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Self before service

I was writing this note to a friend (and fellow Empath), whom I know is “going through it” right about now. The short email became longer and I figured I’d share it here in the hope this message resonates with the — IDK ??? — 10, 15, 20 percent ??? of the population that leans toward the Empath Personality profile. Here goes.

A life of service and giving. Of doing for others. Of ameliorating the ailments and illnesses of society, or of someone we love. Such callings ring true and deep for the Empath. And while many (most/all?) of us embark on such paths of service, giving, doing … we stumble, fall, bruise ourselves, drain our energies, miss the marks on our own goals and wonder why Things just aren’t quite working out as we’d hope.

Why are such thoughts and challenges so prevalent and dominant in the Empath’s life?

the path that must be walked

All empaths are first, and foremost, “Unhealed Empaths” and, as such, have a propensity (or obsession in most of our cases) to want to fix and help Others first, believing that such virtuous acts will then serve to heal our own whatevers — our traumas, unmet needs, unworthiness stories, et cetera …. (fill in the blank here in whatever way supports your story).

And so we live our lives, from infancy and onward (until we begin to heal, that is), intensely aware and with heightened capacity to sense and feel the energy, emotions, anxieties and fears of Others. But because we are Unhealed Empaths–for, by nature, all Empaths are first unhealed–we have no tools, no awareness and no capacity to understand the difference between Others’ burdens and our own.

We likely even prefer the feeling, the excitement, the stress and even the heaviness of Others’ burdens, for such is one of the core methods by which Unhealed Empaths stay disempowered: by putting Others’ needs above their own, believing Others’ burdens require more attention and hoping that (even without asking) our nobility of sacrifice and service will garner us absolution of our own darkness and despair.

(Side note as this thought pops into my mind: being a mother or father, for example, and putting your child’s needs above your own is not, per se, the path of an Empath; that’s being a parent. The Unhealed Empath, however, has a lifelong and often compulsive need to place Others’ needs above theirs.)

hiding it well

Yes, of course and in time, we understand, for example, we are responsible for doing our own school homework and studying for the tests we have to take as an individual, and we understand we can’t do that for another. Some boundaries exist between Self and Other. Some. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, we feel Others’ anxieties, stresses, complicated feelings and frustrations; take those feelings on; incorporate them into the heavier-by-the-day burdens we carry; and do so without batting an eye.

We may not know we’ve done this thing. We probably have no knowledge that, unbidden, we have energetically taken on the burden of another’s woes. Or, especially as we’re older and have more emotional intelligence, we might even feel grander, more noble and more righteous in our willingness to help lighten another’s load by carrying for them (or believing we are) their troubles and worries. It’s nothing to us. It’s what we do.

Think nothing of it. No problem. De nada. My pleasure. Happy to help. And so on.

See, there’s always more room in our minds, bodies, souls and depths of emotional anguish to stuff in more worries and burdens — particularly if they are the worries of Others. Maybe it’s for a family member or loved one that we do so; maybe it’s for the neighbor across the way whose child died … ten years ago; maybe it’s for the polar bears who are starving because of global warming; or maybe it’s for the person driving next to us along the highway whom we neither know personally nor even know the thoughts in their minds, but we can feel them — we can sense their anxieties and we, well, we just add them to the growing pile in our minds/hearts/souls/wherever.

Sure, we’ve got more room for that. There’s endless storage inside us for that. All it takes is another layer of diminishing our own Selves, our own needs and our own “stuff” to work on. Yep, always do we have room for Others.

stop, halt, reverse, undo

Our true power as Empaths (and for everyone, of course, though with Empaths it’s “a must”), however, comes when we realize that we — our individual Selves — are the ones who first and foremost need the kindness, care, forgiveness, friendship, fortitude, help and self love only we can give ourselves. Then and only then will we begin to step into our greater capacity to truly be of service in the ways and manners particular to our individual paths and capacities.

There’s no “one way” to get healed. There’s no “one book” that will provide the path that all can walk, though there are some basics. Developing an energetic shield and putting attention on discerning between Others’ anxiety and your own. (It can be distinguished.) Actively (and regularly) dissipating energy you’re carrying that isn’t yours. Not taking Others’ woes on (recognizing boundaries for yourself and for Others.) A mantra or statement of worthiness, even if it is simply, “I am worthy of having boundaries” or “I am worthy of caring for my own needs first.” Time each day to relish in the present and doing something just for yourself, such as enjoying a nice piece of chocolate, fully and present. And actively unpacking the energies you’ve taken on and adopting a “return to sender” attitude. (Others’ energy doesn’t belong to you, so sending it back to the originator is the healthiest, most positive and loving thing you can do.)

layer by layer

I have a lifetime of over-giving, “helping” when it wasn’t asked for, placing Others’ needs (perceived or real) above mine and hoping that in the scraps of Others’ success and happiness some crumbs and detritus will fall my way, and I will thus feast.

It never works that way.

As Unhealed Empath can contort truth into a cobbled story of sacrifice and service making one whole and happy, but such happiness cannot come — or will only be an infinitesimally small and distorted experience of what is possible

As much as I am a creature of Service. As much as I wish to serve something greater than myself. I can only truly be of service when I am whole, healed, happy and, at least emotionally, healthy. And I can only do that — as all Empaths can only do — by beginning, layer by layer, to redirect their focus from the needs of Others to the needs of the Self.

I’m in the early days of this path. I can feel it. My brain has more space to think my own thoughts. My mind doesn’t grind with the weight of countless Others’ shoulds, fears, worries and stresses not of my making and not belonging in my mind. But as I clear these things out, bit by bit, and as my mind clears, I know I am moving, with alacrity, toward that which I’ve always sought: to be fully able to support and serve something greater than myself.

I thought I was doing that all these years and decades past — this grand and glorious serving of something grand and glorious. (All Empaths do.) But, in truth, I was only weakening in spirit and capacity with each passing year as I made more room for Others and less room for myself.

I know it’s a layer-by-layer and bit-by-bit process, yet it is our path. It is the Empath’s Path — first to focus on Others, then to be pummeled by it (nobly, of course, nobly) and then to rise with each thought, decision, belief or consideration that they must give to themselves now what they have given for so long to others.

That’s a paradigm shift of great magnitude for those of us with such natural leanings. I’m in it. I’m experiencing it, and I wish for all those oriented as I have been to, to find the light — your light — and let it shine. It may be dim at first, but shine it will, bright, glorious and emanating of the nature and truth individual and specific to your path, your purpose and your power.

Rock on.



  • Ryan
    Posted August 3, 2023 at 10:28 am

    Wow, this really spoke to me. Thank you for threading all of this empath experience together in beautiful writing. I’m inspired by the enneagram lately (I presume most empaths are heart types, if not just straight up 2’s – *2*,3,4). The permission (and instruction) to find wholeness and true Self first is always so helpful to me as a person. The realization that I am looking externally in a (thwarted) attempt to heal is so helpful to me (in my case, to be special, connect, feel deeply and “positively”). I am struck by how you put words to what we expect from others and life by giving (the harvest/feast that’s never ours)! You reminded me of another motivation for doing this self work – that it has costs to relationships (pushing boundaries, setting expectations, etc.) – I mean, all you have to do is tell an empath they could be disempowering or hurting others in their unhealed patterns and they’ll (I’ll) stop in their (my lol) tracks. Wow. Thanks for this!

    • Post Author
      Jessie Newburn
      Posted August 16, 2023 at 5:05 am

      Thanks, Ryan! Empath to Empath … we get it. I don’t know much about the enneagram but it sounds like you do. Cool!

      Have a great trip! Saw your pics on Instagram!

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