If you’re an empath, you may experience them almost as intensely—or sometimes more intensely—than your own. You may get lost in other people’s emotional energy and be unable to separate it from yours, and you may feel a need to make sure everyone else’s emotions are “managed” so that you don’t drown in their anger, worry, negativity, or fear.
We don’t need to be an empath to be in a codependent, abusive relationship, but it’s much more likely. The reason? If we can feel another’s pain, we develop a deep wish for them not to hurt—because their pain hurts us.
How do we know if we are, what I call, a “pathological empath?” That is, a person who is wrapped up in the emotional experiences of others and it causes significant depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem? Someone who is exquisitely vulnerable to abuse, especially abuse by narcissists, and who is dysfunctionally codependent with one or more individuals in their life?
It isn’t easy to figure out, especially if we are in the midst of a confusing and painful romantic relationship. I’ve watched many clients struggle to get clarity about this, as I myself did. I’d found this great guy—a Yale grad, smart, charismatic, ambitious. And he loved me, or so I thought.
What started out as a major romance rapidly devolved into a nightmare. I remained firmly in denial as he blamed me for everything from losing his job (I’d forced him to stay home because he needed to keep an eye on me) to his wish to sleep with other women (I wasn’t sexy enough). He even blamed me when he threw my beautiful bird out the window into an icy New York winter night. He blamed me, he said, because he couldn’t trust me and I was weak, and, the worst part was, I could see his point.
The other worst part was, or the most dangerous part, I should say—though I didn’t see it at the time—was not those terrible moments, but the wonderful moments he’d toss in between.
Just when I’d muster up the means to denounce him once and for all, he would hold me, or make a promise, or tell me he believed in us, or that he needed me and only me. The relief was so welcome—an oasis in the middle of a desert of abuse—that I sank into it, exhausted and hopeful every time. Each time, the oasis shimmered a little less, and my thirst for peace and calm was never quenched. Until finally, I saw it for what it was—an illusion that could never sustain me.
I’ve spent a great deal of time, since leaving this man, trying to figure out how I—a seemingly otherwise intelligent woman—could have let myself be so degraded.
I know now that it was a perfect storm. Between my empathic nature, emotionally broken relationships with my parents, and a childhood of instability, I was primed for pathology. When I think back to the girl I was, who wanted so badly to be loved and saved and safe, I try and imagine the words that could have gotten through to her. She was so ready to shoot down any proof that things were as bad as they actually were.
But maybe she could have learned the following common signs of codependence and have seen this in herself:
>> Feeling the need to justify the thoughts or behaviors of the codependent person to others.
>> Experiencing confusion regarding one’s motives.
>> Spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about the codependent person.
>> Feeling compelled to do damage control and protect the codependent person from the consequences of their choices.
>> Lacking a solid “self-structure,” often feeling swayed by the codependent person’s points of view.
>> Feeling anxiety when thinking of the codependent person.
>> Holding the belief that just the right magic word or action will change the codependent person’s behavior.
>> Being in denial about the codependent person’s behavior.
>> Feeling trapped in a relationship with the codependent person.
>> Feeling like love from the codependent person must be earned.
For a pathological empath, getting sucked into the vortex of another person’s needs can, at first, seem like a deeply bonding, near-mystical experience. The power of being needed and connected on such a primal level is seductive.
The empath’s partner (usually a narcissist) will at first appear to value the empath and tell them how special, beautiful, unique, and talented they are. This honeymoon phase quickly erodes, however, and the empath is left wondering how to recapture their codependent’s love and esteem, and will do virtually anything to achieve that end. The cruelty they are willing to endure can be shocking. A crumb of kindness or love every now and then keeps the empath sitting at the table, waiting on a meal that will never be served.
What should we do if we find ourselves in here? To paraphrase the Talmud:
We need to see things as they are, not as we wish them to be. We can begin by taking the word “but” out of our sentences.
These are some examples of how pathological empaths justify their codependent’s bad behavior:
My partner often punishes me but, if I had not done x, y, or z (used that tone of voice, broken my promise, worn that outfit, spoken to that person), he would never have behaved that way.
My partner is often selfish about his needs, but it is because he is in pain, hurting from some old trauma. I never do what I say I’ll do, and he needs me to be stronger for him.
My partner often blames me for things that go wrong, but he sees the mistakes I’ve made and is just holding me accountable. He is tired of my incompetence; he is disappointed that I can’t do better. He can’t help himself, and I should let it pass.
Without the “buts,” these statements read as follows:
My partner punishes me.
My partner is often selfish.
My partner blames me.
There is an undeniable clarity here.
If you find yourself throwing “buts” around like nobody’s business, it’s fairly certain there is some kind of codependency in your life. If you feel trapped, hopeless, and confused in a relationship, it’s pretty much a guarantee.
The important thing to remember is, you can break free. We have the glorious liberty of controlling our own behaviors, and we always have choices.
First, we need to speak. We need to speak our truth to someone besides our codependent despite the fear that it will make them mad or even hate us. Then, we need to explore alternative plans including safety plans. It is a statistical fact that women in abusive, codependent relationships are most at risk of being killed when they try to leave their partner.
Dare to consider: what would life look like if I wasn’t in this relationship? What are the practicalities? Where could I live? How could I support myself? Who could become a new, or renewed, support system? How can I get professional help? We can take our time to sort these details out. Once we can see another path, we can begin to walk down it. Step by scary step, we can walk away.
If there is one thing I wish someone had said to me when I was trapped in pathological empathy, it would be this: love and fear can never coexist, and if you are in fear, you are not in love. By fear, I mean many things—not just physical safety. We may be in fear of being judged, betrayed, attacked, blamed, belittled, used, or exploited.
We all deserve real love. A place where there is understanding, acceptance, and peace. And if we can’t find it with another person, we always have the chance to create it within ourselves. We can become our own joyful oasis.