Q&A with Rev. Stephanie Red Feather, Ph.D. , author of The Evolutionary Empath

1. We’re all familiar with the term empathy. What exactly is an empath?

To create a common jumping-off point, empathy is a psychological or emotional state that we access inside ourselves when someone in our world is going through a difficult time. When we identify with and feel compassion for a person or situation, we are experiencing empathy for that person. We can insert ourselves inside his or her circumstances, imagine what it would be like for us, and then, from that bridge, establish an emotional connection with that person. We develop a sympathetic response, a concern for what that person is going through. A common bond, however temporary, is created as we recognize the sameness in a stranger. Every human has the potential capacity to feel empathy, but not every human is an empath. 

When I wrote The Evolutionary Empath, my spirit guides gave me only one directive: create a definition. In my book I spend two chapters exploring the multiple aspects of what it means to be an empath. There are many nuances and subtleties to it. My formal definition (which I share here) is a paragraph long because I just couldn’t make it any shorter and still include all the elements that I believe are fundamental to the description!

From my book: An empath is a person who chose, at a soul level, to incarnate with a specific set of qualities expressing in varying degrees: an open energy field, a highly sensitive nervous system, the ability to perceive subtle energies, a strong need to create peace and harmony, and a deep desire to be of service. Empaths easily perceive nonverbal communications and subtle energies from life-forms—physical or nonphysical—either through feeling, knowing, physical sensations, or a combination thereof. Empaths are often born to families and communities that do not recognize their abilities or know how to mentor them. The unique challenges that these qualities present were accepted by the soul to serve their highest growth and to serve the planet by anchoring the new human blueprint and fourth-chakra (heart) consciousness on Earth during this early period of ascension.

2. Your book’s title is The Evolutionary Empath. Where have they been, where are they going, what does that mean for humanity? Is this related to your concept of the new human blueprint?

The title of the book, The Evolutionary Empath, refers to my belief that empaths are here at this point in human evolution – on purpose – to help humanity evolve to the next level of consciousness. In my book I explore the evolution of the empath, stating that the collective vibration of human consciousness has not been sustainable for empaths to thrive in any quantity until recently. Even a century ago, there were very few empaths on the planet. Most of society doesn’t yet know what to do with us and we are often considered an anomaly, outcast, or just plain weird. There is enough momentum now, enough critical mass, enough progress in our awakening, that it is time for us (empaths) to re-emerge on the planet once again. I call it the “empathic big bang.”

Empaths show up on the planet with a slightly different energetic physiology, with a refined set of sensitivities, and with a different vision of human society. This is what I mean by the “new human blueprint.” I like to think that some thousands of years from now, “empath” won’t even be a word because it will be synonymous with “human.” Right now most of us are the black sheep in our families and social groups, but we bravely chose at a soul level to come into the planet in our particular configuration to usher in the frequency of heart-centered consciousness. We are the way-showers. There’s a quote from the movie Moneyball that says, “The first guy through the wall always gets bloodied.” Collectively, the empaths who are here now and who have incarnated before us are the first wave, getting bloodied, hacking the path through the jungle and paving the way for the ones coming behind us.

3. In your book you talk about how humanity is in a cycle of ascension. A lot of people might say we’re regressing (anger, hate, war, violence, conflict). What do you mean exactly? How can you say human consciousness is ascending?

This is a totally fair question! There are two perspectives I would like to offer. First, consider the measurement of temperature as we move from winter into spring. Each day is not warmer than the next. It jumps up and down. One day might be 60 degrees, then back down to 30 degrees. Then up to 48, then down to 36, etc. Yet, if you were to chart the daily highs over time, they would clearly trend warmer. Expand that model into longer time frames and it is not difficult to extrapolate the up-and-down of human consciousness and its subsequent manifestation in the world. We might be “up” for a year and “down” for a year. Or “up” for 10 years and “down” for 5 years. But if you zoom out far enough in your viewpoint, we can still “chart” the rise of human consciousness over time.

Another perspective is to consider the role our individual and collective shadow plays. In short, the shadow is the disowned, unloved parts of ourselves. By definition, these are the parts we don’t want anyone to see. We keep them deeply buried. As human consciousness elevates, as our vibrational frequency raises, our shadow quite literally vibrates in dissonance with the rest of our being (or the collective being.) This dissonance cannot be sustained and eventually our shadow is vibrated up to the light of consciousness to be acknowledge, healed, released and transformed. As one of my teachers says, “If it’s on its way up, it’s on its way out.” What can feel like chaos and discord are actually the symptoms of healing and transformation.

