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Empaths and Codependency: Where is the line?

Updated on June 14, 2016

We hear a lot about empaths these days. There is an awakening happening in the world and a lot of people are experiencing things that they don't understand. There is often confusion, especially with things that are similar but not the same. Empaths and codependents fall into this category. While there are some similarities, they are generally different. Empaths who are unskilled or unable to control their receptivity can become codependents if they are not careful. Here we will examine the differences between the two and what you can do to heal from codependency.

What is an Empath?

Empaths are people who are literally able to feel the emotions of others. They are the opposite of a narcissist. They are nurturing, caring and sensitive. Empaths who are unaware of their gift might notice that strangers open up to them without solicitation, or that they can always accurately gauge the emotional "tone" of a room or situation. Empaths are often able to tell right away if someone is sad or if they are hiding something. In fact, it is not uncommon for empaths to be jokingly referred to as "human lie detectors." Empaths are not dependent on the other person or people for emotional sustenance, approval or validation. The bond that empaths create with others is sometimes called "telempathy," and it is usually associated with spiritual, psychological or physical healing.

What is a Codependent?

Codependent people are reliant on others for their emotional sustenance. Codependents can be empaths and they can bond with others, but codependency has nothing to do with healing. In fact, codependency is a wound that needs healing. Codependency occurs when someone's needs are not being met and they become "merged" with another person in an attempt to meet them. It is often described as not knowing where they end and the other person begins. Codependency is unhealthy and dangerous, because the codependent sacrifices their own well-being for the other person. They often feel trapped or guilted into doing things they'd rather not do. Codependency is a largely self-inflicted problem, and it is very fixable in a non-personality-disordered person. Many times, enablers of mental illness and addiction have codependent problems. Codependency is sometimes seen as controlling or manipulative. It can be detrimental to the other person, such as in cases of a parent constantly giving money to a drug-addicted child. It is a prominent personality trait in the covert narcissist.

What is the difference?

As we can see, there are similarities between codependents and empaths. Both are extraordinarily sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, both are caretakers, and both are what we could consider "helpers," but there is a very big difference: codependency is destructive and harmful to a person and their relationships. Empathy is the exact opposite. There are other differences, too.

One of these differences is that empaths generally have healthy, strong boundaries between themselves and other people. Codependent people generally do not. This is what causes the inability to tell where they end and the other person begins. Boundaries are necessary in order to protect ourselves from unhealthy interactions or from being 'engulfed' by another person's personality and losing our identity, but codependents have a large amount of trouble with this.

Another difference is in how they respectively process another person's feelings and behavior. An empath will read the behavior and offer insight if needed or asked, but not feel personally affected. A codependent will feel responsible for the other person's feelings or behaviors. They are often unable to say "no" to things and have trouble separating their own feelings from the other person's. This is because of their difficulty with boundaries. When there is no boundary, there is no buffer or delineation between the self and the other person.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards him or her and how they will respond when someone steps past those limits.

One of the biggest differences between the empath and the codependent is in goals and driving forces. The driving force of the codependent is often fear. Where empaths are generally able to communicate their feelings and boundaries clearly, codependents have a lot of trouble with this because they fear the other person's reaction and, more deeply, the possibility of approval and/or love being taken away from them as a result of not doing what the other person wants. This is a toxic situation that results in the codependent doing, saying or agreeing to things that they are not OK with.

We often find guilt at the bottom of the behavior as well. For example, the mother has meshed with the child emotionally; all she can see are his feelings. She feels guilty because she works so much and she feels this means she is not a very good mother, so she gives the child whatever he wants. She knows it is not productive or healthy but she cannot seem to stop and now whenever she does not give in, the child rages until she does. As the child gets older, he sees this underlying guilt and hits that button every time he wants something. When the mother says, "No, I will not give you money because you'll buy drugs with it," he says, "I wouldn't need drugs if I ever had a mother who was there for me! I hate you!" If she gives him what he wants, he will stop saying he hates her. Her son hating her is her worst fear come true and she simply cannot stand against it, especially because he is in so much pain on top of that. So she gives him the money, reinforcing the cycle for the thousandth time. She mistakenly believes that stopping her son's emotional upset - and her own - makes her a good mother. This is how the cycle continues.

