In my line of work, it is fascinating to see trends change. As a writer and someone in the spiritual “space” I am fascinated by the energetics of words, as well as how words are taken up and changed to meet current ideologies and needs of individuals in a community.

This shaping of words, and even the changing of meaning of words, is a complex subject, one that shows the changing of culture over time. In my language, words are not just things. They are energy fields, or energies that we are in relationship with. Relationships of any type are meant to grow and change over time, to be shaped by those who are in relationship with the word, who are corded to and connected to the word.

One of the words in popular consciousness these days is the word “empath”, which has changed considerably its meaning to meet current culture within a fairly short period of time.

As words come into popular consciousness, to the point of being considered a “trend”, they tend to globalize. To take on larger, broader meaning, than once intended.

In our relationship with words, we are connected to the word. Through this relationship many of us collectively begin to create meaning; to shape a word, or to re-shape it. This means that our collective attention and meaning-giving to a word can change the nature of that word radically.

But this is also a reciprocal relationship, and the connection we have to a word also shapes us. It is dependent on the word on its impact individually or collectively. Words are fields of energy, and considering words as conscious beings allows for us to see and work with our reality in a much different way than we might have.

There is a reason why words get popular, how we choose to speak and what we say. Knowing the impact of this can allow for us to shape our communication with ourselves and others in a much more conscious way.

I would say that the word “empath” currently means anyone that feels that they are sensitive. It has become a sort of umbrella term and catch all for individuals who feel sensitive and who are looking for a word, a label, to give meaning to their experience.

What happens is that you can see the evolution of a word like “empath” and note the energetic dynamics of it; what it means to us on a personal level. Taking a step back, we can consider the energetics and our interrelationship with it as a collective. You can find a quick, rising tide for words like this… as well as a quick tide outwards when another word that serves the same function replaces it.

The “wave in” would be increasing awareness of the word and its inclusion into popular consciousness. The amount of books and material regarding it exponentially increases for a short period of time. We see it frequently.

Then when peak “trend” occurs, when we reach a zenith of a trend, there is a tide change. The inevitable pendulum swinging, the backlash against the word and the individuals who use it, especially in ways that it was not originally intended.

Being in this field for a long time, I will say that this tide change is inevitable, and that individuals who are looking for meaning for their issues will always find another label to use. Over the years I have seen individuals use words like starseed, shaman, witch, lightworker, and others who all fit under the same category of meaning-finding individuals who suffer from similar patterns and types of pain, albeit with some cosmetic differences in aesthetic and meaning. The same core meaning and intention remains.

I find that the word “empath”, as it is used nowadays, typically describes someone who never got the opportunity and safety in their childhood to develop boundaries. They learned to absorb. There is always a reason why we do things energetically. The defense mechanisms we choose, the ideologies we create out of the trauma we have experienced, all have a purpose. It is by seeing that purpose that we can have compassion, both for ourselves as well as others.

It is by having respect and regard for the essential survival mechanisms and safeguards that were activated within us for a reason that we can find new ways, new skills and tools, for moving beyond them.

Often we do not recognize that the survival mechanisms that we enacted as a result of trauma as a child or adolescent can be handled much differently as an adult. That we have options and capacities and knowledge when those were likely quite limited for us in our childhood.

Absorption, for example, ensures safety. It alleviates the sufferer, albeit temporarily, as well as ensures that the child has greater control over the energies involved. If someone is able to take on the pain and emotions of another person within themselves, it is an attempt to control and survive a situation. If you have a parent or other person who is violent, abusive, neglectful, too absorbed in their own pain to caretake a child properly, or simply unpredictable, the child will do several things in an attempt to survive the situation.

One of those options is to take on as much pain, as much energy, as much emotion, from the parental figure, as possible. This ensures that the pain, violence, or difficult energy is not directed at the child. This also is a position of being a caretaker, in which a child learns too young that they need to energetically, physically, and spiritually take care of their parent in order for them to receive care in return.

The issue with this is that a child has no way of knowing how to be an adult. So they are playing the role of an adult, doing the best that they can. This pattern persists– for example, I have met many individuals who are still caretaking, still absorbing, still playing the role of adult like this… who even if in thirty or forty or sixty year old bodies are still really a five year old, and still caretaking for others in the exact same pattern they did when they were a child.

