What is an empath?
An empath is someone who has the capacity to understand and vividly feel what another person is feeling, i.e. put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Compassion (an emotion we feel when someone else is in need and are motivated to help them) and sympathy (a feeling of care and understanding for someone in need) are closely associated with empathy.
There are different types of empathy that include cognitive, emotional and somatic empathy.
- Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the perspective or mental state of another.
- Emotional empathy is the ability to understand the emotional state of another.
- Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in the voluntary nervous system (the one associated with voluntary control over your body movements).
As an empath, you may be more inclined to one type of empathy or you can be sensitive in all ways. You may also be what is known as a highly sensitive person (HSP), meaning that you have a sensory processing sensitivity (SPS).
SPS involves increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.
Highly sensitive people are typically more sensitive to subtle stimuli and have heightened emotional reactivity, which leads them to engage deeper cognitive processing strategies for employing coping mechanisms.
This is all a fancy way of saying that you are more sensitive to the world around you and lack a lot of the filters between yourself and the world that most other people possess.
Being an empath can sometimes feel like you’re very raw and exposed to life and the world around you. Things that barely register with other people can make you feel like curling into a foetal position and crying until the world goes away.
Some things empaths can be particularly sensitive to:
- sudden or loud noises, such as construction and renovation
- busy/crowded environments, like open offices or malls
- strong/chemical smells
- angry/aggressive people
- violence in entertainment
As an empath, you absorb both the good and the bad from the world around you. You take on the stress and the joy of the people and situations you come across.
It is also common for empathic people to be more introverted, meaning that your energy tends to expand through quiet reflection and dwindle during social interaction.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t enjoy spending time with friends and loved ones, it just means that social interaction makes you tired more easily. It may also take you longer than others to recover after being at a party or out socialising.
“You’re too sensitive”
Being an empath, you’re probably familiar with being shamed for being sensitive.
Chances are you’ve heard things along the lines of “you’re too sensitive”, “you need to grow thicker skin” or “you can’t go through life being so overly sensitive” – all implying that you’re not acceptable as you are. This kind of hypercriticality is a typical tactic used by bullies.
For many of us, this can lead to chronic exhaustion, overeating and a feeling of wanting to retreat from the world because life feels so overwhelming. Like, girl bye!
Do you often feel like you don’t belong? Me too!
Growing up, I was an only child and spent a lot of my time alone. I didn’t have anyone I could relate to as a sensitive kid or even just someone who would have understood my sensitivities.
I felt like I’d been born in the wrong time or like I was stranded on a strange planet waiting for the mothership to come and take me home.
Everyone else seemed to deal with life so much better than me. Things that regularly made me freeze like a deer in headlights just seemed to roll off other people.
I came to the conclusion that I’m the one that must be broken and I internalised a belief that the fault (for almost anything) was always with me. Not uncommon when you grow up with a narcissistic parent.
No one seemed to be like me and I often felt lonely
I felt at home in nature and with animals because people confused and overwhelmed me. When interacting with others I always ended up taking on their problems as my problems.
My favourite place in the world was at the stables with the horses. When my riding teacher said I was very good with horses and suggested I become a groom I was over the moon. I finally felt seen and like I’d found a place where I belonged!
My happy place since age 5. 👆 Eventually, the interpersonal politics of groom life became unbearable and I decided to give it up.
I loved Higgins (my chestnut gentleman) and the lengthy cuddles he’d demand by pinning the top of my head down with his throat until I gave him scratches. There seemed to be a quirky, funny side to him that other grooms didn’t see and it was heartbreaking to walk away from a horse that had stolen my heart.
What I didn’t know back then was that everyone has a subtle energy field around themselves. A bubble that penetrates and extends beyond the physical body by a distance of a few inches to a few feet.
These energy fields communicate information, such as emotions, distress and well-being.
When we interact with other people (or animals!), their energy fields overlap with ours and, as empaths, we pick up what they’re putting into the world.
Crowded places, yuck!
