What is an Empath?
You may have heard the word “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 word 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 feelings 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 precisely an unscientific one, either. Research was indicated that “emotional contagion, ” the tendency to “catch” the impressions of others, is more prevalent than we think( Hatfield, 2009 ).
For centuries, researchers have studied the tendency for people to unconsciously and automatically mimic the emotional express of others, and in many cases actually feel the same feelings simply by exposure to feelings 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 express as our own impressions. 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,
Our mirror neuron system also enables us to instinctively “feel” what another person might be impression when we consider them performing an action. When we observe someone else “ve got something”, the same regions in our brain which would’ve included 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 can continue 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 sympathize, Dr. Elaine Aron( 1991) discovered that highly sensitive people make up approximately 15 -2 0% 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 govern 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 writer of, knows to tap into intuition and the feelings 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 volume, Orloff remembers how as a psychiatrist, she had learned to block out her natural gifts as an empath in order to “fit in” with the mainstream faith of the medical community. She received a rather startling wake-up call, when, in the midst of a apparently joyful session with a client, she had an intuition that this same client( who seemed happier than she had in weeks) was about to take her working life. She ignored this flashing of insight, and later received a call which notified her that the matter is client had indeed attempted suicide( which she thankfully survived ). This is only one of the hundreds of intuitive insights she’s had that afterwards 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 quandary ). 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” exist, but the style their abilities originate may shock you. While it’s true that some people are born naturally sensitive, many empaths can also gain their capabilities of hunch 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 manner that is 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 quandary of navigating a world that shuns and nullifies 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 only 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 styles 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 merely can they “read” the energy of a room when they first enter it, empaths are also highly attuned to micro changes in facial expressions, shiftings 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 fury attack so they could “avoid” it somehow; they had to put under feelers for when their mother might make 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 own lives experiences, what they reject as “paranoia” turn out to be accurate reflections of what other people miss in their rushing to make decisions based on surface-level interactions.
Their ability to pick up on the feelings 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 way subtle energies as well; they feel the undercurrent of an feeling in a person that others may miss- such as a hint of resentment that tinges a person’s tone of elation, or a sense of indignation in an otherwise constrained speech.
Empaths can usually tell when people are lie( even if it’s only lying to themselves ). They can sense when something is “off” or feel strange sensations before dramatic shiftings. Their past experiences of trauma( if any) do not making such a predictions or insights a liability; on the contrary, they make for more accurate “readings.” Some empaths can even immediately sense the feelings 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 concealed 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 feel beyond their public facade has a habit of get 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.
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 foreigners 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, regrettably, come with a price: they have to develop a deep notion in themselves in spite of what everyone else guesses or says.
They may even have to danger persecution in the process. Truly empowered empaths learn that this risk is worth it- because the other hazard 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 grounds 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 are trying 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 route to shortcircuit their style 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 create their social capital and value. They feast on the generosity of empaths “as if its” a daily snack, without having to give much in return( narcissists, after all, are empathy-deficient people ).
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 .
know they are not responsible for someone else’s destructive behavior; they know how to prove compassion from a distance if there is a requirement; 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 dishonor 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 sun sneaking out from the fissures of their person, that invite people to share their darkness with them. From a spiritual perspective, empaths are natural healers and their birthright healing. They come into this world to mend- to heal themselves and others- which can stimulate them susceptible to toxic kinds looking to exploit their energy for their own agenda.
Conversations with an empath can result in cathartic healing on both sides- or they can aim 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 mend 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 employing diverse forms of mind-body mending modalities like yoga, massage, or even Reiki. They may benefit from envisioning a physical shield around them, a hurdle of kinds to combat any destructive energy coming their style. Other empaths may enjoy more spiritual cleansing exercisings 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.
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 quantity 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 constructs 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 inundate their own 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 are still 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 try 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 hunch with their intellect; and when they chase after the dreamings that their souls are most aligned with.
Being comfortable with owning the immensity of their power is one of the biggest impediments 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 just waiting venture out on a greater mission while embodying the beauty of their true gifts.
5. They are multifaceted, complex and so are their feelings.
Empaths are not all “light and love.” Far from it. Many struggle with depression, nervousnes, various addictions and self-doubt due to their high sensitivity and receptiveness to taking on the feelings of others.
The intensity of the feelings empaths experience( whether these feelings are their own or residual energetic vibes from others) can leave them easily drained. Their feelings 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 route 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 feelings- 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 boulevards for healing. Art therapy, journaling, exercising, 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 mending professions when they are able to properly place bounds 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 custodians, 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 requires, too. They have to learn how to be receptive to also being “served” and taken care of by others.
learn to stop apologizing for their longings and recognise the validity of owning them with full force. They learn to foresee their 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 entail giving into that darkness, but employing it as gasoline 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 egoes- especially when they arrive in the world again as beings who fully represent everything that makes them so powerful in the first place.