How to Spot An Empath — Even in The Mirror

Stuff I wish someone had told me long ago.

Photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash

I am an empowered empath. By which, I mean I know myself, I know my limits. I know I have to recharge after human interactions, especially after I have been in a large group of strangers. Empaths are highly sensitive.

When in public, I have learned to feel the swirling vectors of our emotions as they crash and blend together. It’s exciting! And it takes a tiny amount of constant attention, which gets tiring. Airports feel way different than rock concerts, which are different from jazz concerts. Oh, and that feeling when the plane finally lands. What a relief! Right?

I can be useful to others. I have learned to mirror or balance my emotions against theirs as necessary. I have worked in high-pressure situations where calming very emotional clients was critical and I thrived at it. I’ve thrown some pretty fun parties too. Having an unusually strong empathetic experience is like any other trait; it colors one’s life. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not a good thing, it just is.

Syncing

When I enter a room with people in it, I slow down my inner space. I heighten my awareness of all the feelings. If you were to observe me, it’s not likely you’d notice. It usually takes about one step. The most descriptive word I can think of is syncing.

As I’m syncing I feel the fees. I don’t rationalize them. There’s no need. They probably aren’t mine. Even if they are about me. They do not concern me. Not at the moment anyway. I acknowledge them and then I just let them be. It’s like hearing many conversations in a room and yet not trying to listen in to any one. I mean if they’re being loud, what choice do you have? Otherwise, just let em’ be.

Once in sync, I pay attention only to the major changes. Syncing for me is just establishing a baseline. Somebody new enters the room, adjust the baseline. This allows me to go about my day only concerning myself with my feelings. It also allows me to use my empathy at an instinctual level. I feel the creepy person getting too close. I notice the hot feeling of anger, especially if it’s directed at me.

Rational Explanation

The best current rational explanation that I know of for the empathic experience is based on a study by Martin Schulte-Rüther 1, Hans J Markowitsch, Gereon R Fink, and Martina Piefke.

The study found that mirror neurons in the brains of monkeys activate when they watch another monkey perform a task. Essentially, the observing monkey would experience the other monkey’s behavior almost as though they were doing it themselves.

Researchers think that they might aid in constructing models of other people’s minds these models are called “theory of mind”, according to Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. He theorizes that autism is linked to a deficiency in them, he explains that they are necessary for human empathy.

My Best Guess

Those of us with high empathy have an abnormally high mirror neuron count and can more easily create a theory of the minds of others which allows us to predict the feelings, intentions, motivations, and thoughts of other people. It happens at a neuron level, our brains are picking up on all kinds of subtleties, body language, micro-expressions, voice inflections, etc and the mirror neurons then fire as if the experience were happening to us.

This would help explain why the experience feels mystical. It’s not conscious; we don’t put effort into creating a theory of mind; our brains do it for us. The experience is almost as if they are our feelings, our thoughts, our motivations, etc.

It’s sort of like having virtual minds which approximate the inner space of other people allowing us to feel what that person probably feels. Every human, except possibly the autistic, creates a theory of mind of those they interact with. Empaths just do it more often and more easily.

All of this is just my best guess, from my perspective, based on what little is known. I’m telling you how it feels to me. Empathy is not well understood but that doesn’t mean it’s magic. However, it does kinda feel it.

Professional Resources

There aren’t too many places to get great information about the empathic experience. In my opinion, two of the leading authorities are:

Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. who coined the term highly sensitive person, my understanding is that she is not comfortable with the word empath. Her work can be found here:, and Judith Orloff MD is another great resource for people seeking rational advice about the empathic experience. I also identify my experience in the Meyers-Briggs personality type INFP and INFJ which are sometimes called empath personality types.

Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash

Are You an Empath?

Being empowered as an empath is as simple as getting to know who you are so that you can understand your perspective. You may be wondering if you’re an empath. Labels can be useful but they can also be problematic. As I began my search for meaning it didn’t take me long to realize that the term is descriptive of my experience which is really the only thing I’m qualified to talk about, my perspective.

So, if you want to know if you’re an empath, the best I can do is ask you if you have ever felt the way I have. Do you experience any kind of buzz or zing when somebody new enters a room? If a particularly difficult person leaves the room, do you feel the collective sigh of relief?

In social situations does the subtext ever seem louder than the main performance? Do you have a deep primal need to act in accord with your morals? Do you feel people’s opinions about you more deeply than other people seem to? Do they call you sensitive?

Are you a weirdo because you keep insisting that people’s motivations are super obvious? Do you find yourself having trouble standing up for yourself when people take advantage of you? Is it because you want to help them?

Do you notice smells before anybody else does, even though you don’t seem to have a particularly strong sense of smell? When you’re having a conversation, do you know how your words are affecting the other person as you are saying them? Do you immediately see the source of simple misunderstandings between other people?