This pattern also sets individuals up to give and give of themselves without receiving anything back in return, which is of course incredibly problematic.

It also sets up a relationship where individuals who are caretaking and taking this type of responsibility for others never offer the other person the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. If we are continually absorbing, continually caretaking, that leaves the other individual in a place where they do not need to take adult responsibility for themselves. They cannot grow and learn if another is taking on this duty for them.

The child stuck in this pattern never got to go through the stages of development properly, never had the safety and certainty of a home in which they could truly thrive and develop an identity. This is another pattern I see quite frequently in people– individuals who have never truly formed an identity because to do so might have meant disapproval, which would create fear and concerns for safety in a child without a secure, emotionally intelligent household.

Besides, to develop an individual identity means learning boundaries: where we begin and end, and where another person begins and ends. This is an important emotional and energetic act, a claiming of space and an ability to ground.

Grounding and embodiment allow for us to plant our flag down, to say “here I am”; it is incredibly difficult to do such things if we are stuck in patterning of invisibility (another common defense mechanism) or disassociation (which in energetic terms means that spiritually our energy field is no longer congruent. Basically, all or part of our energy that could leave, did. Our physical body may remain, but aspects of our body, of our soul, have gone to safer pastures, or at least as far away as possible from immediate physical and emotional danger).

While the words change, and we may be experiencing the zenith of “empath” at the moment, the pattern does not. The pain in individuals who are looking for meaning and labels for their experiences does not, either.

In early childhood if we did not find secure, safe bonding with parental figures who could offer us physical as well as emotional nurturing (so even if childhood was perfect on paper, there also is emotional bonding and intelligence required; we live in an emotionally quite repressed world, so there are many of us that are traumatized by not seeing emotional intelligence modeled appropriately through our parents and society), there are a few things that happen.

The first is that the child cannot see their parental figures as anything other than “good”. This means that the child will create ideologies that they are bad, worthless, or incapable of being loved. Self-hatred develops, and a life-long relationship with the body and with the soul in which there is a continual cycling message that “I am not enough” occurs.

To shield from self-hatred, magical thinking develops. The type of thinking that tells the child that they are different, inhuman, special, and so forth. As children we are surrounded by myths and fairy tales– we are familiar with the meaning, the myths, the archetypes, in such a deep way.

Except that this shield doesn’t really work. At the energetic core is what is continually being reacted to– the ideas of never being enough, of not being worthy, of not being loveable.

So what happens in our outer culture, in outer spiritual culture, is an industry that is geared towards offering the type of labels that will allow for individuals to find meaning for this type of pain.

The issue is that the type of spirituality that is geared towards perpetuating this cycle: of telling someone that they are special, different, and inhuman, never solves this pain. It is fueled by a sense of inadequacy and separation to exist in the first place.

It is merely continuing the myth: a way of continuing to deny inner pain.

It is by looking towards our pain, and towards our humanity, that we can heal the large rifts within ourselves so that we truly can see what makes us special, lovable, worthwhile… and to come to some degree of adult consciousness, where the entirety of our lives is not refracted through the prism of childhood pain and victimhood.

In my book, Managing Psychic Abilities, I talk about how people who I would consider moderately and highly psychic often have two things in common. The first is significant childhood trauma. The second is genetic predisposition– other family members who also were sensitive or psychic. Arguably, the latter could be discussed as ancestral trauma and its impact.

Trauma has a way of cracking us open. It can be considered as a portal to awakening. Sex, death (and near-death), and long term meditation can also be similar portals. Whether for a moment, or permanently, they create openings in our energy field, changes in consciousness that shift our perspective.

While it is problematic to romanticize suffering, it is a soul-making activity. It creates empathy and the ability to really understand and feel for people in a way that those who have not suffered might find difficult to do.

However, this is reliant on someone who has worked with whatever trauma they have experienced to the extent that they are not simply stuck in defense mechanisms, reactive to the world, continually looking for danger.

If we were to talk about what a good definition for empath (the seed principle of the word) might be– it would be someone who resonates with others. Like a violin tuning with an orchestra, it is someone who is deeply sensitive to their environment, to others, and who feels deeply what others are feeling.

