Some people refer to themselves as empaths, meaning that they are highly sensitive to the emotional realm and to the feelings of those around them. They might take on the pains of others at their own expense.
A sociopath could be defined as the opposite of this — they have no regard, and perhaps, not even a sense of what others are feeling around them, and they will act accordingly.
The two may appear to be complete opposites, but they are truly two sides of the same coin.
While empaths don’t mean to harm those around them, they will often have maladaptive characteristics, like avoidant tendencies, in order to avoid hurting others, because they can feel their pain and they don’t want to hurt them. They might even lie or manipulate so that others will have a good view of them and so they won’t hurt someone else’s feelings. Although it seems that they are doing this to be “good,” it is typically for selfish reasons — they don’t want to feel bad, even if they are technically being dishonest or unhelpful by not speaking their truth.
For example, a new friend might ask, “What do you think of my husband?” And an empath might respond, “Oh my gosh, he seems so nice!” when really, in the back of their mind, they see a red flag. The empath is not doing this purposefully to hurt the person but to make them feel good. It is a maladaptive coping mechanism the person probably had to adapt during childhood in order to survive a toxic situation.
Whereas a person with sociopathic inclinations might be straightforward and honest about it, perhaps to the point of making the person uncomfortable.
Person A: “What do you think of my husband?”
Sociopath: “I don’t like him. He smelled terrible, he needs to lose about 15 pounds, and there’s something wrong with him.”
This might make the person feel bad, but the sociopath wouldn’t care. They would only care about how they felt during the situation.
Someone with more of a sense of balance might say something like, “I still have to get to know him better, but when he made the comment about how he didn’t like your lentil soup in front of the entire dinner party, it made me feel uncomfortable. Overall he seems like an okay guy but I want you to be safe and happy.”
Empaths might also use their sensitivity as a way to avoid living a full life where they are in connection with others, because they often feel so overwhelmed by other people’s energies. Sometimes they will make excuses or lie about why they can’t hang out to avoid hurting others’ feelings when they should just be honest.
While empaths are typically not aggressive or outwardly harmful like sociopaths can be, their behaviors can still hurt others. In their inability to set boundaries and be honest, they are displaying a lack of empathy for others as well, because they are unable to play the long game — they are acting in a fear-based pattern which keeps them trapped in the present moment, acting out their feelings impulsively rather than making mature decisions, like making time for self-care and allowing feelings to pass through them rather than holding them in.
I’m not trying to blame or shame empaths, because they often do already feel a lot of feelings of shame, humiliation, and self-loathing. But I want to share that being an empath to me, as someone who once associated with being one, means that you have an inability to be a fully grown adult who can take care of and hold space for themselves energetically. Part of being an adult is learning to be honest, direct, and get your needs met. Many of us do not learn this as children, so instead we take on the feelings of others, and we become people-pleasers. When we are honest with ourselves and with others, it actually protects us, even though it can be scary to do it. Many empaths faced abuse, shame, or humiliation when they spoke their truth as children, so they might attract these types of situations as adults as well.
There is nothing wrong with being this way, and in some sense, it can even be advantageous. There is no right or wrong inherently. I just want to shed light on the fact that many people see empaths as angels and sociopaths as demons, when in reality, they are both acting out different maladaptive behaviors that were developed during childhood.
As for sociopaths, they do tend to be more aggressive. Often their aggression is due to an inability to handle their feelings. Surprisingly enough, they also tend to be highly sensitive, they just don’t know how to handle those feelings, and so they take them out on others. Whereas empaths will take on the feelings of themselves and others, sociopaths will put them onto others. And so they are two sides of the same coin. Sociopaths also do not have healthy coping skills and will act out their emotions impulsively in the present moment.
If either of these archetypes want to lead a more balanced lifestyle, self-defense or martial arts classes, anger management classes, and learning healthy communication skills would serve them well. However, there is some beauty in the great variance of humanity that cannot be understated. We don’t always need to fix ourselves or others, but it is certainly always nice and can be more comfortable to achieve a balanced middle ground.
We might even see overlap of behaviors between some people who would be considered sociopathic or empathic. A “sociopath” might have a great relationship with his dog and be very kind and caring towards it, but then act out their emotions in other areas of their life, like towards his classmates. An empath might become so overwhelmed that they do blow up on friends or family members — perhaps through performing an act of self-harm in front of them without thinking about how it affects those people, or even by blowing up at them in rage after holding it inside for so long.
The moral of the story is that we cannot fully judge another person’s behaviors, even if they may seem terrible or unforgivable at the time. We are all much more similar than we might initially think, empaths and sociopaths alike, and everyone in between.