4. You are not just writing about empaths, you are an empath yourself. Tell me about your personal journey. At what point did you realize you were an empath?

I was a very creative and intuitive child. I drew and painted and made all kinds of crafty projects. I went to a performing arts school where I participated in singing competitions, had works displayed in school art shows, performed in dance recitals, plays, and musicals, and wrote for various school publications, and I was also a member of my city dance company. I was highly sensitive and could tell when other people didn’t feel good or were upset. Even as a small child, Mom said I intuitively knew when someone was depressed, was upset, or had had a bad day, and I would go up to them with some form of acknowledgment, such as hugging them or crawling into their lap. (This behavior still exists today, minus the lap part.) In unconscious ways, I would take on the energies of others who were troubled in an instinctive effort to relieve them of their pain. Friends always came to me with their problems. I was a little medicine woman before I even knew what that was.

At age eight, my world blew apart when my parents divorced. I lived with my mom through the eighth grade, visiting Dad during the summer and at Christmas. Life as the child of a single, poor mother was difficult, and I continued to process a lot of grief and anger over the divorce through acting out and being defiant. I know I was a handful for my mother, so the messages started getting confusing. She encouraged me to continue my creative outlets and artistic expressions, but implications such as don’t be too big, too much, too loud, or too extreme started creeping into the subtext. I was a big energy for sure, and the collective programming about women and power that lay in my mother’s subconscious played out in the messages that shaped me as I moved into young ladyhood. My mother is also an empath but was completely unaware of it at that time in her life. So I also observed and absorbed her erratic attempts at managing her sensitive nervous system as well as the anger and other repressed emotions seething just below the surface. This added to the conflicting and confusing messages: Bottle up. Smile. Deny. Pretend everything is okay. Medicate. Rationalize. Project. Please others. Hide. Escape into addiction. I couldn’t help but be influenced by—and take on—her unresolved issues. 

During eighth grade, in the infinite wisdom of a thirteen-year-old, I decided I wanted to go live with my dad and stepmom, and Mom agreed. I naively assumed I would be able to continue my creative and artistic pursuits, but I was dead wrong. My dad and stepmom wouldn’t allow it. They didn’t value these activities and had no idea how important they were to my mental and spiritual health. I stopped dancing, I stopped singing, and I stopped performing. I was allowed one elective in high school, so I chose to take art for four years. The once gregarious and expressive young lady began the switch to introversion and suppression. Additionally, my stepmother Betty and I had an adversarial relationship, and we fought regularly.

As my high school years progressed, I started to hide deeper inside myself. Stripped of my creative outlets and plagued by Betty’s constant harassment, I spent a lot of time alone, outdoors whenever I could, playing in the woods or sneaking into the pasture up the road to visit the horses. I kept to myself. My arguments with Betty became less defiant and turned into me sitting in the chair with my arms crossed, tight-lipped, staring at the floor while she ranted at me. I rarely said a word. I spent less and less time expressing my authentic self and more time grudgingly morphing into the “good girl” Betty wanted me to be. It constantly annoyed her when I wanted to be by myself, and she falsely assumed I was secretive or hiding something. Clearly I was not a person who was valuable or precious or worth investing in—or understanding—as I was. 

My empathic nature felt entirely exposed and unsafe. My natural sensitivities, gifts, passions, and expressions were slowly being expunged and replaced by directives of hard work, productivity, logic, responsibility, and practical and mental skills. During my junior year it became time to start thinking about the future. In a moment of reflection, I remember wondering what would happen if I somehow dusted off my performing arts skills and pursued a career as an artist, actor, or performer. But by that time, practicality and logic had taken a firm hold, and I quickly pooh-poohed the idea, as it was not a sensible choice. After much deliberation that involved only my head (my heart had long been banished from the decision-making table), I chose to go into the Air Force. I accepted a four-year scholarship in applied mathematics to the Missouri University of Science and Technology, where I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force upon graduation.

