My box turtle, Bruce, has never met a fence he could tolerate. I guess I’m not the only one with boundary issues!

As a little girl, oh how I loved to read!

I was especially fond of science fiction, since (according to the cover art, at least) everyone was always trim and good-looking and self-possessed, and they had all kinds of groovy outfits and super powers.

Many also had super-cool rides, like dragons and “smart” spaceships.

I wanted to be one of them so badly.

One of my favorite characters in this particular science fiction series was a woman the other characters described as an “empath.”

I really loved this word. I also loved that the other characters treated her with such respect and awe. Her powers included taking on other people’s pain so they wouldn’t have to suffer by feeling it themselves. She could do it with physical pain, emotional pain, mental pain, even global pain.

I thought this might just be the best kind of superpower ever.

It made me start to wonder if I could become an empath, too.

Fast forward a gazillion light years (or about three and a half decades) and reality has set in. I have learned the real-life word for “empath” and apparently, in my case at least, it is “co-dependency.”

I have become so good at feeling others’ feelings and embracing them that I have become nearly paralyzed by it. But unlike my science fiction empath character, no one was feeling any better because of it.

Thankfully, around that time I met a woman who recognized what was going on and explained what I needed to do to fix it. 

She said I needed to learn to control my boundaries so everyone else’s “stuff” didn’t just flow in unannounced and set up shop.

She explained about “emotional vampires” (my science fiction characters never mentioned these) who could sniff out an empath from miles away and latch on, pouring out all their troubles and getting loads of free sympathy – and empathy – in return.

This mentor also taught me how to “zip up” when I was in near proximity to boundary-jumpers eager to hone in on an easy mark.

I didn’t actually have any trouble feeling these folks’ presence, but I had a lot of trouble identifying what I was feeling at the time I was feeling it, on account of how I was already so busy feeling everyone else’s feelings too.

Often by the time I had figured out that it was my boyfriend/best friend/friend of a friend that always made me feel queasy or panicked or confused or exhausted, untangling myself from the connection would inevitably cause damage in all kinds of unavoidable directions.

Recently I read an article called Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.

Apparently many people have the opposite problem from mine – they need to learn how to open up a little more and resonate with those around them. I found this quite interesting!

In this article, I also learned that many of the habits I have always had are the exact habits to cultivate to develop empathy.

While reading the article, I also learned a new term: “homo empathicus.” 

Apparently, this is what researchers are calling humanity as we evolve away from tuning out our natural empathic abilities and towards tuning in.

I love this!

In our lives, we need more tuning in. Thanks to the new sharing economy, where we are encouraged to make the most of limited resources by sharing rides, meals, accommodations, etc, with others, we have now set in motion one potential way to ease the worldwide loneliness epidemic.

But I must also confess, I no longer want to be an empath. Even if I could figure out how to actually take away the pain of others, I’m not sure that would be fair to them, or healthy. Maybe they need that pain to learn or grow or achieve what they want to achieve in life.

Either way, it is not my call to make whether they get to keep it or give it away.

Because of this, being an empath no longer seems glamorous or “special” to me. It is a painful way to live, especially when you don’t have a mentor to help you figure out the difference between empathy and co-dependence, or learn the ropes of self-protection and preservation so you can do some actual good.

It is possible to make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of unnecessary damage to others and yourself when you don’t know what you’re doing.

It is even possible to lose trust in yourself and those gifts for a long time, or forever.

Another word mental health professionals and researchers use to describe empathic people today is “highly sensitive.” This term I totally identify with! I have toughened up over the years, but I used to be the type of person who couldn’t even read a newspaper article without having nightmares afterwards.

Today, I feel like a person who is highly sensitive (we are reputed to make up about 20 percent of the population, and apparently this extends to other species as well as our own) more so than I feel like a person who is highly empathic.

I think one of the big differences between me and the empath in the science fiction series is that she knew what she was AND how to use her gift in a way that was healing and protective to all.

I am still figuring it all out, and I still know a lot more about what I am not than what I am.

I am also deeply appreciative – more so every day – of the other 80 percent of us who are not quite so highly sensitive or empathic. For instance, there are a lot of jobs that need doing that I could never do (the President of the United States springs to mind).

We are all needed and there is a place for each of us, and unlike the little girl me, I no longer think it is “better” to be part of the 20 percent than part of the 80 percent, or vice versa.

Instead, I am doing my best on a daily basis to practice the skills my mentor taught me so I can stay true to how I am wired without causing harm to myself or others, and still do the most good I can do as me.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you identify as a “highly sensitive” or “empathic” person? If so, how has your unusually sensitive “wiring” impacted your life and the lives of those around you? Do you find you are adept at using your gift of sensitivity and compassion for good? Or do you sometimes wish you had a mentor who could help you explain why sometimes life hurts so much and you have no idea why or how to ease the world’s pain, or your own?