Crybaby. Punk. Soft. Weak. These are but a few of the names that I have been called in my lifetime because I was a sensitive person. I still am a sensitive person. Growing up in the African American community was difficult for a little girl like me. I was never told to "man up" like I suspect many sensitive little boys are, but certain respected members of my family have said that I have "soft" feelings and "God, what's wrong with you now?" Labeling you as a person with soft feelings is a polite way of saying you're weak. It's a way to gaslight you into believing that people should be able to say whatever mean, nasty thing they want to you, and you should endure it with a straight face and even laughter. They're just kidding, after all, and you should learn how to take a joke.
I was an awkward little kid. I never quite fit in with my classmates, the neighborhood kids, or even my family members. I didn't know why. I thought my uniqueness was something of which I should be ashamed. I was bullied and abused because I just wasn't the same as everyone else. I tried so hard to fit in. I tried so hard in fact, that I began to hide that sensitivity from not only the world, but also from myself. I built a massive wall to protect me from the teasing, the name-calling, and the physical attacks. I developed a thick skin. That's what normal people do, I told myself. People will eat you alive if you show vulnerability. And black people? Forget about it. I might as well walk up to someone and ask them to kick my ass.
People of color, and of course I can only speak from my own experience as a black woman, have had to be strong for so long that any display of vulnerability is seen as weakness. We're not allowed to be sensitive. We're not allowed to be weak. Weakness, or even the appearance of weakness, is a disgrace to people of color. I cut myself so far off from my feelings and emotions, that it got to the point where I no longer knew how to show emotions. Sure, if someone died, I would cry. That was pretty much it, though. I got married, had babies, enjoyed beautiful experiences... and barely shed a tear.
Even though I built the protective wall, I could still feel so much. I felt deeply. Everything around me seemed to have its own energy, its own life (of course, I now know that everything does have its own energy). I could be having a wonderful day, then I'd walk into a room and be overwhelmed by all the feelings in that room. It would instantly change my mood because, at the time, I didn't know how to block and/or channel that energy into something positive. I didn't even know what that was; I had no name for it. Friends and family would call me 'moody,' and not knowing what to call it myself, I accepted that I was a moody person.
Every now and then, the pent up, denied energy would overwhelm me to the point of explosion. I would cry and not know why. I would be enraged and not understand what had happened to bring me to that point. When it was over, I would start the cycle all over again. The vicious, counter-productive cycle.
Then I met a woman, a white woman, who told me about what it means to be an empath. Her race is relevant because I could not, would not have sought out information like that from my own community for fear of being snubbed and looked down upon. I felt a tremendous weight lifted off of my shoulders. Empath. I finally had a name for the ability to feel other people's feelings like they were my own. Empath.
In the years since meeting that wonderful woman, I've become better at recognizing my feelings, differentiating between my own feelings and someone else's, and communicating my feelings with others. I'm not afraid to show my softer side. I no longer feel the need to be "hard."
There are some ways in which I've learned to honor and protect myself as an empath and I'd like to share them with you in the hopes that some struggling empath will benefit from them.
1. Spend some time alone. There are times when it's overwhelming to deal with both my own emotions and those of others. Spending some time with just yourself will give you a break from the many energies you encounter within a day's time. You might be surprised at how rejuvenating solitude can be.
2. Set boundaries. When you are spending time with yourself, make sure you set clear and firm boundaries that that time cannot be interrupted by anything short of a true emergency. You honor and respect yourself when you honor and respect your boundaries. And when you honor and respect your boundaries, others will, too.
3. Meditate. Meditating is not as daunting a task as you might think. Simply take some time to breathe, relax, and bring yourself back to the present moment. Sometimes, more often than not, I let my mind wonder. Problems seems to work themselves out that way. But if letting your mind wonder just stresses you out more, focus on bringing yourself back to the present moment each time you find yourself thinking of anything else. And breathe. Deep, slow, long, cleansing breaths. It might also help to play soft, relaxing music in the background.
4. Tune out. I no longer watch the news on television. It's so mired in negativity and hostility that I feel attacked when I watch it. When I feel attacked, my body reacts as if it's being attacked. When you're stressed, your body releases a myriad of chemicals and hormones to defend itself. Those hormones serve a purpose and are beneficial in the moment (if you're actually being attacked), but if you're in a constant state of "fight or flight," those substances stay in your body. That's not good. I know that you probably like to know what's going on in the world, and that's fine. Everything in moderation. You don't have to tune out completely, just be mindful of how much chaos you allow into your psyche.
5. Spend time with positive people. This is sometimes easier said than done. Chances are, you work with or know someone who is an energy vampire. Energy vampires suck all the positive energy out of you and drain you dry. When they leave the room, you feel like all of your energy has left with them; you're exhausted. Some of these vampires might even be in your family. Well, you may be obligated to work with them or to perform family duties with them, but your free time? That's all yours. You get to spend that with whomever you want. Make good choices about the company you keep.
These are a few simple things that help me navigate this big, wide world of emotions, and I hope you will find them helpful in your life. It's entirely possible to be protective of yourself and yet remain open to possibilities and experiences. It's all about balance.
Are you an empath? How do you honor and protect yourself? What challenges have you faced being an empath of color? Share in the comments. Let's get the dialogue started so that empaths no longer have to feel alone.
Until next time,
Feed on love, subsist on peace.
***Author's note: If you are someone who suffers from bipolar disorder or any other mental illness, this article is not for you. Please seek the help of a licensed psychotherapist and/or psychiatrist. In the Baltimore area, you can click here for resources.
***Author's second note: This post was inspired by a wonderful woman who did a video about being a black empath. Her video spoke to my very soul and I wanted to link her to this post, but of course, I wanted to get her permission first. It's such a humbling and beautiful experience to find like-minded souls in this world. Please visit Ifasina TaMeicka Clear and show her some love.