I hate going to malls or other places with a lot of people because just being around that many people is exhausting for me.
Everyone has their own energy about them and everyone is radiating their own thoughts, feelings and current state of being out into the world.
Most people can just walk through a crowd and not be affected. Not me.
I walk out of a crowd having picked up on all those different sensations, other people’s feelings sticking to me like confetti in a glue factory, until I can’t tell the difference between what belongs to me and what belongs to someone else.
I end up getting emotionally exhausted and just wanting to escape!
Ah, the countryside!
Some people call it the middle of nowhere. I call it the middle of everything.
Sometimes even being at home is stressful. Living in an apartment in the city means I look out the windows and see other buildings – I’d rather look out and see grass and trees.
Even when I can see out over the adjacent buildings, rather than into the neighbours’ homes, simply being in the city often feels stressful. Like I can’t breathe and the walls are closing in.
As a pre-teen, I started overeating in an attempt to block out my sensitivities. With my responsiveness somewhat numbed by food, I was able to cope, just about.
And, no, I’m not talking about healthy food. When was the last time you drowned your emotions in a nice, green salad? Didn’t think so. Junk food and candies were my drugs of choice, but it could have just as easily been alcohol, smoking or drugs.
But I was able to hang out with friends and go to malls. When I shut off my intuition and empathic abilities, it seemed like I was able to deal with life as well as anyone.
Later on, when peer pressure got to me and I went on a diet called anorexia, I started using exercise as a form of self-punishment. I would routinely push myself too hard and I have recovered from more injuries caused by overstraining than I can remember.
Coping by numbing myself with food made me aloof and distant
I raised my defences and they were complete with moat, barbican and spikes on the walls with catapults waiting to fire burning projectiles at anyone who tried to come close.
I was able to socialise a lot but it was at the expense of making real friends. For years I floundered from friend to friend, not really getting close to anyone.
I was content so long as I could keep others at a distance, but as soon as I started getting close to someone I started feeling like they were physically icky to be around and would run for the hills.
Lukewarm emotion was okay to deal with because I didn’t truly feel anything. A life where I was towing a steady line in the middle, though, wasn’t really a life at all since shutting out the sad, depressing, overwhelming, dark emotions took the joy and the lightness away too.
Plus it was frustrating and exhausting constantly keeping everyone and everything at bay.
Empathy is the medicine the world needs
The start of my journey to healing and accepting myself began when I pulled out of everything I could and just focused on myself.
I started drawing boundaries and walked away from toxic relationships – even when it meant that the alternative was literally spending most of my time alone and forcing myself to learn how to do things (like go to the movies) all by myself.
I began embracing my sensitivities instead of running from them. Slowly I began to see glimpses of how I could become a whole person and stop feeling like I was trying to carry water with my bare hands.
Since I was told from an early age that my sensitivity was too much, it took me a long time to accept that side of myself.
I didn’t immediately realise that, rather than growing thicker skin, I should embrace my empathy as my strength. That my empathy would see me through the challenges and hard times if I only nurtured and used it instead of ignored and belittled it.
What is the difference between empathy and being an empath?
Empathy means that your heart goes out to another person when they feel something. You see their emotion and understand what it could be like for them because you can imagine what it might be like for you.
As an empath, you actually feel other people’s energy, emotions and physical symptoms as if it’s happening to you. Without the usual filters that other people have, you can feel their sorrow and their joy like it was your own – no imagination needed.
Other people’s moods and feelings can wash over you like a tide and completely drown you, depending on how sensitive you are and how strongly the other person is projecting.
For this reason, empaths can be highly sensitive to gestures, movements and tone of voice. You may also be highly sensitive to taking instructions and may start thinking (often subconsciously) that you’re doing something wrong if you’re being told something repeatedly.
You can often hear what other people aren’t saying with words and are instead communicating non-verbally. Empaths feel things first, then think, which is the opposite to how most people function in our overintellectualised society.