The confusion of how a creative, intuitive child who lived in the performing arts world got a math degree and went into the Air Force defined my adolescence and plagued my early adulthood. In my formative teenage years I had been taught not to trust my heart or listen to my intuition, and that much of what naturally wanted to be expressed inside of me was wrong and not valued or desired by the world. My sensitivities were misunderstood and disregarded. They were misattributed to the effects of being melodramatic, the angst of being a product of divorce, or the hormonal swings of an adolescent girl. And added to this misunderstanding was the unintended yet equally potent transmission from my mother about staying small and minding my place as a woman. By the time I left for college, my internal dialogue had begun to mimic and regurgitate the same messages of disdain, rejection, and contempt that I experienced growing up, and they continued to do so for fifteen more years. 

I did not understand that I was an empath until my spiritual awakening began in my early thirties when I left the Air Force. Thinking I would be a financial advisor for the next 10-15 years, I quit in less than 6 months because I hated it. This began a 5-year period of my spiritual awakening that I now call the “spiritual crucible.” (If you want to read more about my spiritual awakening and this period of my life, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Chaos To Clarity: Sacred Stories of Transformational Change and read my story on page 185.)

5. The second half of your book is focused on practical tools for empaths. Can you give me one or two examples?

Managing your energy field and learning to draw boundaries are two critical skills for empaths to master. 

Managing (clearing, making conscious decisions about, taking responsibility for) your energy field first implies that you relate to yourself as an energy being. We each have an energy field and imagining our own sovereign space is a great place to start, whether you think of it as a bubble, cocoon, or cylinder. One of the chapter titles in my book is “You and I are one, but we are not the same” which speaks to the confounding dichotomy of thinking of ourselves as simultaneously the same and different. I acknowledge that we are all made of the same “God stuff.” We are all individuations of Creator. But in the 3D physical world, we are not the same. We have different beliefs, values, habits and preferences. It is OKAY to cultivate a healthy separation so that we can clearly distinguish what is ours from what isn’t. The edges of your container define your “house.” And you can invite or disinvite anyone or anything you want into your own house.

As with physical dwellings, we also have to maintain and clean our energetic home. So it is crucial to learn skills for clearing your energy field (daily energy hygiene) and managing the wide array of energies you encounter on a regular basis.

The edge of your energy container is in some ways synonymous with boundaries. You choose what energy, emotion, thought, person, or experience you let pass through your boundary (you can think of it as the front door of your energetic house.) In choosing who or what to let in your home, ideally you’re going to lean towards people and experiences that benefit you, make you happy, and are healthy. The same goes for your energy field.

Boundaries also refer to a physical act, as in drawing a boundary. Drawing a boundary can mean saying no, standing up for yourself, or asking for what you need. This takes skill and practice as so many empaths are used to acquiescing to others needs and desires. We are built to blend and merge so, conversely, it is often difficult for us to figure out who we are and to stay grounded in our own center. My book includes many examples as well as practical languaging you can adopt if finding the words is challenging when you need to say no or ask for what you need. Drawing boundaries is an essential skill which helps us define who we are as humans.

6. You say that people choose at a soul level to be an empath. Are you saying they are born with it? That you can choose before you’re born to be something? Explain how that works. Can you choose to stop being an empath?

In my belief system, we make major decisions at a soul level about our next incarnation, understanding that human free will is also a factor in how our lives unfold. For those choosing to be empaths right now (meaning coming to the planet with the cosmic mission of helping to humanity evolve to the next level of consciousness), it is a challenging road because we choose to come into our body with a wide range of sensitivities that most people don’t possess or don’t value. We incarnate knowing at a soul level that we will be misunderstood, judged, ostracized, made fun of, unappreciated and other painful experiences as a result of our special qualities.

With that being said, I believe that everyone is born with the template to be an empath. It is our natural state as humans to communicate at subtle levels with all sentient life forms (including animals, plants, rocks, bodies of water, the earth herself, other dimensions, etc.) It is a natural configuration to have these sensitivities. But several factors contribute to whether or not these qualities get “turned on.” First, human free will. We may make decisions at a soul level that, once in a body, we resist or reject. The messages we receive and internalize from our parents, teachers, social groups and churches play a huge role in setting up the value and belief systems we take on. Then there’s the choice to “wake up” to the fact that we’re an empath later in life, which usually means pursuing a great deal of inner work to heal old wounds and unresolved issues. We might unconsciously decide it is too hard to wake up or that we don’t want to do the grueling spiritual/emotional work required to heal and reclaim our power.

