“An empath doesn’t just feel for someone — they feel with someone.”
Imagine having to feel everything. Not just the things that happen to you, but also the things that happen to people around you.
And if you’d like a peek into my specific experience, imagine that this isn’t restricted to people who are literally near you, but that it extends to anyone you can see or hear, even through a digital screen.
Yes, that is how I experience life.
And it is rough.
What being an empath means
Despite a lifetime of what I can now see as the normal experiences of an empath, I never knew the full meaning of the term until recently.
People toss the word around all the time — “oh, I’m an empath.” I didn’t realize it meant more than being an empathetic person, which I already knew I was.
And it’s a shame I didn’t realize there was more to it because I’ve already found comfort in finally having something that, to put it plainly, tells me I’m not just being crazy or unreasonable or overly sensitive.
Being an empath goes beyond being empathetic. It affects one’s experience of the world in myriad ways.
How are empaths different?
“Empaths feel things first, then they think [about them], which is the opposite of how most people function” — Dr. Orloff
It’s important when trying to separate an empath from a typically empathetic person to understand that there are actually two types of empathy. (Who knew!)
- First, there is cognitive empathy, “which is the ability to understand what someone else feels.”
We get this understanding from decoding clues in body language and tone of voice.
- And then there’s affective empathy, which is “the ability to share what someone else feels.”
This emotional empathy happens automatically, sometimes without realizing it’s happening.
Empaths are very high in the second type, affective empathy. We don’t just “get it” — we feel it.
“An empath doesn’t just feel for someone — they feel with someone.”
What is going on in the empath’s brain?
Each of us — empaths and non-empaths alike — have “a specialized group of cells that are responsible for compassion” and are known as “the brain’s mirror neuron system.”
In empaths, this system is hyperactive, and as a result, “empaths absorb other people’s feelings, energy and emotions into their own bodies.”
To put it plainly? Our poor little empath brains are just wired differently.
As result, empaths feel more pain and not just of the emotional kind.
“…researchers found that when people with the highest empathy scores were exposed to a heat stimulus after watching someone else experience the same uncomfortable stimulus, the subjects experienced greater physical sensations of pain than those in the low empathy group.”
Okay, but what about these ‘Highly Sensitive People’?
There’s been a fair amount written recently on the ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP), the way they experience the world, and how this experience overlaps with being an empath.
HSPs have “a low threshold for stimulation” and are thus highly sensitive to sensory inputs — sounds, smells, light, etc. Large group situations are highly overwhelming for HSPs, and it takes much longer for them to wind down and rebalance after a busy or hectic day.
“…the fundamental characteristic of a highly sensitive person is that they experience a low threshold of excitability in the amygdala.”
HSPs often don’t do well under pressure, “have heightened proprioception (awareness of one’s muscles/joints), cutaneous receptors (skin/pain), and interoception (awareness of inner organs) ”.
Because of their sensitivity to sensory inputs, HSPs are more likely to notice things that others wouldn’t. For instance, the small cues in body language and tone of voice that reveal what’s going on with someone else emotionally.
HSPs very much need their alone time, and most are introverts. It’s estimated that about 20% of the population would qualify as an HSP.
Empaths have all the traits of an HSP and more, although it’s more common for empaths than HSPs to be extroverted. About 25% of HSPs are empaths, and empaths make up about 5% of the total population.
What makes empaths different from HSPs?
The truth is that there is a lot of overlap between empaths and HSPs, especially when it comes to high sensitivity to external stimuli. However, the general agreement is that on the emotional spectrum, empaths take things to a whole other level.
HSPs may notice and understand what you’re going through, but an empath will actually feel what you’re going through and will feel a compulsion to fix it.
Okay, but what does all of that mean in practice?
“…empaths lack the filters most people use to protect themselves from excessive stimulation and can’t help but take in surrounding emotions and energies, whether they’re good, bad, or something in between.”
Here are just a few of the situations that come up regularly for me in which being an empath is less than a joy to experience.
In an argument, I feel both my feelings and theirs
Surely, this is a large part of why I avoid arguments at all costs.
The truth is that it’s hard to fully take a stand and express my experience because I’m constantly aware of the experience of the person on the other end of the conflict.
“Arguments and fights can also cause more distress, since [the empath is] not only dealing with [their] own feelings and reactions. [They’re] also absorbing the emotions of the others involved.”
When what I say makes them sad, I feel sad too.
“When you want to address everyone’s hurt but don’t know how, even minor disagreements can become harder to cope with.”
I get anxious over other people’s feelings, even feelings they don’t know they have
Yes, I know what you’re feeling, even if you don’t.
“Deeper emotional understanding can drive…intuition, and [empaths] likely pick up on things other people miss or make connection that aren’t clear to anyone else.”
It happens on a weekly basis that my partner or stepdaughter is upset about something and either unwilling to admit it (stepdaughter) or unsure of what they’re feeling or why (partner).
It’s a nightmare!
“When people [an empath] care[s] about face worry and stress, [the empath] experience[s] that emotional pain right along with them. As long as they continue to struggle, [the empath] might feel anxious and concerned on their behalf.”
I have a finite amount of sensory input I can handle before I need silence and stillness
This past week was the Super Bowl, and not long after half-time, I had to retreat to a quiet room because the noise from the TV had begun to impact my ability to think. Soon, it would have started to cause emotional stress.
Everyone’s music is too loud for me
Every time I get in the car, I have to turn the radio’s volume down. When something is too loud, I get a physically unpleasant sensation in my body that makes me pull my shoulders up to my ears.
