Anatomy of an Empath Part III

Click Here to Return to  Part II of Anatomy of an Empath

Click here to read about my upcoming course, Empath Mastery: Sacred Tools for Highly Sensitive Healers



12. Carve Your Bowl

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” —Marie Curie

Most would argue that empathy is a good thing, and of course it is. When we’re hurting and a friend acts in a way that communicates that they know what we are going through, we feel loved. Empathy is an essential part of the development of healthy attachment in babies and in strong adult relationships as well. Most studies on empathy, therefore, look for how we can develop more.

For empaths, developing more empathy is not the problem; managing our overwhelmed nervous systems in the face of others’ suffering, is. As it turns out, most of us are not very good at this. Instead of opening to pain we learn to contract, harden, and shut down. The result is that empaths, as kind-hearted as we are, end up lacking compassion for others.

It’s not that we are inherently cold or selfish; we deeply care and are here to serve. But when we are busy fending off, shoring up, and protecting ourselves, we become more narcissistic than compassionate. When we are in a fight, flight, or freeze response, we don’t have room to love. We are not to blame for this; it is neurobiology. But while it is not our fault, it is our responsibility to attend to.

Often what I hear from empaths is that they are exhausted by how much effort it takes to manage their experience and don’t want to try more techniques, exercises, or shielding. I understand.

But the truth is, it takes more effort (and increases our suffering) to be at the whim of our energetic habits than it does to begin to turn towards the path of spiritual maturity and the mastery of our gifts.

Mastery is not a quick fix; it is a life long process. And although I do not claim to be an expert, I have worked with hundreds of empaths and have learned a thing or two. Through the process of delving deep into my own nature and guiding others, I’ve identified ten steps on the empath’s path to mastery that, when followed, decrease suffering and self-blame, increase happiness, and allow us to come into alignment with our Sacred Purpose:

Steps to Empath Mastery:

  1. Recognizing that we are empaths, and that what we are feeling may not be ours
  2. Developing self-compassion and learning how to care for ourselves
  3. Practicing discernment and the ability to identify what is ours and what isn’t
  4. Practicing grounding, embodiment, and taking up our own space
  5. Learning how to self-regulate and shift from a fear response to compassion, love, and trust
  6. Doing our shadow work: discovering and shifting the identity patterns, unconscious agreements, vows, and energetic habits that are keeping our maladaptive patterns in place
  7. Doing our light work: discovering the nature of our gifts and bringing them to the world
  8. Raising and maintaining our vibration
  9. Developing spiritual allies so that we can let go of that which is not ours to carry
  10. Becoming lights in the darkness, channels for the Divine

I’ve written about some of these in this blog series and cover them in-depth in my online course. For now, let me state that becoming an empowered empath is not an overnight process, it’s a developmental path. It doesn’t happen by taking a weekend workshop, although you can have impactful breakthroughs and insights in a workshop (or from reading an article, or listening to a podcast). The process of integrating those insights into your life, however—practicing the new behaviors, creating new neural networks, and shifting your psycho-spiritual makeup—takes time. And it takes work.

Luckily, it is work worth doing. The point of this life is not becoming perfect and never taking on others’ “stuff,” the point is the lessons, gifts, embodiment, self-discovery, and soulshaping that we receive along the way. The point is opening our hearts, becoming who we are, and lighting the way for others on the path.

Most empaths cringe at what I call “the gap”—the space between where we are now and where we want to be. We are wired to heal and long for transformation. But in order to transform we must be willing to endure the capacity building that true transformation requires. We must be willing to look at ourselves honestly, to grow our ability to live in our own bodies, to recognize the painful maladaptive habits, to risk honoring our deepest truth even if it means, at times, letting go of who we’ve known ourselves to be, and to show up and to shine our lights. And yes, I won’t lie to you, it’s hard.

When I was 24, I spent a year living at a Zen center in a fertile valley near a beach in California, growing organic vegetables and sitting in meditation. I could hear the waves crash from the Zendo at 4:30 in the morning when I woke in the dark to sit, and I could smell the salt in the air when I went to bed at night. It was magical. And it was difficult.

