This article is a book review, and the line in the title is from a song called ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ by the American rock band Nirvana. Whenever I hear it I think of extreme sensitivity. Imagine cutting yourself on something as light and tender as angel’s hair or as milky soft as baby’s breath. Only an empath would understand, not only what these words mean but also how this experience feels. When I first heard the beautiful cover to this song created by the British rock band Glass Animals – and which drew my attention to these particular lyrics – I had a physical reaction as if my skin was envelopped in silk. Sometimes the most powerful impressions are left by whispers than by loud blows. I usually get these physical sensations when I listen to music and when I am around people. I sometimes feel the unspoken pain of other people around me as I simply sit or stand next to them in the subway or in a car, in various public spaces.
I never thought of myself as an empath and growing up in a rather survivalist and traditionally-patriarchal Romanian culture, I was taught to think that being an empath is ‘weird’ or ‘wrong’. One had to be tough, confident and pragmatic to survive. It is only through my Psychology undergraduate studies that I started to get more familiar with this word and understand what it represents and why it is important. This awareness gradually liberated a part of myself I had kept hidden from others, for fear that I would be rejected. The story of an empath described me, who I felt I was at the core, since I was small.
It also described a collective that was somehow living a secret life in the background of other peoples’ more extroverted or less sensitive, daily experiences. I cannot count the times I heard growing up, that: “You’re too sensitive”, “Why are you so careful?” and “Don’t be so shy” and how many hours I had to spend by myself, in stillness, to regroup, after I came into contact with another person’s energy. For a very long time I thought I was sick and unable to function properly in society, until I understood how other people’s presence, energy and emotions affected me. An empath absorbs impressions from their environment and from other people, and can feel their way through life more often than other people, but empaths are not necessarily emotional sponges as the author to the book I am introducing here, describes:
(…) empaths don’t expose themselves to hidden feelings, as if wading through toxic waste without a hazmat suit. And not every impression received is from the “bleak and hopeless” basket of human emotions (…) I’m not just an observer off to the side because I have my own responses to my life. Joy begets joy, love recognizes love, and pain can have profound depths when united with others’ pain. This is part of the emotional broadband that we empathic people possess and learn to manage. I have learned to lean into these moments and physically express the emotions, if possible through actions like clapping, cheering, or crying (p. 116-117)
Signe wrote a beautiful book about the experiences she has had living as an empath and growing into this role. She illustrates her book with intimate examples of moments when she took on the pain of another person and placed herself in their shoes. Such descriptions felt so familiar to me that I couldn’t help nodding and ‘oohhing’ as I was reading her book. Signe believes that one is not born an empath but that one becomes such and that sensitivity is not sufficient without an awareness of this role in the empath’s life, or as she writes:
From my experience, there’s an evolutionary arc from being an overly sensitive person who tries to survive in their environment by feeling separate, to that of being an engaged and functional empath who witnesses what’s out of balance and honors that connection. Admittedly, the awareness that we’re all connected takes cultivation, and for some, it remains theoretical. For empathic people, however, its application is very much a part of our reality, which is poignantly ironic considering that many of us relish time alone. It’s exactly why we sometimes struggle to feel comfortable in our own skin. The boundary between the external and internal can certainly be hard to define when you’re able to feel so much. It’s also why we continually question if our sensitivities are a blessing or a curse (p. XVII)
I agree with this viewpoint and I think that learning what healthy boundaries are and how and when to establish them in social contexts can help an empath deal slightly better with the sudden flow of random, sensorial information that floods them on the regular.
Although feeling overwhelmed is a constant state that I find myself fighting with – but perhaps it is because I am still young and I have still have a long way to go to truly harness this energy and my role as a ‘feeler’. The interesting thing is that Signe dedicates an entire chapter to this almost untalked about aspect: how age and empathy work together. In her book’s final chapter titled “The Fied of Mystery” the author talks about the aging empath and what happens as one gets older and how the relationship the empath has to their senses changes, also in the light of their many different empathic experiences throughout the years. I thought this was so unique and a perfect way to end this beautiful book!
In spite of the fact that Signe tells the reader that the book was designed to be read slowly, I finished it in two days because the writing flowed so well and the examples offered were immersive. I also felt that a friend was talking to me and I didn’t want to put the book down. Perhaps I’m biased, as the topic spoke to me since I self-identify as an empath and I work in the spiritual and occult area of life, but even if you might not be an empath yourself, maybe you love an empath or work with one and are curious to find out more about their inner worlds.
This book offers such a tender and well-organised glimpse into the empath’s world. Signe divided the larger field of percetion that empath are part of and interact with on a daily basis into: the field of reflection, the field of definition, the field of sensing, the field of experience and the field of mystery. I really enjoyed this categorization because it moves the discussion from dry psychological research on empathy to a more intimately felt glimpe into an empath’s inner world; and it is a very rich world, as you can tell.
I loved this book and I feel that if you were to give it a chance you would too! Each section of the book comes with a list of important guide-posts which contain a summary or questions to help you develop your empathic skills or to identify them. Reading this book felt like I was given a present alongside a tender acknowledgement that how I am matters and that there indeed can be some space carved out in society for highly sensitive individuals to share their experiences, to thrive and to heal others.
The book will be officially released next week (12th October) and will be available to purchase from She Writes Press. Visit the author’s website here: https://www.smhovem.com
With universal love,