Why I'm an 'empath' and not 'mentally ill'
The other day I was having a conversation with someone about how frustrated and confused they felt about all the labels floating around this world... and I couldn't help but resonate with her thoughts and feelings because I too have spent a lot of time getting overwhelmed with where I fit. Because there is so much power in language, and how we define ourselves plays such a big role in our lives, I thought I would dedicate a post to labels and what they mean.
Labels are socially constructed. They are only as real as society allows them to be. They are created for society by society to categorize and "better understand" people and their complexities. This can be good, the label 'empath' was created by a highly sensitive person to create a safe space for people who felt emotions deeply, had a strong resonance to the metaphysical world, and had abilities not often recognized in mainstream society. But it can also be bad, as labels are more often than not created by society's dominant group to confine and limit those who are different.
Labels are the names we give our experiences and roles. They are how we define ourselves in this world. Think about your social media and the words you use to define yourself, these are labels. "When a label fits we feel good about ourselves and when it doesn't fit us or our environment we feel bad (guilt, shame, anger, [uncertainty], resentment.)"
When I was in third year university the world got overwhelming and I found myself in the mental health ward of my local hospital. I was labelled with having all kinds of mentally illness; Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Body Dismorphic Disorder, an 'undefined' eating disorder and more. None of the labels resonated, but I trusted medical professionals and went with it. It took a few years for me to work up the confidence to believe in a different way. I had always known about energy but I never felt safe talking about it. That was until I met a Reiki Master (and a Counsellor in the same day!) who both told me I was an empath and taught me how to clear, ground and protect my energy with intention and boundaries. After a couple weeks of working with these professionals I was in a better place than I had ever been and I began to realize the importance of knowing the root of your 'mental illness' to determine if it's even a mental illness at all.
I'm just as affected by the world as I was when I admitted myself to the hospital four years ago but I no longer resonate with mental illness because I don't believe feeling things deeply is something that needs to be fixed. The medical model is based around a need to 'fix' and 'cure' and I don't resonate with that because I don't believe there is anything wrong with being low. In fact, I believe being low is an important part of being able to create social change.
Sensitivity is a strength and I felt anything but strong in the formal mental health system. That's not to say I don't believe in mental illness or traditional mental health support. I do. It resonates for all sorts of people. It just didn't resonate with me. The empath label fit much better - for the first time who I was and what I experienced was embraced, not diagnosed to be fixed. The empath label helped me to normalize my experience as a sensitive person. But the label wasn't perfect - once I became familiar with the empath community and began to feel a sense of belonging, I noticed I felt differently than most others who identified as an empath. I noticed a lot of empaths were writing about the negatives of feeling so much, about being a victim of narcissists and the label started to resonate less. But it still fit and I decided to use what I learned in social work to start a movement to change how empaths were viewed, and more importantly how empaths viewed themselves.
I decided to re-write the meaning of the label. Because labels are malleable.
We all wear labels, even in an attempt to not wear a label we get labelled. Those who prefer no gender get labelled 'gender fluid' or 'genderless'. In a society built on a social hierarchy, labels will always be. But we don't have to be victim to them. We all have free will and the power to choose.
Not in how others view us, but definitely in how we choose to view ourselves. When we don't practice this choice, we get stuck adhering to what society wants and thinks about us, and we lose sight of what we want and think for ourselves. When we choose labels that resonate with us, we create space to choose services that resonate with us. We also create space for like-minded people to come into our lives. Traditional mental health (anti-depressants and conventional clinical therapy) didn't work for me because the label 'mentally ill' didn't work for me. Not allowing myself to fall into the idea that a "medical" definition of my experience was the only definition of my experience gave me space to find an alternate path, one that fit me much better.
Will I always consider myself an empath? Maybe, maybe not. Not because I don't experience all the traits of the current definition, but rather because the label itself might change. Or, I might find something that resonates stronger. For now, it's the best label to explain my experience, and owning that has allowed this to be the first time in my life I feel safe and validated for who I am.
So yes I get low and yes I sometimes panic when I'm in crowds but I'm not mentally ill. I'm an empath. And there is a lot of power in that seemingly simple shift.
What labels do you wear? Do you like them, or is there another label that might fit better?
P.S. My next post will be on acceptance. On how I grew to love, honour and advocate for myself. It's an important read and I hope you'll check back in to check it out. Update: You can read that post HERE.