What is an Empath?
You may have heard the term “empath” before. But what does it actually mean? Is there any scientific basis for the term “empath”? Or is it, as some skeptics assert, a glorified term used to describe highly sensitive and intuitive people?
Even the most hardcore skeptic cannot deny that there are people in this world that are much more highly intuitive to the needs and emotions of others; that can pick up on subtleties that others can’t, and seem to have a natural talent for healing others.
The idea of feeling what others feel isn’t exactly an unscientific one, either. Research indicates that “emotional contagion,” the tendency to “catch” the feelings of others, is more common than we think (Hatfield, 2009).
For centuries, researchers have studied the tendency for people to unconsciously and automatically mimic the emotional expressions of others, and in many cases actually feel the same feelings simply by exposure to emotions in social interactions. Studies have found that the mimicry of a frown or a smile or other kinds of emotional expression trigger reactions in our brains that cause us to interpret those expressions as our own feelings. Simply put, as a species, we are innately vulnerable to “catching” other people’s emotions. In the literature, this process in which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconcious induction of emotions is referred to as emotional contagion (EC).
– Sherrie Bourg Carter, Emotions Are Contagious, Choose Your Company Wisely
Our mirror neuron system also enables us to instinctively “feel” what another person might be feeling when we see them performing an action. When we observe someone else doing something, the same regions in our brain which would’ve been involved in doing that activity become activated. “In other words, they make our brains act as if we ourselves were experiencing whatever that other person is experiencing. The connection to empathy seems pretty clear” (Marsh, 2012).
What’s even more alarming is that a very small part of the population also have mirror-touch synesthesia, a strange phenomenon in which visual and tactile senses get mixed up and they are able to literally “feel” their body being touched when observing someone else’s body is touched (Medina and DePasquale, 2017).
While most of us (aside from empathy-deficient individuals) have the ability to empathize, Dr. Elaine Aron (1991) discovered that highly sensitive individuals make up approximately 15-20% of the population. HSPs have an oversensitive nervous system and seem to have an enhanced skill set in the realm of empathy – perhaps, one could argue, an even better mirror neuron system. For the highly sensitive person, the parts of the brain that regulate emotions are simply more responsive than their less sensitive counterparts. There is great overlap between what it means to be a highly sensitive person and what society calls an “empath.”
An Empath’s Abilities
Dr. Judith Orloff, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, knows to tap into intuition and the emotions of others all too well. She has spent over twenty years helping empaths and highly sensitive people access their natural abilities and reclaim their power.
In her book Second Sight, Orloff recalls how as a psychiatrist, she had learned to block out her natural gifts as an empath in order to “fit in” with the mainstream beliefs of the medical community. She received a rather startling wake-up call, when, in the midst of a seemingly joyful session with a client, she had an intuition that this same client (who appeared happier than she had in weeks) was about to take her own life. She ignored this flash of insight, and later received a call which notified her that this client had indeed attempted suicide (which she thankfully survived). This is only one of the hundreds of intuitive insights she’s had that later came true. It was only when she merged medicine with her intuition that Dr. Orloff was able to make full use of her power as an empath.
Whatever your spiritual beliefs may be on the matter, the accounts of empaths themselves are perhaps the most compelling ways to understand what it means to be an empath or a highly sensitive person (a distinct, but very similar predicament). There are incredible overlaps in the traits, capacities and experiences that empaths share that are undeniable.
We, as empaths or highly sensitive people, feel and experience the world a bit differently from most people – and while you may not believe everything you hear about the empath, there is certainly room to explore what it means to be a highly sensitive and intuitive individual navigating an increasingly empathy-deficient world.
The Origins of An Empath
So in many ways, what we call “empaths” do exist, but the way their abilities arise may shock you. While it’s true that some people are born naturally sensitive, many empaths can also gain their abilities of intuition from their early childhood experiences. When one has been traumatized as a child, for example, he or she learns strategies to adapt and survive in a way that many other children do not.
These survival mechanisms, some of which can be maladaptive in adulthood, can also be used to serve them and the world when employed from an empowered place. As adults, empaths have the unique predicament of navigating a world that shuns and invalidates their experiences, while at the same time relies on them for their wisdom.
Much of what is written on being an empath focuses on the positive aspects of what it’s like to be an empath, but there is a dark and powerful undercurrent to being an empath that is often not discussed.
Frankly, fully empowered empaths are badass emotional ninjas and powerful alchemists. They just have to learn how to tune into their power and trust their inner guidance in order to tap into the magic that is rightfully theirs.
Here are five ways empaths and highly sensitive people experience the world differently and how they can own their power in doing so:
1. Empaths and highly sensitive people are emotional detectives.
Not only can they “read” the energy of a room when they first enter it, empaths are also extremely attuned to micro changes in facial expressions, shifts in tone of voice or how misaligned someone’s body language may be from what they are actually saying. The problem is, they’ve been gaslighted so often and told they were too sensitive as children that they learn how to block out these insights as a way to become socially “acceptable.”
