do one or all of the following:

Identify with what we’ve taken on, get scared, become hypervigilant, over-focus on the energy we want to release, attempt to put up energetic shields, shut down and freeze, and/or dissociate and leave our bodies. Although these strategies may bring temporary relief, none of them truly work.

What we resist, as the saying goes, persists.

Identifying with the emotion keeps us stuck in endless processing of something that we can’t actually digest. Fear serves as an attractive force that binds us to the lower energies. Hypervigilance unconsciously draws the energy we are trying to fight off into our own bodies. Shielding activates a threat response and can keep us dysregulated and overwhelmed. Shutting down and freezing seals the energy into our tissues where it hardens as pain. Dissociating leaves an empty space in our fields. And because nature abhors a vacuum, when we abandon ourselves we leave room for other energies to occupy us instead.

In the face of all of this, there is really only one good choice—to surrender. Life is asking us to practice energetic aikido, to learn how to be in relationship with the wound without becoming the wound, to keep our eyes watching God.

Empaths often feel powerless because we automatically absorb energy. And while this may be true, what we do with the energy after we pick it up is up to us. As humans on the path to wholeness, if we want to lighten the load of our suffering it is essential that we do our internal shadow work instead of simply over-focusing on the darkness of others. This means getting radically honest with ourselves and being willing to ‘out’ our maladaptive psychological and energetic patterns.

There are many reasons why we get attached to carrying others’ suffering. I’ve identified four here: identity structures, vows, unconscious agreements, and energetic habits.

It’s important to state that we come by these structures, vows, agreements, and habits honestly. We don’t set off one day to self-sabotage and force ourselves to endure extra suffering. These patterns once served us deeply. They helped us to stay safe at some crucial time in our histories, usually childhood. They helped us to get love. They helped us to care for ourselves or for others, or to belong. But now they are keeping us fixed. If we want to evolve beyond the experience of drowning in the shadows of life, then we must be willing to bravely shed the familiar patterns and risk stretching into the unknown and blinding territory of our own light.

Let’s explore these patterns:

1) Identity Structures

Empaths can unconsciously build an identity around suffering, and letting go of this can feel threatening to the personality. The core beliefs that the empath uses to create this identity include: “I hurt therefore I am,” “My suffering makes me special or worthy,” and “I can’t take responsibility for my life because I’m in too much pain.” Or: “I must take responsibility for everything,” “Nobody else can handle this suffering the way I can,” “This person (or family, or group) would be lost without me,” and “They can’t handle their pain, but I can.” Or: “I am not safe until I manage the pain of the people around me.” Or: “There’s no one else but me; help doesn’t exist.”

Although on a conscious level empaths want to be free from the negative consequences of absorbing distress, releasing our identity structures in order to achieve that freedom can feel like too high of a cost. These belief systems may not be serving us, but at least they are familiar and create a modicum of safety. So instead of letting go of these beliefs and risking not-knowing who we are or how we fit in, we hold on. We hold onto the woman by the banks of the river without actually ever carrying her across.

2) Vows

Another reason why we hold onto others’ suffering is that we’ve taken some kind of a vow. This is not usually an explicit vow, but a subterranean, soul-level oath. These include vows taken in childhood, in a past life, or even those that our soul has taken on from our lineage. Examples include: “I vow to put myself last,” “I vow to suffer for God,” “I vow to carry the suffering of my ancestors so they won’t be forgotten,” “I vow to bind my power so I never hurt anyone with it again,” “I vow to never be happy until all suffering ceases,” or “I vow to achieve my purpose through pain.”

3) Unconscious Agreements

Unconscious agreements are a third reason why we hold onto others’ energy. While a vow is usually between us and us, or us and God, an agreement is between us and another person or a group of people—in other words, a contract. Unconscious agreements involve some kind of exchange, something that we are receiving in exchange for taking on the energy of others. Examples include: “In exchange for feeling useful, I will let myself be used by you,” “I agree to be the scapegoat in order to create collective harmony in the tribe,” “I agree to take on your pain in exchange for feeling worthy,” “I will carry your pain if you, in return, take care of me,” or “I agree to take on your pain in exchange for a sense of belonging, or love.”

