Two kinds of people are reading this. One is shaking their head and muttering, “What’s an empath?” The other is hopefully shaking their head in agreement.
Oh, to define an empath. It is not as simple as possessing the characteristic of being empathic but also possessing a unique sense of feeling what others feel and absorbing said emotions to a level that can not only burden the person emotionally but also physically. It can cause panic attacks and/or create a desire to flee, self-medicate, require silence, sleep etc. It can be exhausting. I know. It can also be a gift when it is accepted, embraced and given it’s place in our daily lives.
I fully identify with this label.
Interestingly enough, so does one of my children.
It knew it within the first hour after she was born. She was blessed…cursed…with the same gut-punching feelings, only maybe even more-so than her nutty mother.
Traveling with an empath can pose interesting challenges at unexpected junctures but also in the midst of very predictable situations and activities it can rear it’s head.
How about I give you a few examples from our recent trip to Australia and New Zealand where I had the opportunity to learn a lot about my wee empath and how to help her? Hopefully you will pick up tools if you yourself experience life in a similar manner. If you are just now learning about this phenomenon maybe you will gain knowledge of how to support a friend or family member.
Our first stop after leaving Honolulu was beautiful Melbourne, Australia. It was the beginning of fall and we were thrilled to be there. I mean, after nearly 11 hours on a plane we’d have been thrilled to be anywhere but Melbourne was especially nice!
When we first arrived in Melbourne we ate, we showered, we slept and we talked about what to do next. With elementary aged kids along for the trip we knew we needed to first present kid-friendly activities so we’d have bartering tools later on for fancy dinners and museums. This is a what I like to call “kid-currency.”
We all slept well on the first night in the Melbourne Marriott and were enjoying a delicious breakfast spread in the Club Lounge when the sweet server, Michelle, helped us map out our first adventure. We set out on foot in the crisp autumn air to explore the new streets that stretched before us.
Our first stop was the Melbourne Gaol.
Outside the old jailhouse we decided on the best ticket option and then headed inside. I immediately noticed that my sensitive kiddo was not with us. I peered my head out the doorway of the entrance and there she stood with her feet cemented to the ground.
“I am not doing this.” she announced.
After some coaxing she was inside and walking around the darkened corridor lined with old cells filled with historical artifacts from the jail’s busy years. She sidled up to me and quietly asked to leave. I tried to interest her in different stories about the jail and led her away from semi-disturbing written accounts and pictures.
At one point I took her to the second floor so she could get some space, air and a view of the corridor that might empower her, leaving less room for worry. A volunteer from the jail came over to introduce himself and share some information. After a moment she blurted out, “I am sorry, I can’t talk about this anymore.”
At this point I walked her outside while her daddy and sister explored a little further.
Outside we talked about how she was feeling and what was going on. She was heavy, sad, confused, angry, afraid…and then it sunk in; she was feeling all the emotions embedded in that building. I was immediately apologetic for not helping her “escape” sooner and realized that outside she could breathe a little easier but she still felt that she was too close to the building.
My breath caught in my throat for a moment because I knew what she meant. The difference for me is that since we had children I have been constantly distracted by the two of them and where they are and if other people are around and do other people seem safe or weird or trustworthy and my energy is very focused on SAFETY. Lame. Here I could have been a huge help to a child who felt very alone but my skills/strengths had been derailed by concerns for basic safety.
We sat for quite some time discussing how she felt, how she had absorbed so much and how it was going to be ok. Later she was exhausted. No kidding! Can you imagine all the STUFF a jail must hold in those walls? And I don’t mean furniture. Can you imagine the fears that were felt within those walls? The anger? The remorse? The guilt? The sadness? What a heavy mess.
But now I was aware.
The next time I realized she was having all the feels was in Sydney when we explored the boat Captain Cook and his men sailed on for 3 years from England to Fiji to New Zealand to Australia and back again. (Not the actual ship but a replica can you imagine the stench in the actual ship??) This ship depressed me so I was all up in that business when she said, “I need off this boat.” The guides explained how the men slept so close together and ate pickled cabbage for 3 straight years. I saw her physically recoil. Here’s the deal; as a parent I walk a fine line between teaching her to advocate for herself and care for her personality and also teaching her respect for adults and elders. This was a tough one. She was done. The guide was still talking. I politely thanked him for imparting his many wonderful anecdotes and helped her to the fresh air of the deck of the ship. As we exited she grasped my hand and whispered, “THANK YOU.”
Sometimes this is all we need.
Sometimes all we empaths need is to know we are heard. We need someone to hold our hand. We need someone to put a hand in the small of our backs and guide us to “safety.”
That being said, one of the most challenging parts of traveling with an empath is flying.
On flights there are a lot of angsty, nutty, nervous people. Some people fall asleep before takeoff but generally speaking there are nervous moms of babies and older people worried about their circulation or people like myself and my non-empath child who don a bracelet for motion sickness and are nervous about that. Flights make empaths anxious because other people are anxious. This can cause physical symtoms to arise and anxiety to reach a heightened state.
To help an empath on a flight you can be patient. You can pretend you don’t notice their breathing exercises. You can offer water, a hand to hold, a steady conversation (if they feel like chatting) or just quiet. Sometimes quiet is all they need. Don’t ridicule or presume to understand. Just accept. Sometimes all an empath needs is acceptance.
Another aspect of travel that can impact an empath is lodging. A hotel is often full of so many people and many brief layers of history that it is not as disturbing to the balance of an empath. An Airbnb or older building that is steeped in history and transitioned to a hotel can be a different story.
I am not saying to avoid these places because being an empath is all about experiencing life through different lenses but DO be prepared to need rest, deep breathing and time to process if you are in a lot of new places or historic places…or crowded hostel-like places. I am not a hostel-person because I am sincerely far too aware of the fact that I cannot sleep in a room full of people I do not know but if you are different or your friend/family member the empath is different, be prepared for an empath to have a reaction to a hostel because so man people are in close proximity and may be having experiences that lead to emotions that can have a big impact.
It can be rewarding to travel with someone who is different from yourself and quite frankly, can completely redefine your travel experience. As long as you remember to be prepared to comfort, give space, talk, listen, sit in silence, or simply BE with your travel partner as they process new places, people and experiences there are very few drawbacks. If it sounds like that takes too much effort you may want to rethink the reason you want to travel with this person. Accepting their personality is part of accepting them as a person. Be willing to inquire about what they need. Experiencing new places and cultures can be a gift when you are with someone who feels so very deeply and can share what others may be feeling in the same space. The patience required is worthwhile because the gift of experiencing the world with an empath is priceless. Be prepared to reach depths you’ve never known and also be prepared to experience the world though a different set of lenses. Be flexible and prepared for an adventure. If nothing else, I can promise you there will never be a dull moment when seeing the world through the eyes of an empath.