Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Empath and Emotional Abuse

Empaths can be set up for emotional abuse

An empath is a person who has a great deal of empathy. They can feel other people’s feelings; they can walk in another person’s shoes. Understanding where others are coming from is their special gift.

However, that gift can become a curse when the empath has not been taught how to use that gift. The empath is meant to see, feel, and understand another person’s feelings and then mirror those feelings back to that person so that the person can then see what they are feeling and take responsibility for those feelings. But many of us, including empaths, are taught that if you love someone it is somehow your job to make them happy. Further, some empaths are raised in homes where their empathy is used by others to manipulate them into a caregiver role.

One easy example to see is the daughter or son who is raised by parents who take very little responsibility for parenting. Indeed, they need the child to take care of their difficult emotions for them, so that they don’t ever have to feel them. They begin to rely on the child for all of their self-care needs. In other words, the child not only feels their feelings but begins to carry those feelings around as if they were theirs. The child then feels responsible for fixing these difficult feelings for the parents, always working hard to try to soothe and comfort the parents and/or solve their problems for them.

This child, now adult, has learned that it is their job to take care of other people’s emotions. They have learned that it is their job to solve all of their problems for others. What is very likely then is that they will be attracted to people they have to take care of. They will attract people who need that kind of caregiving.

Andrea Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

This is an absolute setup for emotional abuse. Let’s take Alice for example. Alice fell madly in love with Randy. Randy needs a lot of tender loving care—right up Alice’s alley. Of course, she doesn’t know this, is not consciously getting involved in order to take care of. It’s just that she is familiar only with this kind of love. Her empathy has not been trained to feel and give back those feelings to the one and only person who can really take care of them. Rather, she just knows that love means taking care of those you love. Doesn’t it?

Now, Randy begins slowly over time to demand more and more of her. And when it appears to him that his needs are not being met, he will use all manner of emotionally abusive tactics to get her to fall back into compliance. He will shame her telling her that she didn’t do it good enough, that, indeed, she’s not good enough. He will criticize her harshly. He will accuse her of cheating on him, when she’s just talking to a friend. He will need to isolate her from other loving and supportive relationships so that he can have her all to himself. And when she gets tired of all of this and tries to confront him, he will accuse her of being "crazy," weak, or just plain stupid to think that he's the problem.

In response, she will begin to feel a great deal of shame that she is not measuring up—why can’t she make him happy? Isn’t that her job? Due to his constant criticism, she will begin to feel small and inadequate in the face of the enormity of her job. She may begin to bargain for love: "If I just am kinder and more attentive, then he will love me again." She may feel that his misery is all her fault and if only she could just push the right button or say the right words, he would be happy.

She will very probably begin to walk on eggshells, being ever so careful with every word and deed, so that she doesn’t upset him in any way. She will begin to doubt her own observations, wondering if, indeed, she is "crazy," weak, or stupid. And she will feel very alone in all of this, since by now her friends and family may have been pushed away by his behaviors.

And throughout all of this, she is still feeling responsible for how he feels. She doesn’t know that it is not her job to make him happy. Happiness is an inside job. If he can figure out what gives him joy and go after it, then he will be happy. That’s his job, not her responsibility. And if he has unresolved grief or issues, it is his job to go to therapy and seek resolution. It is not her job to make him happy. But empaths often have this mistaken belief that since they can feel other people’s feelings, they are supposed to do something about that—something that will change those feelings.

What can Alice learn from such an experience? She can learn to turn her empathy on herself. She can learn to empathize with her own experience and rescue herself from emotional abuse. That is very likely to mean separating herself from emotional abusers. If she can learn this, then she can learn how to appropriately use empathy for others as well: While she may feel what other’s feel, it is not her job to fix that for them. That will always be the other's responsibility.

More from Psychology Today

More from Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC

More from Psychology Today