Remember: many of these highly sensitive individuals had to learn how to survive in a war zone as children. That means they had to pick up on subtle signs, on even the tiniest changes in their environment in order to survive. They had to learn the exact tone of voice that indicated that Daddy was about to go on a rage attack so they could “avoid” it somehow; they had to put out feelers for when their mother might hit them – or when the schoolyard bullies were likely to swoop in on the playground.
While this type of trauma can occasionally cause hypervigilance, it can also lead to a tremendous amount of intuition into the human condition. Empaths find that they are more often right than they are wrong – and as they learn from their life experiences, what they dismiss as “paranoia” turn out to be accurate reflections of what other people miss in their hurry to make decisions based on surface-level interactions.
Their ability to pick up on the emotions of others in a manner that is adept and nuanced is unparalleled. When the energy in a room is high and vibrant, empaths feel the full glory of it. “High vibes” are spiritually orgasmic to an empath who is receptive enough. On the other hand, when there are emotional vampires lurking about with their pathological envy and their unwarranted spite, empaths feel the full “shock” of that too – they feel the life force sucked out of them quite quickly. Yet they can track subtle energies as well; they feel the undercurrent of an emotion in a person that others may miss – such as a hint of jealousy that tinges a person’s tone of joy, or a sense of anger in an otherwise restrained speech.
Empaths can usually tell when people are lying (even if it’s just lying to themselves). They can sense when something is “off” or feel strange sensations before dramatic shifts. Their past experiences of trauma (if any) do not make their predictions or insights a liability; on the contrary, they make for more accurate “readings.” Some empaths can even directly sense the emotions another person is feeling (though they may not know it at the time).
Empaths can pick up on the contempt under someone’s niceties; they can feel when someone has a hidden motive. At the same time, they can also celebrate and feel the full impact of a person’s spirit when they are genuine. Their unusual insight into someone’s true character and how they really feel beyond their public façade has a habit of getting them into trouble – so they learn to stay quiet and compliant even though there is a riot inside of them that tells them to listen.
Empowered empaths learn to honor their abilities and use them with confidence; they don’t require validation from outside sources to follow their instincts. They go for it. And when they do, they usually succeed and cause others around them to wonder how they did it. How is it that someone could NOT follow the “formula,” the “protocol,” “the status quo,” yet still get it right? How could someone intuitively sense something shady about someone who is seemingly kind and innocent – only for everyone else, years later, uncover that their instincts were right?
“How did they know?” Or “I never would’ve expected that was true” are frequent reactions of outsiders to the insights of empaths – especially if an empath “raised the alarm” so to speak on a highly suspect but covert wolf operating as a sheep. But their intuitive abilities, unfortunately, come with a price: they have to develop a deep belief in themselves in spite of what everyone else thinks or says.
They may even have to risk persecution in the process. Truly empowered empaths learn that this risk is worth it – because the other risk would mean sacrificing who they truly are and what they know deep down to be true.
2. Toxic types love empaths and these relationships can be the breeding ground for self-destruction.
Malignant narcissists tend to prey on empaths because they know there is plenty of energy, resources and support to “feed” on. Empaths can heighten the energy of those around them with the wealth of their emotional labor and ability to honor other perspectives. Narcissists see that special gift in empaths and they seek to curate and collect the resources of the empath which could further aid their agenda.
When you think about it, toxic people can use empaths as a way to shortcircuit their way to success and circumvent their own need for healing. They use the compassion of empaths to get away with their toxic behavior without ever being held accountable for it; they exploit their willingness to adapt and their resilience to ensnare them into an abuse cycle; they benefit from being associated with a kind-hearted, compassionate individual to raise their social capital and value. They feast on the generosity of empaths as if it were a daily meal, without having to give much in return (narcissists, after all, are empathy-deficient individuals).
In order to resist the “dine and dash” strategies of a ravenous emotional vampire, empaths have to learn to nourish themselves with self-care rather than settle for crumbs in their relationships. The drained and depleted empath is often the one putting his or her needs on the back burner while endlessly serving others.
Empowered empaths know they are not responsible for someone else’s destructive behavior; they know how to show compassion from a distance if they need to; and most importantly, they honor themselves enough to cherish and expect reciprocity as a must-have in their relationships. They know how to engage in radical self-care, with the full conviction that the more they learn to care for themselves, the more they’ll have to give to others.
3. Empaths can become indiscriminate emotional sponges if they’re not careful, absorbing negativity or toxic shame that isn’t theirs to carry.
The strange thing about empaths is that they can get even the most unlikely person to open up and tell their life story in seconds – without even meaning to.
This is because even though empaths often have broken hearts, they remain open-hearted by nature. People intuitively trust them because they also tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Even the most emotionally closed off empath often has slivers of open-heartedness, of bright light creeping out from the crevices of their person, that invite people to share their darkness with them. From a spiritual perspective, empaths are natural healers and their birthright is healing. They come into this world to heal – to heal themselves and others – which can make them susceptible to toxic types looking to exploit their energy for their own agenda.
