The Empath's Guide to the Holidays
It’s that time of year again.
Ahhh…the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays this time of year can bring a wonderful and charming feel and excitement. For many of us, it is a time to gather with friends and family for celebrations. This time can be both exciting, and challenging. Especially if you’re an empath.
For most of us, gathering as family or friends can be enjoyable and fun. And naturally, sometimes challenges arise with group gatherings. It’s not uncommon to encounter touchy subjects and situations at holiday gatherings such as someone bringing up religion or politics, arguments, passive-aggressive behavior, rude comments, or the inquisitiveness of a nosey family member. Some people may easily brush these situations off, but for empaths (and just sensitive people in general), it’s quite a different story.
I can vividly remember the steady increase of anxiety growing within me as my husband and I drove to a holiday event one year. The drive would start off fine, but then I would start to imagine worse-case scenarios and form imaginary conversations in my head that would never actually happen in real life. By the time we arrived, I had to almost verbally calm myself down. I felt afraid—and that drained me before I even arrived at the gathering!
I notice a lot of my anxiety comes from my sensitivity and empathy. The more empathic someone is, the more anxieties, OCD behaviors, and mental issues they are more likely to have. My anxieties around social situations—especially around family—came from picking up on the energies of others, and turning that into fear-based scenarios that my conflict-phobic personality created. This conflict-phobic mentality had a tendency to put a damper on an otherwise enjoyable holiday gathering. I felt on-edge out of fear of an argument or conflict. If only I didn’t feel so tense. If only I could relax. I thought.
What I didn’t realize was that this anxiety was partly due to my empathic abilities, and partly due to my lack of assertiveness and boundaries. As I began to grow as a spiritual person, I started to learn more about empathic hygiene and setting boundaries with people. The more I did this, the more I realized the issue started with me, not my family or friends.
The Empath’s Dilemma
As empaths, we have a natural ability to take on, perceive, and (on a more advanced level) transmute the emotional states of those around us. In that situation, I was not only increasing my own anxiety, but picking up on the fears and anxieties of other family members at that gathering. I was taking other peoples’s negative emotions on as my own, which naturally drained me.
Empaths have a very interesting dilemma. We have this amazing ability to help others emotionally, but sometimes this can be overwhelming as we have a tendency to take on other people’s emotions as our own. This is often coupled with a lack of discernment, making it hard for the empath to tell if the emotions are another person’s, or their own. So, it’s only natural that many highly empathic people have problems with assertiveness, boundaries and standing up for themselves. I wrote a blog about empathy, but here are some of the common traits of an empath:
You can tell the emotions of others easily
You know when someone is lying
You connect with animals and nature—sometimes even more than people
You prefer peace over conflict and perhaps even have a tendency to bend over backwards for others, or “go along to get along”
You love helping people in need
You have a problem with standing up for yourself, and are perhaps conflict-phobic
People think you’re easy to talk to, or perhaps a good listener, and tell you their problems/issues
As you can see, the above traits, mixed with a dash of introversion, can create an interesting and challenging circumstance for any empath at a holiday gathering. Many empathic people can quickly feel sensory overload, anxiety, or even become upset or afraid because they are in situations that others may take advantage of them (whether it be consciously or subconsciously). So it’s no wonder that many empaths are reluctant to go to group events.
That being said, there are things empaths can and should do to protect themselves daily. Many of these negative side effects are due to a lack of understanding of the basics of energetic hygiene, assertiveness and boundaries.
The Key to Any Healthy Relationship
Like many empaths, and possibly a majority of people out there, I didn’t know how to be assertive. As defined by Doreen Virtue’s book, Assertiveness for Earth Angels, Assertiveness is the following:
Assertiveness means that you’re aware of your feelings and opinions and that you state them to yourself and others in a way that respects other people’s rights. An assertive person is kind, peaceful, and gentle yet never apologizes for his or her feelings, because feelings are to be honored and respected…
Assertiveness is not to be confused with aggression, which can be emotionally charged and a finger-pointing blame-game. It is not passive-aggressive, which is indirect and unhealthy in expressing your feelings. Nor is it passive, which is just letting people walk all over you.
No, assertiveness is the healthiest way to be in a relationship. It is setting boundaries without starting an argument. Being assertive means being truthful with yourself in the moment, so you can be truthful with others about your boundaries.
So what does “assertiveness” have to do with the holidays?
Many empaths who have feelings of anxiety around the holidays can attribute it to two things:
A lack of empathic hygiene, and;
A lack of boundaries.
As stated earlier, I wrote a whole blog on empathic/spiritual hygiene. Just like putting on deodorant or brushing your teeth, empathic hygiene is something you need to practice every day. Yes, every day. If you’re not practicing empathic hygiene, that can develop into bigger problems, including energetic imbalances that can manifest physically into anxieties, health issues and so much more. As someone who identifies as an empath, it’s your job to set boundaries and take care of yourself—both physically and energetically.
Setting healthy boundaries with people is key to healthy relationships. Period. If you don’t know when to express your boundaries, people will continually walk all over them because they don’t know any better. When someone does something you’re uncomfortable with, and you don’t let them know (in a gentle, kind, loving way), they won’t know—and will continue to do the thing you don’t like.
An Abusive Past
Many empaths I’ve met, myself included, have dealt with some sort of abuse in their past. Many empaths who struggle with assertiveness do so because they were programmed (either through early age or a relationship) to “go along to get along” and suppress their feelings as a necessary survival tactic. When in an abusive relationship, being assertive can be dangerous, as the abuser can be controlling, manipulative, and even physically abusive if the victim (the empath) isn’t 100% compliant. Empaths who have dealt with those relationships in the past have mental “hard-wiring” that goes down to an almost subconscious level—they become afraid to stand up for themselves, because they project the anger of their former abusers onto those they need to stand up to—making themselves reluctant to stand up for themselves out of a nonexistent fear of abuse from the person they need to be assertive with.
