Earlier this week, I noticed a post by an acquaintance of mine on Facebook saying she’s confused and annoyed with people claiming to be Empaths. She conceded she believes there are many talents and skills which can make someone unique, but she doesn’t believe feeling empathy is one of them.
According to her, everyone (except psychopaths and various other personality disorders) feels empathy and therefore everyone is an Empath. She went on to say, people who label themselves as Empaths believe they’re, “unique and fairy-like and require a lot of woo-woo things like extra self-care and spiritual protection’’.
I rarely read the comments on posts, but I was curious what people thought. Personally, I assumed the existence of empaths was a given. I learned about it in massage school, met plenty throughout the years, and sometimes think I experience it myself. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong.
There were of course plenty of comments bashing the entire concept. More than a few people made fun of people claiming to be Empaths. One person said he thinks empaths are narcissists, another said the whole concept is “hippy-dippy bologna”, and more believe Empaths are emotionally weak and insecure liars who can’t handle real life.
But not all the responses were crude. Some said being an empath isn’t a superpower at all, but a trauma response making someone hypersensitive to their surroundings and the moods of other people.
There were quite a few who attempted to make a distinction between having empathy and being an empath. Mainly that empathy is an emotion enabling us to relate to each other in an emotional sense. Whereas being an Empath goes a step further. According to these commenters, Empaths take on other people’s emotions, absorbing and experiencing them as if they were their own.
One guy explained he’s autistic, and how due to his autism, his body language and facial expressions confuse non-autistic people. For example, he represses his urge to fidget because it makes people think he’s impatient when he isn’t. He said he has to be very direct about what he’s thinking or feeling because most people don’t know how to read him. And since he always has to explain himself, even to people claiming to be Empaths, he doesn’t think Empaths are real.
My personal history with empaths and empathy aside, I couldn’t help but notice a theme within the comments. Everyone spoke their opinions based on the assumption that everyone experiences empathy the same way, which isn’t true. Empathy — like anxiety and anger — is a spectrum. Some people experience it more, or in a different way, than others.
Let’s delve a little deeper into what we know about empathy and empaths, instead of just basing our decision on our opinions.
Unlike our physical anatomy, our mental capacities are much harder to study because we can only feel them, not see them. There wasn’t even a word to describe emotions until the 17th century, and “empathy” didn’t join the English language until 1909, even then it was largely ignored until the 1960s because psychologists were focused on behaviorism.
Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as,
1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
Until recently, it was assumed empathy is just one singular emotion when in fact, there are two kinds of empathy. More specifically, negative and positive empathy, which aren’t mutually exclusive (I discuss the difference in this article).
We know empathy is vital for the success of relationships and humanity as a whole, some may argue it’s the key ingredient. We have a basic understanding of how it feels, though, for the most part, we rely on verbal explanations to describe it. We also know it can be developed through emotional intelligence, similar to other human traits like being self-aware.
But What About Empaths?
Mirriam-Webster defines an Empath as,
one who experiences the emotions of others : a person who has empathy for others
Psychiatrist and proclaimed Empath, Dr. Judith Orloff, is considered a pioneer in the field. In her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, and this Psychology Today article, Dr. Orloff explores several scientific explanations to help us understand the relationship between empaths and empathy. Some theories such as a hyper-active Mirror Neuron System in Empaths show promise, but they don’t make a direct irrefutable argument.
Scientists are quick to point out the majority of scientific evidence used to prove the existence of Empaths tends to fall short. Instead, the majority of evidence points to the existence of empathy.
Then again, Neuroscientist and psychologist, Abigail Marsh, may have stumbled upon proof that Empaths exist by accident while researching altruists. More specifically, people who volunteered to donate a kidney to a complete stranger without any personal reward or gain.
What Dr. Marsh found was “true altruists” have a larger amygdala (area in our brain responsible for us experiencing our emotions) and were more aware and responsive to fear in other’s facial expressions. This is the exact opposite of psychopaths, who have a smaller amygdala and a reduced reaction to fear in others.
Could Dr. Marsh’s altruists be considered Empaths? Maybe, why not? In a world made of opposites, it stands to reason Empaths are just as real as psychopaths.
Why are we so quick to dismiss what we don’t understand? We’ve spent the majority of our existence as a species exploring our physical world. Seeing was believing, and anything else was nonsense or an act of God.
Today we know there’s plenty we can’t see, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less true. We can’t see radio waves, but we know they’re real. Most of us can’t even see all the colors there really are — while average Jane can see about two million colors, someone with tetrachromacy can see closer to 100 million colors.
Personally, I do think Empaths are real. Whether or not there’s direct proof yet, to me, does not nullify the possibility. As far as I’m concerned, we are only experts of our own experiences. Who are we to tell someone their experiences aren’t real, just because they’re different than our own? Instead of writing off their claims as absurd, maybe we should try and learn something from them.