We lack that membrane that separates most other people from the world around them and are susceptible to anything that floats our way on the ocean of life.
Are highly sensitive people and empaths the same thing?
Highly sensitive people (HSP) share a lot of traits with empaths. A low threshold for stimulation, the need for alone time, sensitivity to light, sound and smell as well as an aversion to large groups.
Just like empaths, highly sensitive people also take longer to wind down after a busy day because their nervous system’s ability to transition from high stimulation to a state of calm is slower.
Empaths and highly sensitive people usually share a love of nature and quiet environments for these reasons – and empaths often share some or all of the traits with HSPs.
But empaths take the experience of the highly senseitive person further. We experience the energies around us in deep and profound ways. We absorb the energies around us into our own bodies and energetically internalise the feelings, pain and physical sensations of others.
We often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own and can become easily overwhelmed by other people’s energies as a result because we feel things but cannot pinpoint a source for those feelings.
As you learn to identify your empathic traits and abilities, you will find that they will not only enrich your life but can be used for the good of others.
The science of empathy
There are several things that science has discovered that explain the empathic experience.
The mirror neuron system
Your mirror neurons are a specialised group of brain cells that have specialised in interpreting the emotions of the people around you. They allow you to recognise another person’s pain, fear, stress, joy, happiness and calm.
Empaths are thought to have hyperresponsive mirror neurons and this leads you to deeply resonate with what other people are feeling.
Mirror neurons are triggered by outside events. Another person smiling at you will trigger an answering smile in you. A crying child will make you sad as well. When your friend is happy, so are you. When your significant other gets hurt, you feel the hurt too.
By contrast, psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists are thought to have, what scientists call, empathy deficiency disorders. This means that they lack the ability to feel empathy the way other people do. This may, in part, be caused by an under-reactive mirror neuron system.
Both the heart and the brain transmit measurable electromagnetic fields. According to the HeartMath Institute, these fields transmit information about our thoughts and emotions.
Empaths may be particulalry sensitive to this type of input and tend to become overwhelmed by it. Similarly, we can also have a astronger reaction to changes in the electromagnetic fields around us, both from the natural world and from electronics.
Light can affect empaths more strongly than others, and we can be particularly sensitive to the phases of the moon; feeling restless during a full moon and calmer during a new moon.
The sun can also affect our state of mind and energy. We can also be highly affected by sunlight or the lack of daylight.
Research has shown that many people pick up on the emotions of the people around them. For instance, one crying child will set off a a wave of crying children in the vicinity.
One person expressing tiredness or anxiety in the workplace can quickly pass it on and spread it to all their coworkers. This ability to synchronise our moods with other people is critical in forming good relationships.
Empaths need to be aware of setting boundaries around draining people and centring themselves before and after interacting with them.
When a friend is going through a hard time, your empathic abilities can be of great help, but only if you don’t help others at your own expense. Grounding and centring are some of the basic life skills of a happy empath.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons and is associated with the pleasure response.
Research has shown that introverted empaths tend to have a higher sensitivity to dopamine.
Basically this means that introverted empaths need a smaller dose of dopamine to feel happy. This is important to remember when considering your smartphone usage.
This could partly explain why introverted empaths are content with spending a lot of time alone, reading and meditating, and need less external stimulation to feel active or social.
A sensitive empath can also be hypersensitive to drugs – in my case, this became apparent at the hospital when I gave birth. I was given the “standard” drugs in “standard” doses but the results were catastrophic.
Rather than help me deal with the pain, I began hallucinating and was unable to sleep for the nightmares the drugs triggered in me. In the end, after a lot of convincing, I finally got a doctor to change the type of medication used on me and the horrid side effects disappeared.
I also reacted extremely strongly to the epidural and was still experiencing strong shaking and tremors several days after the surgery, whereas most women I’ve spoken to said the shaking stopped for them in the post-op recovery.
Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway
It’s a neurological condition in which two different senses are paired in the brain – such as seeing colours when you hear a piece of music or “tasting ” words. Imagine looking out at a skyline and tasting blackberries or hearing a violing and feeling a tickle in your left knee!