I had developed a debilitating repetitive stress injury in my hands and arms from forcing myself to say at a job that I hated and was consciously taking time out of my life. I went to Zen center to meditate, heal, get to know myself, and listen for the next steps on my path. I spent about a month of my time there in sesshin, a silent, Zen meditation retreat that included sitting meditation, walking meditation, silent, ritualized meals, and dharma talks. The sitting meditation was the most difficult for me, because I had nothing to distract me from the constant pain I felt in my body.

One day I went in to speak to my teacher about the pain. As I came before him in his small, Japanese-style room with its sliding paper doors, I bowed, sat in silence, looked up at him, and burst into tears.

“It’s hard,” I said, crying. “Being with this much pain.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at me with love, “it’s hard.”

I took a breath. His compassion soothed me. After a few moments of silence he added something I will never forget:

“But you only get to say that once. It’s harder than saying it’s hard. Saying it’s hard is the easy part. Being with it is harder. And this is the practice, to be with it all. To grow your ability to be with pain, heartbreak, beauty, joy. To carve your bowl.”

We sat the rest of the hour in silence, before I bowed, heart full of gratitude, and returned to the Zendo to sit some more.

Yes, empaths, it’s hard to be sensitive. And it’s hard to develop mastery. But it’s harder than saying it’s hard. The practice is to open to everything, to carve out our bowls, to grow our capacity to be a blessing force in the world. Not through martyrdom, but by remembering who we are and opening to the Divine.


13. The New Operating Instructions

“Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light?” Maurice F. Freehill

The other day, sitting in front of my client teaching him, as my teachers have taught me, the mechanics of opening to God—how to soften your peripheral vision, root down, open your back body, inhabit yourself, and drink in love—I remembered who I was again: A light.

We are not here to carry shadow.

None of us.

We are here to radiate God, and to let the rest take care of itself.

I told the story earlier of how my teacher Carol (the bad-ass, Guadalupe-loving energy healer) taught me this lesson. What I didn’t share is what happened the first time I tried to hand Carol’s stuck emotion over to the Divine—my consciousness left my body and travelled out to follow the toxic gunk I was trying to release.

When she noticed this, Carol, tracking me even while on the table, admonished me with love. “Sweigh,” she barked, “stay in your body! Take the garbage out, but don’t take yourself out with it. Who taught you that you are the garbage?”

Most empaths are operating under the assumption that we are the garbage, that we are the pain, suffering, dark emotions, and refuse that we take on. But we can’t afford to believe this any longer. It is “already late enough,” as the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.”

In other words, it is time.

The empath’s job description has changed; we have new operating instructions.

It is time for the empaths to graduate from martyrdom. It is time for the healers to heal themselves. Or perhaps to retire from the project of “healing” all together, and submit instead, to being the blessing force that we are. To let go and let God. To be the light that we want to see in the world.

And although it’s hard, it is harder than saying it’s hard. And it’s a privilege. It’s what we were born for—to remember who we are.



Click Here to Return to Part II of Anatomy of an Empath

Or, Click Here to Return to Part I of Anatomy of an Empath

Click here to read about my upcoming course, Empath Mastery: Sacred Tools for Highly Sensitive Healers.

Finally, head over here to sign up for my upcoming free tele-call, Empath Master Class: How to Find and Embody Your Light in Dark Times.

p.s. If you enjoyed this article and want to receive others like it, please sign up for my newsletter by clicking here. And, as always, I love to hear from you, so if my words sparked something in you, please let me know by sharing your thoughts below.

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About Sweigh Emily Spilkin

Sweigh Emily Spilkin, MA, CHT, PhD is passionate about helping people transform challenge into soul-centered growth. She is the founder of Thresholds Healing, through which she offers Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Somatic Soul Retrieval, and workshops and classes for therapists, healers, and other individuals ready to cross the Threshold into the full embodiment of who they really are.


  1. Anatomy of an Empath Part II - Thresholds Healing - March 20, 2018

    […] Click Here to Read Part III of Anatomy of an Empath […]

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