When Being An ‘Empath’ Is An Excuse For Codependence

No matter what we call ourselves, it’s true that we are the narcissist’s easy prey.

I’ve always known I experience other people’s feelings differently. I pick up on nonverbal cues most people miss, and when I walk into a room I often feel assaulted by the intensity of other people’s emotions. For years, I would’ve told you I was an empath — now I know I was codependent.

It’s not surprising that I’ve struggled to form healthy boundaries. I grew up in a home where my models for relationships were dysfunctional, not strong. I was raised by a narcissistic mother and an enabling father, and it didn’t take me long to understand where I fit in. My job, from the time I can remember, was to take care of my mother in ways she was unable to do. This meant becoming her confidante, her emotional caretaker, and even her best friend — if friendship meant orbiting my mother’s every want and need while receiving little in return.

I couldn’t have told you what was wrong with my family back then. As I grew older, and friends began to tell me things my mother did weren’t OK, I still clung to the idea that she was my closest friend. There were times when I tried to create boundaries with my mother — such as begging her to stop telling me about the intimate details of her sex life in my early teens — but she tore down every small boundary I tried to erect. I was told my boundaries were inappropriate or wrong, and I was often met with criticism or the cold shoulder.

Because my mother reacted so negatively to my (normal) attempts at creating boundaries between us, I learned to stop trying. I accepted that my role was to care-take the emotions of others, and I even came to believe that love feels a lot like codependence. After all, if my mother expected me to take care of her emotional health, why wouldn’t I do the same for my romantic partners?

It never occurred to me that the hypervigilance I developed as a child was what made me an “empath.” I was proud of my well-developed sense of empathy, but I didn’t notice I spent more time scanning the room for other people’s feelings than I did checking in with my own. I was so disconnected from my body that I could spot a flash of annoyance on someone else’s face, but I couldn’t feel my own anger or grief.

I’ve often heard it said that empaths are the narcissist’s preferred prey. After all, the more we feel the feelings of others, the more we can be manipulated to a narcissist’s will. Yet the further I get from my own narcissistic abuse history, the more I recognize how little difference there was between codependence and my belief that I was an empath. I focused more on the feelings of others than my own, believing it my job to cater to their every emotional need — and neglecting to build the boundaries needed to create healthy relationships.

I didn’t come to understand this about myself overnight. It took years to piece together how my childhood intertwined with my romantic relationships. But as I learned to establish boundaries with other people, I noticed a surprising side effect — my empathy was dimmed.

This isn’t to say that I stopped feeling empathy. What changed was that I stopped sensing the feelings of others before I even felt my own. When I noticed someone was upset, sometimes I didn’t feel the urge to fix it (or even to apologize… sometimes, other people are just plain wrong!). For the first time in my life, I began to inhabit the world as a distinct person, rather than casting out feelers and checking in with others every step of the way. I stopped scanning the room and quieted my inner voice. In a word, I was free.

So often, the modern cultural shift toward narcissism is defined as a problem and empathy is offered as the solution. For most people, that’s probably true. But for people like me, who have been conditioned to view themselves as special in their degree of empathy, it can be dangerous. The last thing we need is more empathy — we suffer from an abundance of it. We need the confidence, and perhaps even the permission, to erect the boundaries we’ve lacked.

No matter what we call ourselves, it’s true that we are the narcissist’s easy prey. But I didn’t heal from narcissistic abuse by priding myself in my empathy and doubling-down on my own dysfunction. I healed by recognizing that there can be such a thing as too much empathy, and learning to turn my empathy on myself for a change.

Jody Allard is a former techie-turned-freelance-writer living in Seattle. She can be reached through her website, on Twitter or via her Facebook page.