Yes, I get made fun of for being old, wimpy, and no fun.
I have to cover my ears when my partner drinks water, at least if/when I’m stressed out
I’m not playing here.
When my partner takes a drink of something, it’s very loud. If I’m emotional or stressed out, that loudness is unbearable. So yes, I cover my ears when I see my partner go to drink something. Rude? Maybe. Necessary? Certainly.
Often, the way things physically feel bother me
If my bed isn’t made correctly and I can feel lumps of sheets bundled up, I can’t deal with it and have to fix it before going to sleep.
I can’t wear pants or skirts that come up above my belly button. Even the slightest pressure on that area of my body gives me intense feelings of anxiety.
If I’m stressed out, I can’t watch comedies or drama (particularly not melodrama)
People think I’m being silly or ridiculous when I cover my ears for the really cringy part of a TV show or break down into tears when I see a clip of someone struggling with trauma. But I’m not being silly and I’m not being wimpy.
I’m feeling other people’s pain, and sometimes, it’s way too much for me to handle.
Since the start of COVID, I haven’t watched much TV aside from some reality shows and docuseries. With the stress of the pandemic, I can’t handle the additional stress of watching actors playing out traumatic life events. I just can’t.
I’m tired all the time
I’m not kidding.
The only time I feel really awake is when I’m in the middle of a fun activity or conversation and have some level of adrenaline going to pump me up.
Otherwise, I’m in a constant state of exhaustion from the toll that all of the sensory and emotional input takes.
“If empaths are around peace and love, their bodies assimilate these and flourish. Negativity, though, often feels assaultive, exhausting.”
2020 was a tough year for us empaths.
But what about the superpowers?
Sure, yes, let’s touch on those superpowers.
“Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments…”
- My super-hearing may be able to find your vibrating phone after you’ve dropped it behind the couch.
- My super-olfactory prowess makes me the official determiner of what food is safe to eat and whether that shirt can be worn again. (Unfortunately, I’m tasked with figuring out what all mystery wet spots are.)
- “An empath’s intuition often tells them whether someone is being truthful or not,” and I usually know whether or not someone is being genuine. This means I can usually avoid sociopaths and people not worth my time. (I’m still working on narcissists though.)
- As I said, I almost always know when someone is going through something emotionally, even before they do. (Psychic!)
- Likewise, I know when my dog is about to be triggered and can often prevent it. (Pet psychic!)
- Writing characters is easy for me because I experience them as real people. I feel immediately that I know them and how they’d be experiencing the world.
- People open up to me because they know I’ll understand and make them feel safe. This honestly means a lot to me.
Are you an empath?
Many of these experiences are my own, and I can’t guarantee that your experience of being an empath would be the same as mine.
Dr. Judith Orloff M.D., author of a number of books including The Empath’s Survival Guide suggests that those who think they may be empaths to ask of themselves the following questions:
1) Have I been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive?
2) If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it too?
3) Are my feelings easily hurt?
4) Am I emotionally drained by crowds, require time alone to revive?
5) Do my nerves get jarred by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
6) Do I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please?
7) Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
8) Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?
I have to answer yes to all but the final question (and not because I don’t become engulfed by intimate relationships, but because my childhood trauma tells me it doesn’t matter).
Advice for empaths
Change is difficult, and when you’re overwhelmed and fatigued, it can feel even harder. (Personal experience talking here.) Still, I want to give you the tips suggested by experts on the subject.
Look them over, see what sounds good to you, and plan out your strategies on a day when your emotional energy reserves aren’t already depleted.
- “Some empaths try to numb their sensitivities with alcohol, drugs, food, sex or shopping.” Obviously, there’s a need to find healthier ways to manage cope.
- Alone time is hugely important for empaths, so schedule time for it. Take mini-breaks throughout the day for a walk or a stretch.
- Practice meditation on the fly. Just a few minutes or a few conscious breaths can help.
- Carve out a private space at home that is just yours and where you can find calming time away from family. Don’t be sorry about doing it!
- “If someone asks too much of you, politely tell them ‘no.’ It’s not necessary to explain why. As the saying goes, ‘No is a complete sentence.’”
- Spend time in nature. This is healing for most people, but it’s especially important for both HSPs and empaths.
- Have a plan for getting out of situations that stress you out. If know you can only do an hour of socializing at a party, make sure you have a way to get yourself home without relying on the time management of someone else.
- Create distance, either real or imagined. “It’s your prerogative to step away from someone whose emotional energy is disturbing you.” If that’s impossible, try visualizations between yourself and the toxicity of others.
- Since we often mix up their feelings with those of others, it’s important for empaths to question their feelings. Is what you’re feeling coming from you, or are you experiencing feelings that have worn off on you?
- “You may have a deeper understanding of the pain fueling their behavior and want to offer support. But it’s important to remember you can’t do much for someone who isn’t ready to change.”
- Practice good self-care. Do what you know is good for you, even if it feels uncomfortable at the moment.
- If there is one piece of advice that I have seen repeated over and over again, it is that “[s]trong personal boundaries are key for empaths”. Unfortunately, empaths are notoriously bad at setting boundaries. (I certainly am.)
“If you’re struggling to manage overstimulation on your own, and it affects your quality of life or keeps you from relationships and other personal goals, a therapist can help you learn to develop boundaries and identify helpful self-care approaches.”
Empaths, try to take good care of yourself and remember that despite the difficulties, you likely are a hugely positive force in the lives of others.
To those who know and love an empath, please be patient with us. Please listen when we say no, or better, try not to make us say no quite so often.
It’s tough out here, folks. It really is.