First, the difference between having empathy, and being an empath. In simple terms: Having empathy is the ability to resonate with another's feelings; to be in tune with someone's emotions. Being an empath is to feel what someone else feels as if the feelings are your own, and I mean this literally. (Empaths are seen as fictional by most - not real.)
I know a lot about the Otherworld - I've been journeying there ever since I can remember and in many ways, it feels more like home than here. But I've only very recently admitted to myself that I'm an empath.
I'm an empath.
I don't remember that word (or term) really existing when I was researching spiritual things in my late teens. I remember reading about emotional vampires and psychic protection; I remember reading about those who are of a sensitive disposition; but I don't remember coming across anything about being an empath - that it was actually a thing in its own right.
Saying it out loud brings tears to my eyes because I've always shut it out. Allowing its existence is an experiment; it's a journey of my current exploration of this part of me I've always denied, or always attributed to my connection with the Otherworld rather than to being here in this world. These posts may be messy and ugly, or beautiful and magical. I'll include protection and balance exercises that work for me as I go, and whatever else I think needs sharing. It's all a journey about how to exist in this world as me.
When I was about five years old, and walking along a busy pavement with my mother, I stepped on a worm. I heard it scream before I looked down and realised that I'd stepped on it. As bizarre as that might sound to anyone not spiritually-inclined, that's exactly what happened. I was so upset because I knew - obviously - that I had hurt it. It also wriggled under my sandaled foot, trying to escape before I hastily lifted my foot off it. I remember telling my mum I heard it scream. (I think she humoured me with a non-committal noise.) I've never stepped on a worm again - I literally take great care not to. I can't stand killing any animals, although I sadly admit that flies and mosquitoes sometimes meet their end in my house - not by my hand if I can help it. Whenever possible, I let them out the window. And I insist on keeping spiders in the house rather than shoo-ing them out so those flies and mosquitoes meet their end as part of the natural food chain. My cats help with that, too!
It's only now that I understand I felt the worm's pain - perhaps my brain translated it into a scream? I have no idea, and to me it doesn't matter because our five senses are just different ways of experiencing the same thing. To me, feeling the worm's pain is exactly the same as hearing it scream. It's only now, embracing the empath in me, that I understand my ability to feel nature and the world's happenings in this way is a part of who I am, and perfectly okay. In the Otherworld, among its entities, pain is always owned, and creatures can speak to you, so it's very easy to understand what is yours and what is someone else's. I thought I didn't belong here on this planet because the balance I so easily found while dreaming and journeying, I could not find here. My physical body was a barrier to my sense of self; every corporealised human soul seemed lost and adrift in their own suffering, existing as a manifestation of that suffering.
Nature helped. Nature was always beautiful and true, and I always found the deepest peace among it. My emotions attuned to nature readily without battle, and more so, nature always responded (still does) by attuning itself to me. (That is how it feels.) Being in the deepest parts of nature (in forests, woods, at the beach, amid mountains, rivers, valleys, and so on, is the closest way I can think of to describe what journeying feels like for me.
But I digress... back to being an empath...
My mother used to tell me that when I was around three years old, I could be seen in the playground of my school hugging everyone who was upset. And I actually do remember this. There was always at least one kid crying (there always is in the playground when you're three!), and I distinctly remember feeling their pain. I would go right up to them and hug them because, at three, hugging was what I knew took pain away. I'd do this every day - every time someone was crying. I also remember thinking that if I was happy, they would feel my joy if I hugged them. I had no understanding that not everyone could feel what others feel.
When I was four years old - at my mother's wedding reception, I think it was - I was sitting next to a girl, who was sort of a friend, who I admired no end. I really liked her. She was a tomboy, and brave, and she wore her hair short (which not a lot of girls did), and I thought she was awesome. I don't remember what we were doing - I think she might have been trying to apply lipstick on me, or something(!) - but I felt a sudden rush of love for her; this massive wave that washed over me, and without thinking about it, I leaned forward and gave her a hug.
She said, "Eeeeeew!" really loudly and pushed me away. I felt her disgust like it was my own and was devastated I'd caused such a feeling. I didn't hug anyone again for ten years - not a proper hug. I remember my mum complaining, so sad, that I refused hugs from her from that day. In my mind, I just didn't want to hurt anyone with my hug ever again - I couldn't stand to cause that kind of pain. That's how a four-year-old empath's mind works.
That was my first lesson in understanding that I needed to set boundaries, and that other people had them, too, and had the right to set their own. I didn't see boundaries before then - it's very hard to see them, or understand them, when you feel what others feel.
Over the next few weeks and months, I'm actively working to "undo" the negative mental patterns and scars that such childhood experiences leave you with. (We all have them.) Embracing my empath is the first step. I've told off that child in me so many times over the past three-and-a-half decades - for stepping on that worm, and for hugging people who didn't want to be hugged. I've told her off so much for causing pain. But it wasn't her fault. It really wasn't. She couldn't help who she was and her perception of the world at the ages of three and four; five and six.
I'm embracing her now. She was an empath and still is. Ever since those incidents, I have found it awkward and difficult to walk in this world - made of bodies and opinions and harshness, and so much repression that it cuts me in half. We have no idea who we are - as individuals and as a race of people. "Luminous beings", says Yoda, and I'm inclined to agree. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all embraced the thing that made us luminous? Actually manifested it and lived it?
That's what I'm going to do, and I've debated whether I want to make myself potentially vulnerable by writing it all down. But there's great strength to be found in vulnerability. If my messy life journey can help or inspire someone else to be luminous - to be their authentic self - maybe I can walk in this world after all.
Written by Dianna Hardy.
Article first published on the Between Fire & Ice Blog, 21st February, 2019.
Photograph: Algarve, Portugal © Dianna Hardy