Empath Does Not Equal Doormat

Empath ≠ Doormat

As empaths, it is easy for us to merge with other people and take on their emotions, problems, expectations, and issues. Often to the point that we think the emotion, problem or issue is our own! One of our greatest gifts is our ability to feel what others are feeling, understand their circumstances deeply, and see things from their perspective. More than just sympathy, more than just empathy, we can pluck ourselves out of our own body, plop ourselves in the middle of someone else’s existence, and know what it is like to be them. Compassion is our superpower.

But when we are operating as an “unconscious empath” (one who doesn’t know they’re an empath yet), our superpower can seem more like our kryptonite. For many of us, this quality means we lived (or might still be living) highly codependent lives with nary a healthy boundary in sight.

Without understanding where we end and the next person begins, it is practically impossible to distinguish what is ours from what isn’t ours.

It’s probably an obvious conclusion that if we excel at merging with other people, taking on others’ emotions, and feeling responsible for what isn’t ours…then we pretty much can’t even spell b-o-u-n-d-a-r-y. It is the bane of most empaths’ existence and I have yet to find a sensitive soul who hasn’t gone an internal ten rounds with their lack of boundaries.

So what do I mean by boundaries? Saying no and asking for what you need are two major partners in the firm of boundary and boundary. If we don’t know where the line is between who we are (including what we want and don’t want, what we like and don’t like, what we value don’t value, etc.) and who the other person is (along with their wants, likes, values, etc.) then there’s a good chance we will acquiesce to the other person’s wishes. If we’re deep in the pattern, we might not even know it’s happening. Do any of these sound familiar?

“I’d love to go fishing with you this weekend.” (I hate fishing.)

“Yes, I’ll marry you!” (I need more time to decide and don’t want to rush this, but I feel how much this means to you so I’ll say yes.)

“Sure, it’s no problem for me to watch your kids tonight.” (I have three projects I have to get done by tomorrow.)

“Sex sounds great!” (I have a migraine and haven’t slept well in two nights and really need to rest.)

“I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to upset you.” (You were being a total asshole and I really wanted to call you on your crap, but I’ll just be quiet and let you think you’re right because it’s not worth standing up for myself.)

I could give a lot more examples, but I imagine you’re getting the idea. I acted this way for decades so I know what it’s like to be swimming in everyone else’s expectations, beliefs, desires, and dreams. I was highly codependent for the first 2/3 of my life and I am undeniably a recovering people pleaser. But know this…there is definitely hope.

The first step towards change of any kind is acknowledging the issue. You first have to admit that you don’t know how to draw good boundaries. Then, there’s the work of:

  1. learning to identify your triggers (what circumstances drops you back into codependence or lack of boundaries)
  2. pausing to assess what really works for you in the situation (instead of caving to the pressure you feel to make a decision now or the pressure to make decision x), and
  3. having the courage to speak it.

I wish I could tell you it was easy and happens overnight, but it takes time to undo years or decades worth of unhealthy habits and establish consistency in the new behavior. But it is so worth it. And, so necessary.


Rev. Stephanie Red Feather, Ph.D.
Rev. Stephanie Red Feather, Ph.D.
Rev. Stephanie Red Feather, Ph.D. is the author of The Evolutionary Empath: A Practical Guide for Heart-Centered Consciousness. As an ordained shamanic minister, her passion is to help fellow empaths embrace their soul’s calling to evolve humanity to the next stage of consciousness. Stephanie is the founder of Blue Star Temple where she has led experiential workshops, initiatory processes, and private facilitation since 2007. Through specific focus on embodiment, masculine-feminine balance, boundaries, energy hygiene practices, shadow work, radical self-care, and inner authority, Stephanie holds space for spiritual seekers to remember their divine nature and heal their human wounds. Stephanie is dedicated to providing a wide variety of tools, resources, and products to help empaths thrive in the world. Click here to check out her articles, video home study programs, workbooks, meditations, and podcasts, and be sure to download your free Evolutionary Empath Activation Manual. Stephanie is a contributing author to the inspiring book Chaos to Clarity: Sacred Stories of Transformational Change.

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  1. What an excellent article, Stephanie, especially for those of us who got trained in childhood by boundary-less adults who often cruelly shamed us, who bullied us into thinking we had no voice, no right to worth, respect, or dignity. You’ve outlined excellent ways to begin to untangle from these patterns. For some who got caught in trauma bonds, breaking free takes great courage, professional support, and deep inner work.

    As someone who has invested half of my lifetime into healing and transforming work, I can promise you this process takes commitment, perseverance, persistence, will, courage, strength, focus, and great determination. This especially can be the situation for those us of raised by deeply wounded/mentally/emotionally unhealthy adults. You must be willing to brave the wilderness, to throw yourself out of the nest (thousands of times), to risk rejection, to bravely stand completely alone to find out who you really are, to discover your own true voice, heart, guts, dignity, self-worth. This journey may take a lifetime. Self-awareness, expanded consciousness, freedom are all worth the effort this will require.

    Thank you for writing such a thoughtful article on a very important topic that impacts many.

    • Hi Laura. I want to commend you on your courage and commitment to your own growth and healing. This path is not for the faint of heart, for sure! A few years ago I read a book called “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” and it was so validating for me, as I had some similar experiences as yours. In shamanic terms we often say “our greatest wounding becomes our greatest medicine.” It sounds like you have found your way through and are offering beautiful medicine to the world!

    • Hi Stephanie! Thank you so much. You bring a great deal of wisdom to this topic. I can tell you also have lived experiences. I celebrate our evolutions. The two watershed books I read were Christine Lawson’s Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship and Surviving a Borderline Parent by Roth and Friedman. Somatic work became critical in my healing, evolving journey. I often shy away from labels but these books finally described my experiences in ways that utterly resonated. I chose to break free- An unconventional path with many benefits for the soul, heart, and well being. Grateful to be able to share so honestly. Thank you, again, Stephanie! I look forward to reading more of your articles!!

    • I appreciate your comment Mohammed! I have always been fascinated by the human psyche. Such a rich place of study!

  2. Stephanie, your ideas about knowing our triggers is excellent and important! It’s one thing to get caught off guard; it’s another to not think ahead to situations where we are often saying yes when we know we want to say no!

    And your examples are wonderful, along the lines of something I learned years ago about saying no but also saying yes.

    I know you would like me to ____________ and I can’t/won’t be able to. (No explanation unless it’ll really help. Explanations can lead us down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to discuss.)

    What I could do, though, is ___________ or ____________. (The second thing you mention is the one you REALLY prefer to do.)

    Which would you prefer? (Or something along those lines.)

    The two takeaways for me were using “and” and not “but,” which keeps the conversation moving along more positive lines, and always stating what we would prefer to do second. We very often go with the last thing we heard, as long as it is something we can accept.

    This works best when we’re expecting to be asked something we don’t want to do; it could be tougher if we aren’t. Your examples cover those times wonderfully, so thank you! I’m sure you helped a lot of us here today.

    • Thanks so much Susan! Yes, I agree with your points. I have been conscious of the “and” instead of “but” as well and it is a subtle but important distinction. Coming back to people with options is a great way to support their request and yet do it in a way that works for you and keeps you in a state of grace instead of frustration. Blessings!

  3. Stephanie, your writing has impact with clear examples and suggestions for empathy and boundaries. I really like your awareness around triggers. I appreciate you sharing your story and the reality that this is a life skill that takes time and practice. I so agree. Have a lovely day and my sincerest appreciations!

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