By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
A Link Between Empaths & Codependency?
Empaths are more than empathetic. Like an HSP–highly sensitive person–they’re highly attuned to stimuli and other people’s emotions and energy, usually to a degree considered transpersonal or paranormal. They may be codependent and end up in abusive relationships. Let’s first consider some definitions. An HSP has a rich inner life and deep central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli. So an HSP may also be an empath, but encompasses more attributes. A codependent is someone whose feelings, thoughts, and actions revolve around another person. (1)
Empaths and Codependency
A codependent needn’t be empathetic and an empath needn’t be codependent. Some people justify or glorify their codependency on the fact that they’re empathetic; however, codependency is something very specific. Your focus can revolve around someone else, without really empathizing with what that person is experiencing. Codependents might do that to figure out the other person’s mood and then gauge how to react and be liked. They might not know their own feelings or what the other person feels or care much about it; especially if his or her behavior is causing them pain; for example, due to addiction, abuse, or if the person is emotionally unavailable.
Conversely, an empath might tune into another person’s feelings, but also be quite aware of their own and not change their behavior to manipulate the situation. They may express caring or offer to help, but also have firm boundaries to protect themselves and not overextend themselves. They might also realize that the other person isn’t ready to receive or want help. If they feel unsafe or sense abuse, they might leave the person to protect themselves. In other words, an empath may have healthy boundaries and not necessarily put the other person’s welfare above their own.
Often empaths become healers and have to learn to protect their energy field to not absorb negative energy from people in their personal and professional relationships. I was an empath and HSP, but didn’t know it. From a young age, I was very interested in the psyche and dreams and later had psychic experiences. Looking back, the signs were there of being sensitive to loud noises, pungent smells, nylons and scratchy fabric, and other people’s energy and feelings. Although I wasn’t shy, I now understand why I preferred nature to cities and disliked malls and crowds, preferring small shops, intimate gatherings, and sitting in the front of the class and along the aisle in theaters.
I was also codependent. Having had a controlling, narcissistic mother, my voice and real, authentic self was squashed. I learned to disregard my feelings and needs and accommodate those of other people in close relationships. Naturally, I was considered “too” sensitive.
Codependent empaths have the dual problems of weak boundaries and disconnection from themselves, while being highly sensitive to other people. They’re vulnerable to abuse for several reasons:
- They seek love and intimacy, but shame makes it difficult to receive.
- They feel the suffering of the abuser and can confuse that with love.
- They’re very understanding, which feeds their denial of abuse.
- They’re very forgiving, so excuse abuse.
- They’re harder on themselves so blame themselves for other people’s feelings and actions.
- Their denial fuels their inclination to give and wait endlessly for someone to change.
- They minimize their own needs and feelings.
- They’re introspective, find fault with and try to improve themselves,
- They’re sponges for negative energy and may not realize it’s coming from the other person.
- Due to weak boundaries, they don’t protect themselves.
- They absorb the shame and criticisms from abusers, due to their poor boundaries.
- They naturally want to help and heal people in pain, especially troubled people.
- They focus on the needs of other people and give abusers and narcissists the attention that they crave.
- Needy addicts and personality-disordered people, such as narcissists and people with borderline personality disorder, are drawn to empaths for love and understanding to help them with their suffering.
Empaths can be sucked by feeling sympathetic for addicts, covert narcissists and people with borderline personality disorders who play the victim with stories of woe. Then they feel responsible and can’t leave because their ill partners behave so needy and dependent, sometimes threatening suicide or self-destructive behavior, while claiming how important the empath is to them.
Empaths and Recovery from Codependency
The work of recovery from codependency has allowed me to empathize with myself as well as others without giving up my needs and wants. By reclaiming the lost connection with myself, I no longer tolerate drama, go along to get along, and am comfortable setting boundaries with other people.
- Steps of recovery include:
- Reconnect with yourself.
- Identify your feelings and needs.
- Honor them.
- Learn to express and meet them.
- Learn set boundaries.
- Develop self-love, self-worth, and self-nurturing skills.
(1) Lancer, D., Codependency for Dummies, 2d ed. (2015), John Wiley &Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, N.J. P. 31.
© 2021 Darlene Lancer
This article was originally published here, and is reprinted with the author’s kind permission.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness, also available on Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”