My advice for these empaths who have suffered from abuse is this: Stand up for yourself, a little bit at a time. First, become aware that you’re projecting unrealistic fears of abuse onto people when conflict arises. Understand when to differentiate your projections of fear onto someone, versus needing to get away from someone whom is actually a toxic person (and could potentially abuse you). Most normal people, however, need you to tell them your boundaries out of necessity for a healthy relationship. Start by inflecting and listening to your emotional self when you are in a conflict-phobic mindset. Start to learn the triggers and warning signs that put you in a submissive mindset. If needed, seek psychological help from a councilor or psychiatrist to help you heal from the past.
Learning assertive behavior and learning how to set boundaries is too important for your life to not have some level of understanding and practice.
Here are a few assertive phrases that are good to have in your arsenal at any given event—not just the holidays! The key here is to know when you’re uncomfortable, acknowledge it internally, and say something in that moment! Yes—that takes courage and practice—but practice makes perfect!
Caveat: It’s important to make sure that you speak your truth from a calm, loving place of peace. Sometimes someone may say something that upsets you, and this is OK. Always honor your feelings, and recognize first that you’re upset. You may have to excuse yourself to the bathroom if you need to be alone and calm down. Just breathe through it and honor your feelings. Never apologize for how you feel, as your feelings come from a place of truth. Honor and respect your feelings. Process them, and work through them. This is the first and most important step in assertive behavior. When you feel you’re calm and collected, that’s when you can go back into the situation with a level head. It’s important to sometimes do this so you don’t become aggressive as this can start an argument.
“I’d like to clear something with you”—good if you would like to set some initial boundaries
“I really care about our relationship, so I need to share my feelings in order for us to clear them”—a great, gentle way of setting boundaries
“I feel,” “I felt,” “to me”…—these are all great starts to assertive statements
“I feel uncomfortable with the direction this conversation is going”
“I’d rather not discuss this”—when a topic comes up that you find uncomfortable and would not want to talk about
“I only have __ amount of time to talk”—great for people who talk too long on the phone, or who are energy vampires
“How interesting, why would you ask me that?”—a great question for people who inquire too much
“I would like you to respect my point of view”
“I don’t believe what you’re saying”
“I don’t believe you meant to hurt me with the words you chose, but that is what happened”
“Excuse me, I wasn’t finished talking”—this is a good phrase to use for people who have a tendency to interrupt you
“I’m just not comfortable with that”
“Are you OK? You seem upset.”—This is great when someone is being aggressive or passive-aggressive with you. This forces them to inflect (briefly or not) on their own emotions and to begin expressing them to you. This is good with helping others become assertive.
I was once at a family event where there was someone who was a little too inquisitive about my personal life. I was getting ready for something, when they asked me a very personal question loudly and in front of a lot of people. For a brief moment, I was shaken. Then I calmly replied, “How interesting, why did you ask me that?”. They paused and fumbled. I calmly stated that the question was too personal, but I appreciated their concern. That ended the conversation. There was no argument or finger-pointing. Many times people will test your boundaries without anticipating their motives being questioned. The key is to be calm and loving in your response, as that changes the mood and diffuses any potential hostility.
Stand Your Ground
Sometimes even with being assertive, people will still try and push your boundaries. This isn’t loving behavior—it’s toxic behavior. True love involves trust and respect. A great way to see if someone truly cares for you is to set healthy boundaries. If they continually cross those boundaries—after you have clearly defined them multiple times—that’s not respect, nor is it love. People who do that often display toxic behavior, and are only trying to use you. If someone is toxic and they disrespect your boundaries, it’s time to let them go. It’s not your job to save people from themselves, nor is your soul’s mission to be a martyr.
I myself have had the unfortunate circumstance of cutting off both close friends and family due to a lack of boundaries and toxic/abusive behavior. It was hard. It’s never easy. But I don’t regret it, because if someone loves you, they care about your feelings. If you express your feelings, and someone does something that conflicts with your well-being, that isn’t an action coming from a place of love. That’s an action that’s coming from a place of selfishness. If someone’s relationship with you is defined to any degree from their own place of selfishness, that’s not a healthy relationship you need to be in.
Other Holiday Tips
Assertiveness and empathic hygiene (shielding, grounding, cutting cords and meditation) are the two main tools you need to have in your arsenal at any holiday family event, but what else do you need to be mindful of during this family-oriented holiday season?
Alone time—it’s good to take a break and a breather. Many family gatherings are noisy, crowded and can cause sensory overload. It’s important to take breaks and go outside/get a breath of fresh air. This can help you ground and get your head in the right space—especially if you’re around stressful people.
Self-care—if you’re staying at a holiday gathering long-term (such as at a family member’s house) take some time for self-care, such as a salt bath, a nap, or even getting your nails done. Do something for yourself.
Meditate—meditation is an integral part of spiritual (empathic) hygiene, and meditation can help you ground and become centered in a hectic family environment.
Be mindful—take time out and just breathe and do an emotional “self-check”. How are you feeling? Are you upset? Why are you feeling this way? This helps your inner emotional voice become louder.
It Starts With You
Sometimes you can only handle people once a year. Know your limits, and be honest with yourself. Setting boundaries requires you to be assertive with yourself first and foremost. It takes practice, patience and an understanding that if you truly desire to be respected, it requires a level of self-respect that includes sticking up for yourself. If you aren’t willing to stick up for yourself (even peacefully through assertiveness), no one will—because no one knows yourself like you do.