With mirror-touch synesthesia, people can actually feel the emotions and sensations of others in their own bodies as if these emotions were their own.
Common challenges of being an empath
Most empaths experience some very common challenges in managing their sensitivities.
Becoming overstimulated is something that most empaths are familiar with. Since you don’t possess the same buffers as most other people, you can often feel like you have raw nerve endings and burn out easily.
Without enough alone time to replenish yourself and wind down each day, you will suffer from the toxic effects of sensory overload and overstimulation.
Absorbing the stress and negativity of others is another common challenge for an empath. When you can’t tell if an emotion or feeling of discomfort is your own or someone else’s you can end up with a variety of symptoms yourself – not to mention confusion.
You may be unable to watch violent or upsetting movies, becuase you feel things intensely.
You may easily start carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and become overwhelmed or even depressed because you feel helpless to help those you see suffering (in your own life or on the news).
Even if you didn’t recognise it as one, you’ve surely experienced emotional or social hangovers. The malaise of sensory overload can linger long after the event itself.
Being around too many people or around intense emtions can leave you with one of these hangovers because you feel other’s emotions so intensely.
You may isolate yourself or keep yourself distant from people because the world seems too overwhelming to deal with. This can cause you to end up with a feeling of loneliness and isolation, even though you’d really like to find more connection with other people.
Others may also view you as standoffish or distant, as a result. You may also be hypervigilant in scanning your environment to ensure that it is safe and this can signal to others to stay away.
You may also freeze around inauthentic people which can covey aloofness, although this is more of a way to protect yourself.
A downside of being so compassionate is that people flock to you to tell you their life stories. You need to make sure you know how to set boundaries with love to protect yourself and to prevent “overgiving” so that you don’t experience emotional burnout.
For many empaths, loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, extreme temperatures, rough touch and strong tastes can penetrate and shock your body or even be painful.
Empaths often have an enhanced startle response and are extremely sensitive to intense sensory input. Strong smells, such as chemicals, perfumes and exhaust fumes can make you feel queasy, allergic or suffocated.
Expressing needs in an intimate relationship can also be challenging. Empaths have specific needs when living in the same space or sharing a bed with someone. Many require a separate space and sometimes a separate bed to feel comfortable. You should always talk to your partner about your specific needs.
The advantages of being an empath
Once you get a handle on dealing with the challenges of being an empath, you’ll truly start to enjoy the advantages.
We empaths have many marvellous traits. We have huge hearts and the instinct to help others in need is strong. We’re dreamers and idealists. We’re also passionate and can see the big picture.
We can appreciate another’s feelings and become loyal friends and partners. We’re intuitive, spiritual and can sense energy.
We have a special appreciation for the natural world and feel at home there. We resonate with nature, with its plants, forests and gardens. We often love water and whether we’re soaking in a hot bath or living by an ocean, water tends to energise us.
We may also feel a strong intuitive bond with our animal companions. We can often talk to them as if they’re humans. A distant relative of mine used to talk to his plants like they were his children (much to the dismay of his actual children!).
Being an empath is a wonderful thing. At its best being an empath means being intuitive and feeling the flow of energy in the world, reading people accurately and experiencing the richness of being very open to life.
Note: I just had to animate this beautiful text from Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out on one of the most elegant performances I’ve ever seen – her open and vulnerable oration on being different and being sensitive is genuinely touching!
Find out if you’re an empath
The number that gets cited quite often, is that about 20% of people are empathic or highly sensitive. I’ve also heard that around 1-2% could be considered extremely sensitive empaths.
However, there is no definitive test that will prove or disprove your empathy. Empaths, like most other things in life, exist on a scale of more to less empathic.
It is your own experience that will help you understand how empathic you really are.
I put together this self-assessment that will help you to determine how much of an empath you are. This knowledge can help you understand your own needs and guide you in the process of learning how to meet those needs.