I read something recently that was a description of empaths and I really identified with it. It said that I need quiet and alone time, that some movies disturb me, and that I’m really sensitive to other people’s moods. All these things are true.
At the same time, I hesitate to embrace the “empath” label because I also have a history of being emotionally immature and self-absorbed. But I’m getting better.
I know, most people don’t admit that too openly, at least not that I’ve seen. I probably could have gotten a personality disorder diagnosis when I was much younger, but with concentrated effort, I have mostly outgrown the behaviors. Part of me is embarrassed about who I used to be. But I also want to give people hope that you can get better when you really put in the effort.
Yes, I was emotionally immature for a lot of years. It took me a much longer-than-average amount of time to grow up. Things like chronic depression and social anxiety definitely complicated the issue. And I’m still a work in progress, as I hope I will be for the rest of my life. I don’t ever want to stop growing. But here is some advice for the journey about what I’ve learned so far. May it give you hope that recovery is possible from mental health issues or addiction (since both personality “disorders” and addictions often have similar paths forward.)
- Be patient with yourself. Change isn’t linear. Some days you’ll feel like you’re so enlightened and you’re all better. Then it may feel like you’re going backward for a while. It’s often only when you look back that you can see how far you’ve come.
- Embrace pain. I hate to say it because nobody likes this part, but as long as you’re running away from pain, you’re going to find it harder to get better. That painful thing you don’t want to deal with or that thing you don’t want to find out about yourself (or both) — your breakthrough is on the other side. I’m afraid there are no shortcuts. It’s gonna hurt but it’s necessary so you can heal.
- Some people aren’t good for you. Even some of your closest relationships can block your healing, especially if they have similar unhealed issues. They may even get angry at you for trying to get better or mock you for doing it. These relationships have to be put to the side so you can focus on recovering.
- On that note, you might need to intentionally make your circle smaller while you’re healing. Going through this process isn’t supposed to be widely public and it’s time to go into a cocoon for a while. One or two people can be trusted confidants; maybe even a small support group. But as above, not everyone wants to see you get better. Dysfunction seeks more of the same. That’s the kind of company you don’t want, can’t have. This is the time where you turn inward and work on yourself, more or less in private.
- Be open to what comes next. Most of us have preconceived notions of what our lives are or are not about. We might envision other lifestyles and think that they would never be for us. But you might find out that the real you, buried underneath all the pain (trust me, it’s there) is interested in different things. Example: I used to think my dream role in life was to be a money-motivated career woman. It turns out that no, actually, not so much. But when you remain open to more possibilities, you find out who you really are. Go in that direction.
- You need to have something else that makes you feel fundamentally “okay” while you heal. It’s your anchor that will keep you from feeling totally lost as you go through this. For a lot of people (myself included), that’s a form of religious or spiritual faith. But if you’re not a “faith” sort of person, you have to find something that gives your life meaning and helps you feel calm. Something that also works as a tool to help you get better the more often you do it. Maybe it’s writing in a journal, or yoga, or running, or long walks in the woods. It just has to be something that allows you to work on yourself while you do it and isn’t a distraction.
- That brings us to the next point, which is kind of a variation on an earlier one, but so important it needs separate attention: you can’t give into the desire to numb out. The more painful the stuff you face and try to work through, the more awful you’re going to feel in the short term. Resist the urge to escape into alcohol or the internet or shopping. You can’t bypass the hard work of healing. But I can promise that it feels better on the other side.
- Don’t get discouraged or feel ashamed. The fact that you want to get better at all deserves serious applause! The desire to get better is the first and most important step that will keep you motivated. And once you get to the other side, you’ll be able to see just how many people are the “walking wounded”, going through life trying to avoid facing their pain. There’s nothing shameful about the fact that you have things to work on, especially if you’re trying to get better.
- You’re probably going to find out that there’s a lot of anger and hurt feelings buried down deep. You likely know that already and that’s why you’re avoiding facing them. But when you do face them, you can learn new ways to deal with these feelings. They no longer hold you hostage.
- Be willing to revisit your role in some of your longest-held stories about your life’s failures. Maybe the reason that marriage didn’t work out did have something to do with you and wasn’t entirely the other person’s fault. Maybe the reason most of your friendships end has to do with something you’re doing. The point here isn’t to feel worse about yourself, just to take a more honest look at how your actions affect others. When you do this, it can’t help but take you out of the victim role.
- At the same time, try to shift away from a blaming mentality. Not everything has to be someone’s fault. Sometimes things just are.
- Don’t get carried away with labels or diagnoses. It doesn’t really matter if you’re depressed or socially immature or borderline or bipolar. You are not your diagnosis. You can get better if you put in the work. I firmly believe that. But depending on how entrenched the issues or your particular factors, you might benefit from a good therapist’s help if you have access to one. (If you don’t have access to a therapist, I recommend books on dialectical behavioral therapy like The Dialectical Behavioral Therapy workbook. It contains many of the same worksheets a therapist would give you.)
- Learn to get comfortable with introspection. When things happen that make you sad or angry, sit with them for a while. Examine the issue from multiple perspectives and see how it could have gone differently.
- You have to forgive yourself. This is the hardest one for me by far, but I’m still working on it. You did the best you could. Even if you really fucked it all up, you (probably) didn’t mean to. You may not have even known what you were doing. You can’t blame yourself for not being better than you were because you just didn’t know. But now you do.
The final step, one I haven’t reached yet, is finding a new tribe. That includes people who are willing to accept you as a friend, people who share your pursuit of improvement. They might not be the kinds of friends you ever thought you’d have. When the time is right, put yourself out there and see what the universe brings back. Not quite having gotten there yet, I suspect that the secret to finding a new tribe is going to be a lot more about wanting to know them and giving of myself (in a healthy way with appropriate boundaries) and a lot less about the importance of me having things my way.