I could go on and on. But I think you get the point. Empaths are sensitive in every sense of the word. I’m talking about the internal landscape. Not the “real” world but rather how we perceive the real world. Hopefully, my questions give you a place to start. Just be honest with yourself about your experiences. Forget about the opinions of people who can’t speak rationally about it. Many people won’t have a clue about the experience.

If you have a feeling that someone you are interacting with feels a certain way, don’t automatically assume that you’re right. But definitely keep that feeling in mind and watch their behavior for additional verification. This is how you grow as an empath while staying grounded and rational.

Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash

Do You Have an Empath in Your Life?

You may be wondering if you know an empath. Again, I have to express my discomfort with labels; especially when applying them to an actual person rather than a category. So please keep the proper level of abstraction in mind; I am talking about my experiences and how I think they might help you. I only have my perspective. But what I can do is draw from the misunderstandings and other experiences that I think are related to my heightened empathy.

Empaths look at everything through the lens of our values. We are anchored in them. You will not get us to budge. If a normally agreeable and sensitive person who is usually kind is acting like an arrogant ass, they might be an empath defending their values. You may have a chance to know them better if you take a second to understand what it is they’re all worked up about.

Your friend may be an empath and they might not even know it. Maybe they don’t know how to express themselves yet. This could be an opportunity to help them gain some self-awareness. I’m not saying that you have to agree with them. I am saying that it’s a good idea to make sure you know what you’re reacting to before you react.

If you have a friend who is always claiming to know how people feel, take it with a grain of salt, sure. But watch the behavior of the person in question and see how often your friend’s opinion is a rational explanation for the motivation driving that behavior. Especially if it happens after your friend noticed the feeling. In other words, be rational about it.

If you have a friend whom you always enjoy being with, they might be an empath. Do they offer you a drink just as you are realizing you’re thirsty (or before)? During conversations does your friend have a knack for talking to you about difficult stuff without overly hurting your feelings? Like, you start to feel a strong emotional reaction to something they’re saying, but before it gets unbearable they manage to quiet you back down with a quick caveat or a kind smile?

Your friend might be an empath.

My Experience as an Empath

I did not start off the way I am today. I had to work my way through a pretty crappy beginning. It would have helped me to have had more information from an empath’s perspective. My hope is that by reading my story, you might better understand and identify the empaths in your life. Perhaps you’ll come to realize that you are one.

I encourage you to rid your mind of any images of me as a gentle acting, soft-spoken, light-moving, quiet man. You can’t identify an empath by our behavior. You have to understand that empathy is our perspective. We can be born into any situation with any blend of personality traits. Empathy is what makes us tick. You have to get pretty close to hear it.

I’ve known I was an empath since I was a child. Although, I was probably a teenager by the time I learned the word. Of course, it was considered mystical mumbo jumbo in the ’80s. I knew I was highly empathetic from the time I was tiny. My mother always said I was “a sensitive boy with a soft touch.”

Empathy is something that has colored every aspect of my life. It is the angle from which I see. I have been pretty quiet about it so far because it’s not something people generally understand. If you try to talk about it, it sounds like you’re either crazy, claiming to know what other people feel; or you’ve got a Jesus complex, going around talking about how you love everybody.

I do not act how you might expect. I am not always quiet. I express my feelings proudly and often loudly. I am not shy. I speak in a confident voice. Empathy is my strength. It is my primary means of self-defense. I have a very strong sense of what people’s motivations are. I am not easily taken advantage of.

I prefer to express my emotions fully so if I feel like yelling I yell if, I’m not with strangers. Being in ‘polite’ company or, really around people at all, is tiring. Not just because I feel their feelings; I’m limited in how much I can express my own.

Unless I’m with friends. Anyone who knows me well is prepared for random outbursts of emotion, usually in the form of a quick theatrical performance or a short song. Sometimes I will speak full sentences of absolute gibberish. Why? Because I feel like it.

Final Thoughts

I assume, given what we know about neuroplasticity, that anyone can enhance their empathic skill. The key is linking your internal experience to real-world evidence so you can learn what your feelings mean. This way you constantly improve your skill at building a reliable theory of mind. Practice makes better.

I hope you have found something in this article you can use. You or someone you know might be an empath. If my story helps you understand yours then I have achieved my goal.

Other Medium Articles:

Empathy Almost Killed Me — Growing up sensitive hurts.

Relationship Requirements for Empaths — Empaths must first love and trust ourselves; we need lovers who are emotionally honest and willing to give us space.

Happiness Reigns — Be the leading expert on your happiness.

Plea for Honesty — In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a lunatic.

Rational Thinking Quickie — Rational thinking allows us to make sense of our lives reasonably so we can operate in a world we understand.

Social Media-Poisoned Public Square — The profit motive poisons the online public square by elevating those toxic voices that would be ignored in public.

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𝘈𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘷𝘶𝘭𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 & 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘸𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸𝘭𝘦𝘥𝘨𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘴.

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Travis Ferret

Travis Ferret

I intend to model alternate ways of thinking and approaching life’s challenges. Hopefully, you can use my stories to develop your own rational perspective.

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