When untangling the empath-maze — understanding what this is all about and how it applies to my life and many of the challenges (and highlights!) in it — one of the most complex and confusing issues I have run into was that I was not sure whether I was in fact an empath, or just crazy by way of unhealed old wounds.
Past pain as a cause of mood swings
I was aware of having extreme, uncontrollable, and apparently completely random mood swings ever since my teens; and spent much of my twens reading up on every type of self-help material and therapy book trying to help myself with this. Many of these sources explained that random, seemingly context-free emotional outbursts can be due to hidden trauma triggers — they are old, repressed feelings which were too scary to express or too hard to process in the past, and now blow up in every situation that — no matter how vaguely — reminds me of the original setting / problem / person involved.
When your therapist hits the glass wall
This basic insight from psychology certainly helped me in that I could see how this theory seemed to apply to many of my outbursts. However, while over the years this situation has improved a lot and I am able to cope with triggers now that previously would set off the bomb — and I don’t even perceive many situations as triggers anymore that I used to — at some point I felt like I hit a glass ceiling with this; it never seemed to be quite the thing, the whole story.
The same nagging feeling applied to psychological explanations of the vivid images I would somehow see before my inner eye, out of nowhere, or in context. While I learnt (from my therapist) that this is probably my mind symbolising (turning into images) feelings that for some reason I am unable to feel directly (as they are possibly blocked, suppressed, or I am scared of them, etc.) — this again made sense for some, but not for others. Some images and sensations, and even intense dream visions, still bore the taste of an influence external to me, my mind, my imagination.
Inner coherence and gradually trusting your feelings
When I heard, and gradually came to believe and accept that I am an empath (crazy enough! for someone trained in science and well-read in psychology), this made sense and had more of a feel of “truth” to it. I found more peace. I was internally much more at peace accepting that what felt like external energies, sensations and messages — in fact, simply is exactly what it seems.
However, some lingering doubt and confusion remained, and perhaps remains: as it seems clear that some instances of surprise mood swings made sense in the framework of old trauma triggers. Since I needed years to figure them out, how can I be sure that the rest of my “empath” experiences doesn’t have the same source? The only answer is that some of my empath experiences could not be explained in a psychological framework, in the sense that I felt things over a distance (sometimes a huge distance, e.g. the Atlantic) and could later verify the details. Many experiences that I suspect are empathic did not involve distance.
Physiological imbalance as a cause of mood swings
Another confounding factor was that I was aware that some of these swings correlated with hormonal cycles, and a friend — who I first turned down, but who turned out to be spot-on after I have finally given in and tested his theories years later — made me aware that they also correlated with metabolic cycles, i.e. what I eat and how I digest it. After extensive research in nutrition and the gut-brain connection, I went on a dairy and gluten-free diet, and it was like a huge burden was lifted off my mind and maybe 80% of these swings — including the hormonal ones — simply disappeared. Thus I can say that they were related to my body’s inflammatory response to certain allergenic foods. I know this is true for many more people — if you suspect it may apply to you (or you even think it’s crazy but feel so bad — or are so open-minded — that you’ll give anything a try), the best resource I have found is kellybrogan.com.
How do you figure out which is which?
I have no easy solutions as to how to figure this out, except by eliminating the possible causes of mysterious mood switches one by one.
My solution is gradual — through mindful self-observation and experimentation I could figure out a lot of this for myself; in the process I also learnt that empath experiences have a different “feel” from trigger experiences of physiologically induced swings — I have become good at identifying them by “colour” or “flavour”; by how they feel.
An additional puzzle piece to figure out
However, I believe that this is much more complex in a case where, like in mine, there is additional, actual emotional instability that has other sources (such as emotional trauma and physiological imbalance).
This is one of the reasons why, while the various empath courses and resources available online and in book stores were very helpful for me, I have had to solve an additional piece of the puzzle that some other empaths perhaps don’t have to. However, some do — including friends of mine to whom I am grateful in their help in sorting out this story.
I have had to find other and more scattered resources, and work at them perhaps longer and more thoroughly.
Take care of both
While I am not a mental health professional and have no qualifications to diagnose or advise anyone on matters of mental health, I am writing this article to emphasise that while empath overwhelm can look like mental illness, and can be mistaken for that, there are two things to consider:
1) The fact that someone is an empath can in itself constitute a significant emotional burden e.g. in childhood that may lead one to accumulate trauma symptoms, or even physical sensitivities (like in my case) that affect your mental health; so that as an upshot, you actually have to deal with both. But understanding the empath component is a great help; once you figure this out, the rest may get sorted more easily.
2) Being an empath, even if it’s not the (indirect, through experiencing isolation, rejection, overwhelm, etc.) cause of certain mental burdens or symptoms, can be accompanied by symptoms coming from other sources. It’s important to 1. deal with both (not assume that if you are an empath, all your issues are empath-issues) 2. learn to tell which is which so that you know how to deal with each instance.
I am planning to write a more detailed guide on this, and it would be great to hear your experiences in this area, in addition to mine and those of the few people I know who have shared with me. Please feel free to leave comments, or write me an e-mail with experiences or questions.
May you experience balance, vitality and joy.