Conversations with an empath can result in cathartic healing on both sides – or they can end in exhaustion for the empath, if an empath is not fully empowered with healthy boundaries.
The darkness of this ability is that while empaths carry immense power to help in healing, they often forget to heal themselves in the process.
Unlike someone who is not an empath, even the quickest of social interactions, if they are emotionally loaded from input from the other person, can lead to quick depletion. There has to be a sort of “cleansing of the psyche” that has to take place after even just one interaction, and walls usually have to be brought up to protect the empath.
An empath has to practice grounding techniques such as meditation to reconnect with themselves and clear themselves of any negative, disempowering energy arising from other people.
They can clear out toxicity from their bodies using diverse forms of mind-body healing modalities like yoga, massage, or even Reiki. They may benefit from envisioning a physical shield around them, a barrier of sorts to combat any destructive energy coming their way. Other empaths may enjoy more spiritual cleansing exercises such as burning incense around their physical spaces or simply spending time in nature to rejuvenate their energy. It all depends on the particular empath and what they feel most empowered doing.
Empowered empaths benefit enormously from establishing healthy boundaries from the onset; they know what they will and will not tolerate and they also know which burden is theirs to carry. What’s more, they follow through with their boundaries and are able to cut off toxic interactions before they have a chance to escalate.
4. They have an immense amount of power, but they usually don’t know how to own it.
Empaths are like finely tuned instruments; they are sharp in their intuition, their ability to make things happen and in their “knowing” – which makes them incredible manifestors when they are fully empowered. They can pretty much manifest anything and everything, so long as they learn to let go of their attachment (and various self-defeating neuroses) associated with it. Big dreams can accelerate for empaths at an alarming rate; abundance can come in massive waves; love and appreciation can flood their lives, if they are open to it.
The disempowerment arises when self-doubt eats away at the empath. After all, their abilities also come from a lifetime’s worth of societal invalidation. They learn from a young age that their abilities were not welcomed – especially to those who benefit from shielding others from the truth (their abusers and oppressors).
To own their power, empaths tend to flourish when they seek self-validation and surround themselves with nourishing fellow empaths like themselves. Empaths succeed when they realize that they can be both scientific and spiritual; when they can marry their intuition with their intellect; and when they chase after the dreams that their souls are most aligned with.
Being comfortable with owning the immensity of their power is one of the biggest hurdles an empath has to go through in order to achieve at the high level they were meant to; but once they realize it is connected with the greater healing of the world, they can’t wait to venture out on a greater mission while embodying the beauty of their true gifts.
5. They are multifaceted, complex and so are their emotions.
Empaths are not all “light and love.” Far from it. Many struggle with depression, anxiety, various addictions and self-doubt due to their high sensitivity and receptiveness to taking on the emotions of others.
The intensity of the emotions empaths experience (whether these emotions are their own or residual energetic vibes from others) can leave them easily drained. Their emotions are part of an intricate web of their own perceptions, the perceptions, reactions and emotions of others around them, as well as their own emotions towards the way others feel. If reading that sentence alone felt exhausting, congratulations – now you get a sense of how an empath feels on a daily basis!
This emotional intensity can be a pathway to self-destruction if empaths are not careful. Many highly sensitive individuals can resort to “numbing” activities to block out their heightened emotions – whether that be overeating, abusing substances or engaging in unhealthy relationships -so they don’t have to confront the weight of their own pain.
It’s important that as empaths we learn to channel the intensity of our emotions into constructive outlets and avenues for healing. Art therapy, journaling, exercise, and counseling are all excellent examples of ways in which empaths can express themselves and lift their energy without feeling drained. Many empaths also succeed in healing professions when they are able to properly place boundaries with clients.
That being said, as empaths, our greatest responsibility lies in healing ourselves – only when we are fully empowered will be able to help in the healing journey of others. Empaths and highly sensitive people are natural caretakers, so they gravitate towards doing what they feel will best help the person they are interacting with. They “anticipate” the emotions and reactions of others (which they had to do as children in order to survive) and this habit can become maladaptive if not employed in conjunction with self-care. Empaths have to learn to cater to their own needs, too. They have to learn how to be receptive to also being “served” and taken care of by others.
Empowered empaths learn to stop apologizing for their desires and recognize the validity of owning them with full force. They learn to anticipate their own emotions and prepare themselves mentally for whatever is to come.
Most importantly of all, empaths must learn that they are allowed to own their shadows – the darkest parts of themselves lend great insight about how to powerfully integrate various aspects of themselves to become whole. This doesn’t mean giving into that darkness, but using it as fuel to create more light in the world rather than repressing it. Repression only leads to further depression – bringing these emotional ailments to the surface, however, gives them a greater chance to be exposed to medicine and heal.
For every empowered empath, there is a rebirth when they learn to be their authentic selves – especially when they arrive in the world again as beings who fully embody everything that makes them so powerful in the first place.