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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

Am I an Empath? Or is this the effect of childhood trauma...

In the complex world of human emotions, our upbringing often shapes our ability, and sometimes necessity, to read others and adapt to different situations. For those raised in stressful childhoods, learning to decipher the energies, moods, and emotions of those around them was more than just a skill – it was a survival technique.

Over time, I've had many people come my way and share something like - "Well I understand why X impacted me so much, I'm such an empath!" or "I have a hard time when others are having a hard time, because I'm such an empath.." or some variation of that thought. Most often, these same individuals have extensive trauma in their backgrounds and have endured childhoods that have often left them plagued with anxiety. I've found myself dismantling what it means to truly be empathetic in nature, versus be acting on a survival skill that once served you well but now the effects are keeping you hostage. Many people who consider themselves empaths are actually struggling with the effects of childhood trauma.

Growing up in a traumatic environment meant navigating a constant minefield of emotions and potential threats. For many, not being able to read the room could result in abuse, neglect, rejection, or bullying. As a survival strategy, hypervigilance became second nature – a skill honed to perfection. It enabled individuals to instinctively pick up on the subtlest cues, adapting themselves to diffuse tension or avoid danger. In essence, it was a matter of survival.

However, this survival technique came at a cost. Hypervigilance often meant placing the needs of others before one's own, as self-preservation required constant awareness of the environment and others' emotions. It could lead to codependent relationships where personal boundaries blurred or even vanished. The hyper-attunement to others' emotions could result in unrelenting anxiety, as the brain became an expert at maintaining this state of heightened alertness.

Empathy, in contrast, is an entirely different concept. It's about understanding and connecting with others on an emotional level, but it doesn't entail absorbing their emotions as one's own. True empathy involves honoring personal limits by seeing things from someone else's perspective without losing sight of one's own emotional boundaries. When practicing empathy, we extend this understanding not just to others but also to ourselves.

The Distinctions

  1. Survival vs. Connection: Hypervigilance was a survival strategy, born out of necessity. It focused on navigating the external world to protect oneself. Empathy, on the other hand, is about fostering genuine connections, both with others and with oneself.

  2. Boundary Awareness: Hypervigilance often leads to a lack of personal boundaries, as the focus is primarily external. Empathy, however, requires the awareness of personal boundaries, respecting them while connecting with others.

  3. Self-Care: True empathy includes self-empathy. It's the ability to understand and acknowledge one's own feelings and boundaries while relating to others' experiences.

Recognizing the distinction between hypervigilance and empathy is a vital step in the healing journey, especially for those raised in complex, traumatic environments. Healing involves acknowledging the survival mechanisms that served a purpose in the past but might no longer be needed. It's about redefining boundaries, fostering genuine connections, and practicing empathy towards oneself and others.

Surviving a stressful childhood often meant mastering the art of hypervigilance – a survival skill that allowed individuals to adapt and protect themselves in unpredictable environments. However, it's crucial to distinguish this survival technique from empathy. Empathy is about connection, understanding, and self-care, without losing one's personal boundaries. By recognizing the differences and embarking on a journey of healing, individuals can reclaim their emotional well-being and build healthier, more authentic relationships.

childhood trauma therapy



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