This is not a reaction or absorption, but a tuning. It also involves empathy, which involves compassion. It is a way of seeing and identifying within the part of our humanity that resonates and connects with the humanity of another. Skilled empathic ability is an act of connection. It includes both the ability to see where we are, who we are and where our energy is (individuation, knowing ourselves, having boundaries)… as well as the ability to see with compassion how we connect to a place within another, and deeply feeling the places where we connect to them. By the way, cording (or how we connect to others energetically) is an essential skill for empaths or really anyone. My Complete Cord Course book offers these skills to those interested in building them.

Those who are stuck in blind reaction, in the pain of their childhood, have often separated themselves, defended themselves, to the point that they are no longer in connection with anything. They are in continual defense mode. It is a painful place to be, and is one of isolation and defensiveness, rather than compassion– to think that the world and the people in it are continually out to harm you, and to scan and to absorb and to be energetically depleted and shielded and shut down (contracted, such as in fetal position) requires an immense amount of energy, and it is rarely the adult self who is doing such a task. It is a child consciousness who felt the need to do such work.

It is typical for individuals to set their patterns of relating and interrelating at an early age. If we consciously look towards our patterning, we can change it.

Those who are empathic feel and tune themselves to what is around them. They may feel sad when it rains, and joyful when it is sunny out. They may feel the atmospheres of rooms, and feel their mood change when they see a sunflower or a beautiful mountain or when they go into a place where there is quite a bit of darkness, such as somewhere where an individual died in unfortunate circumstances.

With empaths, there can be tendencies, such as being a physical (feeling things physically/physiologically, like through the nervous system), emotional (feeling emotions), or energetic (feeling of basic energy, such as heat or shivering) empath, but despite the differences, empathic individuals all require the same skills and knowledge base.

Like any psychic ability or sensitivity, there is a vast difference between skilled and unskilled empathic capacities. Often in our culture we lack spiritual awareness and education, and so I notice that much of what is offered out there is surface-level psychological understandings. These can be a wonderful place to start, but there are spiritual and energetic skills and awareness that are essential for individuals who are sensitive or empathic (these are offered in my book, Managing Psychic Abilities), that are quite different than psychological tools.

Someone who is skilled will have the education and awareness to note what is going on within themselves and has learned to work with awareness with their energy to the point that they can “tune in” or “tune out” in a way that feels beneficial… not a detriment or continual overload/overwhelm (which is what many unskilled empaths experience).

I find that most sensitives are not aware that there is a way that they can navigate the world better, to relate to people better, to feel their essential humanity again.

This requires both education and the willingness to work with simple tools over time. It also, most significantly, requires for us to truly look within. To look towards our pain, instead of shielding it or giving meaning to it in a way that may not be helpful.

There will always be so much in our spiritual culture that is misguided or intended to perpetuate cycles of trauma and pain. It is by looking at how we separate from ourselves, how we separate from the world, and how we separate from our essential humanity, that we can simply allow ourselves to live.

Lately I have seen the pendulum swing as it always does with words like this. In that pendulum swing can be a lack of compassion for those truly suffering and attempting to make meaning in their lives the best way that they can. We all have places within us that we are not ready to look at, we all deny reality in certain ways, shield ourselves from the overwhelming and often brutal clarity of the world.

Those who have experienced this type of pattern, which is so common and so pervasive… and the sense of inadequacy and emptiness and loss and disconnection so easily preyed upon… can and should be seen as a pain that is overwhelmingly present in our modern world in endemic proportions for a reason. It is up to us who are conscious enough, ready enough, to look at these areas of disconnection within ourselves. This not only offers personal healing, but in some small way resolves this pervasive cultural pattern as a whole.

Those who see themselves in this pattern have an opportunity, as such portals of awakening always offer, to deepen themselves, to have the perspective and the compassion that few will have the awareness or ability to arrive at. To develop skilled empathic abilities– to truly connect to another and to see them as composed of the same stuff as we are. Those who fit into this pattern, who have experienced traumas like these, truly have the opportunity to awaken because they have the awareness and drive to look within, and to do their work in a way that others may not have reason to. Suffering, if seen through, creates immense compassion.

Becoming educated and skilled, and realizing how we can become connected again– within ourselves and to others– will allow us to truly recognize how much our sensitivity and awareness can be of benefit to the world. It is just a question of if we are willing and ready to look at the places that are disconnected and in pain within ourselves.

Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and author. Her books include Managing Psychic Abilities, The Spiritual Awakening Guideand The Shamanic Workbook.