Years ago, when I was a struggling alcoholic 20-something in Seattle, my secret dream was to be a writer. But, I couldn’t write. Every time I sat down to try, I was blocked. And not just blocked, but extremely blocked. I felt panicky and anxious, or numb and frozen. I literally could not write one word, even though I thought about writing all the time.
I assumed something was really wrong with me. If I wanted to write so badly, then why couldn’t I write at all?
It wasn’t until years later, after I had joined a silent writing program and finally been able to write my first novel, that I understood what was actually going on with me. The answer was clear, and yet it’s something I still see so many writers struggling with, and just like me, they have no idea why they are struggling so much to write.
The answer is that we are empaths.
There are a few different reasons that empaths struggle so much with writing. And please note, when I say “writing” in this instance, I mean any sort of creative writing. We don’t usually have that much of a problem writing things like marketing copy or technical instructions. We can write anything impersonal without our issues coming up. It’s when we try to write fiction, or personal essay, and most especially memoir, that we begin to suffer severely from an insidious form of writer’s block that is almost impossible to describe to others.
I’ve worked with clients who are empaths, and also writers, for over ten years, and I’ve now seen this problem play out in many different forms. Here is my list of reasons of why empaths experience extreme fear around writing their stories.
Empaths Learn in Childhood to Suppress Self-Expression
Most empaths grow up in a home where they are either taught to suppress their self-expression, or they see a parent model this behavior to them. This occurs especially in homes where one parent struggles with mental illness, addiction, or both, and the other parent eithers acts like it’s not happening altogether or avoids dealing with the subject as much as possible. This also occurs in homes where the family is expected to be “perfect” and the empath child has taken on the role of caretaker, or mediator, in the family. The empath child is the “good one” who everyone else can always count on, and who takes on the job of managing mom or dad’s emotions. Because of this task, they suppress their own true thoughts and feelings because it is unsafe to express them in the home.
The empath child then develops a nervous system that is very sensitive to any threat of self-expression getting through to the outside. So, even though the empath grows up to be an adult who consciously wants to write their stories and use creativity to self-express, their nervous system won’t let them. This is why so many empath writers report physical symptoms that accompany their writer’s block, like feeling frozen, numb, or experiencing sudden drowsiness or agitation. Their nervous system is having a reaction to the threat of possible self-expression and they’ve gone into fight-flight-or-freeze mode.
Empaths Believe They Are Responsible for the Reactions and Emotions of Others
This comes back to the situation outlined above. Empaths usually grow up in homes where a lot of other people’s emotions are either projected directly on them, or just generally projected out into the atmosphere of the family. Often, there is a codependent parent who either cannot or will not take responsibility for their own emotions, and so the empath child learns early on that they are expected to help manage their parent’s mood, and the dynamic of the family overall. They usually become the family member who diffuses tension, and strategizes to avoid or minimize arguments in the home. Because of this, they grow up believing that the emotions and reactions of other people are directly related to them, and that they need to make sure everyone is doing okay, all of the time.
This can be clearly seen in the way that many empaths interact with others. We are hesitant to express our opinions, and if we do, we are then hyper-alert about the reactions of others. It’s common for another person to lightly joke with the empath about their opinion or ask an innocent question in order to know more and the empath will then take that as disapproval and assume they have offended the person. I see this a lot in the communication styles of INFJ and INFP personality types, who will express a somewhat strong—yet completely valid and courteous—opinion to someone, and then follow it up with an apologetic explanatory note with the aim of managing the other person’s reaction to the opinion. Obviously, this hyper-vigilance about the reactions of others makes it hard to write anything personal and put it out there in the world.
Empaths Carry the Fears of Their Parents, Even Long After Their Parents Are Gone
As empaths, we are energy sponges, and this is something many empaths don’t understand. Although empaths usually get that we take on the emotions of others, we tend to think this is a temporary thing and it only happens in the present moment. So, if we walk into a room and someone there is very angry, we’ll get flooded with their anger. But then when we leave, the anger will dissipate and we don’t have to think any more about it. This is actually not how it works with empaths. We don’t just absorb the emotions of the people who are around us at any given moment, we also absorb and carry the energy of those closest to us, sometimes for years. We do this because we learned in childhood that our caregivers were not reliable in some way, and basically couldn’t handle their own issues. Usually, there was a beloved parent who had a lot of problems, and at some point when we were a child we noticed, “Mom and/or Dad can’t handle this (emotions, life, their own addictions, etc.). I’m going to take it from them and carry it for them. I’m much better at processing this sort of stuff.”