4) Energetic Habits

The final reason we hold onto others’ energy is because we’ve adopted a maladaptive habit. By maladaptive I mean that this habit may have served when we first developed it, but is now outdated. These habits include wrapping our energy bodies around other people, leaving ourselves and projecting into other’s energy fields in an attempt to manage them and soothe ourselves, being overly curious about other people’s experiences, being addicted to other people’s emotions in an attempt to stay away from our own, over-efforting, and/or being constantly in “giving mode” and cutting ourselves off from drinking in the light of the Divine.

Like all good expired contracts, these identity structures, vows, agreements, and habits must be renegotiated if we want our freedom. This takes a fierce willingness to look at ourselves honestly, a radical degree of self-love, and often, support from someone else (a therapist, shaman, teacher, or wise friend) who can help us uncover that which we’ve been blind to. It also requires a willingness to, as one of my teachers, Diane Poole Heller, says, “disorient to health.” In other words, to get naked and allow the unknown into our beds. To let go of who we thought we were so that who we are can emerge. This level of undoing can be uncomfortable. But for those of us committed to minimizing our suffering and growing our capacity to serve, it’s worth it.

Once we turn towards these patterns with curiosity and begin to renegotiate them, we shift from being victims of our circumstances to being empowered participants in our lives. From here, the real work can beginthe practice of handing others’ energy over to that which has the ability to alchemize the darkness and turn it into light.


6. The Light of the Divine

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Empaths are shadow magnets; we unconsciously draw to us that which has temporarily forgotten that it is Divine in order to return it to the fold. To truly serve we need to learn how to hold our own native frequency in the face of lower energies, and for this, we need help.

I was sitting with a client the other day, a deeply kind man and finely tuned empath who runs a highly calibrated electric force through his nervous system. When he’s in a group of people processing deep emotions, this force manifests as quick jolt that ripples through his body like a horse releasing tension down its spine. It was this twitching that had him reach out to me.

As we sat together in my office with its granny-smith colored walls, Matt told me about a plant-medicine ceremony he engaged in, where he watched a female shaman absorb his deepest core emotional wounding, take the pain into her body as dark energy, and transmute it into light.

“How did she do it?” He marveled. “How did she handle that much of my energy? She was so small and I am so big… ”

I can’t claim to speak for all shamans. Actually, I can’t claim to speak for any shamans. But I think I know something about how she did it: with a lot of help. Shamans are only as strong as their spiritual allies. A priest without God is just a man in a costume. None of us can do it alone… 

Click here to read Part II of Anatomy of an Empath

Click here to read about my upcoming course, Empath Mastery: Sacred Tools for Highly Sensitive Healers.

Finally, head over here to sign up for my upcoming free tele-call, Empath Master Class: How to Find and Embody Your Light in Dark Times.

p.s. If you enjoyed this article and want to receive others like it, please sign up for my newsletter by clicking here. And, as always, I love to hear from you, so if my words sparked something in you, please let me know by sharing your thoughts below.

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About Sweigh Emily Spilkin

Sweigh Emily Spilkin, MA, CHT, PhD is passionate about helping people transform challenge into soul-centered growth. She is the founder of Thresholds Healing, through which she offers Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Somatic Soul Retrieval, and workshops and classes for therapists, healers, and other individuals ready to cross the Threshold into the full embodiment of who they really are.

4 Comment(s)

  1. Sweigh Emily Spilkin
    March 4, 2018 at 6:16 am #


  2. Yeeve Rayne
    March 6, 2018 at 3:48 am #

    Beautifully articulated, as always. Love you, Sweigh. Congratulations on your move towards the ocean.


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