Can we choose to stop being an empath? Being an empath is something akin to a major personality trait. It is inherent in us. We can certainly choose to ignore it, bury it, or deny it, often to the point that nothing about who we are resembles an empath at all. But that does not negate the decision we made at a soul level to incarnate in this particular configuration. What you resist, persists. Many sensitive souls I have worked with tell me that they have tried to ignore their gifts for years and finally could no longer do it. When we can acknowledge and embrace our nature, then we have the power of choice and can engage with our sensitivities from a place of personal power instead of victimization. It is this way with anything we reclaim from the shadow. It brings us one step closer to wholeness when we stop ignoring or denying our true selves.

7. Your first chapter is entitled “You Are Not Crazy.” You talk about the unhealthy aspects of being an empath. Give me examples of the struggles an empath might have.

When we are unaware that we are an empath, we are almost certainly destined to live from the shadow (or unhealthy) aspects of our empathic qualities. We are unconscious empaths until we are conscious empaths. Experiences like codependence, losing ourselves in relationship, taking on other people’s emotions and problems, and struggling with boundaries become our fate. Over-giving, putting ourselves last, difficulty saying no, being a doormat, not knowing who we are, and living from someone else’s center are also common experiences.

8. Your book also mentions there are 5 distinct qualities of an empath…what are those?

1. The ability to merge with and absorb the energy of other beings (people, animals, or anything with life force), which stems from a very open personal energy field. This is the quality that causes us to unconsciously take on others’ emotions and problems and to struggle with boundaries. 

2. A highly sensitive nervous system. This makes us prone to overwhelm and overstimulation, which require extra-vigilant self-care. 

3. Great sensitivity to the energies around us and an ability to perceive or access subtle information stored in the energy fields of all types of life-forms. This makes it easy for us to tune in to the “unseen” realm of spirits, including angels, apparitions, the dead, energy fields of people and things, paranormal experiences, past lives, the Akashic records, people’s emotions, and much more. (Akashic records are an etheric library of each soul’s human incarnations, including events, thoughts, actions, emotions, karmic patterns, and intent occurring in the past, present, or future.) 

4. The premium we place on peace and harmony in relationships, our environment, and our own energy field. Given our heightened sensitivities, we will do anything and everything to keep our relationships and environment—and therefore ourselves—as stress free, calm, and harmonious as possible.

5. Big, open hearts and a desire to serve others. This makes us inclined toward careers focused on service as well as overgiving and putting ourselves last on the list.

It’s important to note that these qualities fall on a continuum and not every person will experience all of these qualities in the same way and in the same degree.

9. How does being an empath affect your closest personal relationships? Can living with an empath be difficult?

Being in relationship from the point of view of the unconscious empath (meaning we don’t know that we’re an empath) can mean we face a great deal of codependence, losing ourselves in the relationship, and taking on the other person’s emotions and problems. It is difficult for us to figure out where we end and the next person begins. We might experience people taking advantage of us, acquiescing to everyone else’s wishes, not knowing what we want, and putting everyone else first. Being in relationship as an empath when we don’t know we’re an empath usually leads to a great imbalance in the relationship, suppression of our authentic self and voice, and unhappiness.

When we are aware of our empathic nature, we (hopefully) do some of our inner work to ensure we show up in relationship as our own sovereign self, equal to the other person (whether that’s romantic partner, sibling, co-worker, friend, etc.). I’ve had many empath clients experience an entire turn-over of friends when they start doing their inner personal work, find their voice, start setting boundaries, and begin to stand up for themselves. Their personal frequency changes and they are able to stay more grounded and centered in their own selves. Being in relationship as a conscious empath is completely different than being an unconscious empath. Awareness is always the first step in healing and shifting a pattern.

Living with an empath can be very difficult if you don’t understand what an empath is or if you don’t value the empath’s sensitivities. As the empath, sometimes it’s a matter of educating your partner or friend. Sometimes it’s a matter of leaving the relationship altogether. Only you as the empath can determine what is worth the investment of your time and effort if your partner (friend, co-worker, relative) does not understand you or judges your sensitivities.

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To learn more about Rev. Stephanie Red Feather, Ph.D., please visit her website at https://www.bluestartemple.org

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