The goals of the two personalities are different as well. Empaths are generally interested in healing and helping others, whereas codependents are interested in having their own needs met because they cannot do so themselves. The empath's end goal is generally "to help," whereas the codependent's end goal is generally "to be loved." Codependents often believe their goal is to help, but we can see the true goal in the way that codependents often support or enable behavior that actually hurts the other person (such as giving a drug addict money or making excuses for a partner's dangerous, risky behavior). These are things a healthy empath would not do. Empaths generally will not support or engage in emotionally unhealthy situations, but codependents often do. This is because the codependent mistakenly believes the ends justify the means. If they have to suffer in order to feel needed or loved, they will do it. This is a sign of hurt, not love, and it needs to be addressed.

Codependents often suffer from self-image and self-esteem problems. They may believe someone will not love or like them if they do not sacrifice unfairly, or they may feel that they have no value without the other person. Again, this is a sign of a wound that needs to be healed. Approval and validation from others should not be so important that a person will cause themselves harm to get it. We see this in Borderline Personality Disorder all the time, as well as the manipulation of other people because of fear. Manipulation of others through deceit or withholding of feelings is still manipulation, and even if it seems harmless or "for the greater good," it isn't. Relationships need honesty and boundaries to be healthy.

What is enmeshment?

Enmeshment occurs between two or more people in a relationship where personal boundaries are permeable and unclear.

What can you do?

Empaths generally become codependents when they do not have good boundaries established. Strong boundaries are essential for everybody but they are imperative for the empath. Because the empath feels things so deeply, there needs to be a clear line between the self and other people, our own feelings and other people's feelings, our own personalities and other people's personalities. When these boundaries are blurred or don't exist, enmeshment occurs - and enmeshment is very strong with an empath. This is the dynamic between the empath and the narcissist. It is an unhealthy, unsustainable situation where both parties end up feeling trapped and unhappy.

Even if the empath is not a codependent, they may become enmeshed with a codependent if boundaries are not kept strong and inflexible. Codependents such as pathological narcissists will push for enmeshment because they don't feel secure without it. This must be guarded against and boundaries are how we do that. This is why it's very important to not fall victim to what's called "boundary ambivalence." This happens when we set a boundary but we don't enforce it. It tells the other person that we are not really serious about respecting ourselves and they don't have to be serious about respecting us, either. When you say, "If you cheat on me again, I'm leaving you" but you stay in the relationship when they cheat on you again, you have shown your partner that you don't really mean what you say and that you are not to be taken seriously. You are essentially saying, "I don't respect myself and you have permission to treat me badly." People only treat us the way we allow them to treat us. If you don't take your word seriously, nobody will and no relationship is worth your self-respect.

If you worry that you might be codependent, take a personal inventory. Why are you in this relationship? Do you feel you are sacrificing for others all the time? Are you able to meet your own needs or are you relying on the other person to do this for you? Do you speak up when you are unhappy with something or don't want to do something? Are you always feeling trapped or guilted into things you don't want to do? Do you feel taken for granted, or that you always need to fix everything? Do you anticipate the needs of others? This in particular is a red flag for codependency. Empaths generally do not attempt to learn what others need and supply that for them, but codependents do this often.

It is important to identify the problem - as well as your role in the problem - so that you can work on the solution. Again: people only treat us the way we allow them to treat us. Denial is very common with codependency, but we are responsible for our own behavior and our own feelings, so accepting your role in the problem can be difficult but it is necessary. If you are not prepared to do that and to be really honest about it, you are not prepared to heal from codependency.

In order to begin healing from codependency:

  • Identify the problem and your role in it
  • Take a very honest inventory of yourself to find out why you are codependent
  • Address unresolved issues from your past (find a great way to do that here)
  • Work on setting boundaries and sticking to them
  • Work on self-esteem and self-image
  • Work on identifying and meeting your needs yourself
  • Work on saying what you mean and meaning what you say
  • Learn to let go of guilt
  • Remind yourself that you are not responsible for the actions or feelings of others
  • Practice assertiveness
  • Get therapy if necessary

For empaths and other caretakers, it can also be necessary to find another area to focus your empathy on where you do not feel taken advantage of. A situation where you are not so personally involved such as volunteering can do wonders for changing perspective and fulfilling that "need to help." Just remember going forward that it is necessary to protect yourself from the emotions of others, otherwise the problem cannot be resolved.

If you have trouble setting boundaries, practice, practice, practice. Look in the mirror and say, "I don't like that, and I will not tolerate it" or maybe, "No, thank you, I have other plans." Try out being assertive in situations that you find yourself in. You will be surprised how many people can take a "no" without getting upset. If someone does get upset, remember that it is a reflection of who they are, not who you are. You have the right to your own feelings and your own needs, and anyone who does not respect that is not someone who should be in your life.

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