The problem is that even though empaths can carry the energy of others, we can’t actually process it. So, we end up with the energetic equivalent of carrying around a storage unit’s worth of stuff in our energy field, without having the actual key to the storage unit. So we can’t get anything out of it, and we can’t do anything with the stuff locked within it. We just keep carrying it, and having to deal with the toxicity leaking out of it into our system. This is why so many empaths will usually have a breakthrough when they finally start writing their memoir that the fear that has been plaguing them for so long is actually their mother’s fear, or their father’s fear, or their grandmother’s fear, or the fear of some other ancestor. Someone in their family line who was close to them long ago passed on the fear that is now holding the empath back in the present day.
Empaths Don’t Understand What Boundaries Are
I’ve talked to more empaths than I can count who have said to me, “I’ve always been bad with boundaries.” Or, “boundaries are really hard for me.” Because many empaths also suffer from self-deprecation, it’s common for us to blame ourselves for our boundary struggles and label the struggle as our fault because we’re just “bad” at it. But this is not true. Empaths do not have some sort of inherent flaw that makes us “bad” at boundaries. What’s really going on is that most empaths don’t actually understand what a boundary is. Because we were raised in homes where boundaries were unclear, confusing, or altogether non-existent, we never learned what a boundary is or how it’s supposed to function. It’s like trying to drive a car with a manual transmission when you’ve only ever driven cars that have an automatic transmission—but not even understanding that the new car you’re in has a different kind of transmission. It’s not that you’re bad at driving, you just never learned how to drive that particular kind of car.
Most empaths have two dysfunctional beliefs in place about boundaries. Number one is that enforcing personal boundaries means that you’re selfish and being hurtful to others. Number two is that a boundary is a big, thick, stone wall that you erect against people, and once you put up that wall, there’s no going back. This is not what boundaries do, or what they look like. Healthy boundaries are fluid and flexible, and they are enforced with kindness and compassion. However, because most empaths don’t understand this, we believe that if we write and publish our work, and then put it out there in the world, that means that just anyone can come along and find it, and then gain access to us.
I’ve worked with many empath writers who are terrified of putting their work out there because they assume that means that trolls, narcissists, and various forms of clingy, needy people with problems will then be allowed to message them, email them, or establish contact in some other way, and the empath will be under some sort of obligation to interact with them. This is absolutely not true. If someone contacts you and you get a weird vibe from them, or you just don’t want to respond, period, you DON’T have to respond. Not even to send them a brief courteous message acknowledging their attempt at reaching out, no matter how much they say they loved your book or your article, or whatever it was you put out there into the world. When I teach this truth to empath writers, this is usually mind-blowing for many of them, and this is because, up until that point, they never truly understood what a real boundary is or how it works.
It is possible for empath writers who are struggling with extreme fear around writing to get past it and write again, and even publish what they write. However, the issues I outlined above must be addressed first because each one is deeply rooted in the empath writer’s psyche and will not go away on its own. Traditional therapy can help, but only goes so far, as it almost always concentrates on processing material intellectually by rationally talking through memories and current thought patterns. What empath writers are dealing with is much deeper, and addressing it on the mental level only scratches the surface. This is why I recommend empath writers seek out a holistic and/or intuitive writing coach, or a creativity coach who works intuitively. These kinds of helpers will work with the root of the energy, as well as all the emotions attached to that root, and not just the mental thought patterns.
Finally, if you are an empath writer struggling in this way, be patient with yourself. These kinds of issues take time to work through, and you pushing yourself or beating up on yourself is not going to help anything. Once you realize that you are an empath writer and you have this kind of stuff going on, the best thing you can do is to treat yourself with compassion and loving kindness.
Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer, The INFJ Revolution, and the creator of Understanding Yourself as an INFJ Writer, an online video course for INFJ writers who struggle with traditional writing methods. You can get a free copy of her book on creative marketing for writers by signing up for her newsletter HERE.