We all have those people in our life who just *get* you. You know the ones. The friends that can instantly read your feelings and know what’s going on. Then there are those people you’ve known who are a little… disconnected from the feelings of those around them.
That’s because there are some people in society who are more prone to empathy than others. In fact, more so than most ‘normal’ people.
According to Dr Judith Orloff, psychiatrist and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, each of us sit at different levels of an empathy scale.
Dr Orloff describes it as a spectrum, where there’s people with no empathy (narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths), regular people who have empathy, highly sensitive people, and at the other end of the spectrum are empaths.
And no, before you even ask – it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.
“Researchers have found that empaths have more active mirror neurons – this means they can tap into the micro-changes in others,” said psychotherapist Lissy Abrahams.
“Whilst this ability is helpful at times, it can be problematic for empaths as they’re overworking in the emotional domain, often soaking up too much. Sometimes they can be filled up with feelings yet have no idea where they originated,” she adds.
Here’s absolutely everything you need to know about empaths – including what it means and how to tell if you are one.
What is an empath?
Being an empath means a little more than just being a sensitive person or being really empathetic to others – it’s a whole other level.
“Empaths are acutely aware of other people’s emotions and can often feel these emotions within themselves,” explains Abrahams.
“Empaths connect with people emotionally and can easily understand them. It’s not a mental exercise but an intuitive ability. It’s their gut instinct.”
And while it’s something that can be seen as a beneficial trait, there are some occasional disadvantages of feeling too much, too deeply.
Because not only do empaths feel intuitively connected within themselves, but they often internalise the feelings and pain of others, too.
“Empaths are emotionally porous, like a sponge absorbing other people’s emotional information. They can see where people suffer and often like to ease it,” said Abrahams.
How do you know if you’re an empath?
Are you the kind of person who always avoids cringe-y or violent TV shows? Do you have a fear you’re going to disappoint people? Tend to overthink someone else’s feelings for days on end?
You might be an empath.
To find out what kind of characteristics are associated with empaths, we asked Abrahams to share some of the most common signs to look out for. Below are seven of them:
1. You are affected by other people’s emotions and can take them on.
“You have an incredibly highly attuned emotional radar that’s always on and can detect slight alterations in the emotional experience of others,” said Abrahams.
This could be from micro changes in facial expressions, gestures, a tone of voice, volume of voice, body language, or mood shifts, she adds.
“You can feel someone else’s feelings that they themselves may have no awareness of.”
Just to quickly reiterate that point – you can literally feel someone else’s feelings BEFORE they feel them.
“Some empaths choose to live alone and have a haven from being swamped by other people’s emotional states. Empaths can find it difficult to live with a partner as their partner’s mood and energy will impact them,” said Abrahams.
“If they live with their partner or a flatmate, they will need a space that’s their own to decompress and recalibrate.”
2. You can understand other people’s perspective easily.
According to Abrahams, empaths possess the ability to see life through a unique perspective which has been shaped by our own experiences, as well as through conscious and unconscious messages they’ve absorbed throughout life.
“You can see other’s perspectives and stand in their shoes. This ability is a bonus, as many people can’t move away from their own viewpoint, causing them to be harsh or judgemental of others,” adds Abrahams.
Due to these qualities, empaths have high emotional intelligence. “They can be great leaders, and also valuable team members.”
“They also are able to tell when someone is lying to them – their gut will feel that something is off kilter. They’ll detect the small cues of a lie and feel the residue inside them.”
Note to self: Never try to fool an empath.
3. You are receptive to the environment around you.
Empaths are more attuned to their environment than the average person, meaning their mental health can be affected by subtle energies in their environment – including light, sounds and other sources of stimulation.
“As an empath you will be more able to feel the energy of different physical environments. You’ll be sensitive too, as your finely attuned radar picks up information in that particular environment.”
“Some empaths feel completely drained by an environment that feels un-alive and uplifted by the energy in other spaces.”
4. You’ve been a therapist to your peers since school.
“If you’re an empath, you’ve been helping people with their emotions since school days,” said Abrahams.
“You were the person your peers turned to for advice and they viewed you as wise counsel. This is because you knew how to see other perspectives and could connect with their emotional experiences.”
Because empaths have the ability to deeply feel another person’s problems and needs, they often know how to support others and what kind of comfort or encouragement they need. Their personalities are often healing and calming in times of crisis.
Abrahams said, “Many therapists are empaths – they too have been training since they were young. They intuitively understand about the ego and how defensively humans react when they are startled, hurt or why certain feelings arise.”
“As adults, they train in this field to further understand the human mind and motivations, and then want to help people decrease their suffering and distress.”
5. You can’t relax while watching TV.
“Do you find sitting down to watch a thriller from beginning to end too hard? Many empaths can’t watch shows with too much tension.”
According to Abrahams, empaths have heightened startle responses which often prevents them being able to tolerate certain TV shows, movies, or certain styles or volume of music.
“Sitting with an empath watching TV is confusing for some people. They only need to hear tension music and they can be off their seat and walking away from the screen. Any violence – even implied violence – can be too much to bear.”
While empaths obviously understand what they’re watching is not real, Abrahams said their intense ability to connect with a character still creates enormous discomfort. They never know when the tension or suspense will increase – so often it becomes too much to handle.
“Their hearts will race and with their mirror neurons observing the character on the screen – they experience the fearful sensations too. They often need to physically remove themselves to calm down. It’s just too much for their mind and body and becomes unenjoyable tension.”
6. You may also connect with people’s physical injuries or illnesses.
“Are you able to feel physical sensations when you’re around someone with physical injuries or an illness? Empaths feel these sensations in areas of their body similar to the location of the other person’s injury or illness. This is the level of their attunement.”
Empaths are able to feel physical sensations to other people’s emotional states, Abrahams said. They tap into their anxiety or sadness and then feel this as physical sensations in their system too.
Pretty crazy, huh?
“These could be heart rate increases, shaking hands, a migraine, or tightness in the chest. Physical mirroring occurs, like emotional mirroring,” said Abrahams.
“What’s emotional impacts our physical experience, and what’s physical affects our emotional experience. Our mind and body are joined in us as we are one organism.”
7. You have a strong need to help ease suffering.
One of the biggest traits of an empath is how much they care – which can often come off as caring “too much” or being “too emotional”.
Take Abrahams, for example. “I saw a young boy running in the park yesterday, crying as he was running. I had to check in. “Are you ok?” I asked him. He replied “yes”, gasping for breath. I kept questioning – “are you sure?” To which he smiled and reassured me he was fine. I then saw his dad running a fair distance ahead, and I realised that the boy was probably just hating the run!”
“Empaths see themselves as a resource to ease suffering. Quite simply – they are kind and care about people (and often animals too and cannot tolerate their suffering). They know that by connecting and understanding people, they can help people to heal.”
How to thrive as an empath.
So, is being an empath good or bad?
In a 2014 study, clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron developed an evolutionary theory, proposing that sensory processing sensitivity is a trait that has evolved in order to enhance the survival of the human species.
The study showed that a highly sensitive brain increased awareness and responsiveness to potential dangers, threats and opportunities in the environment, benefitting the whole group.
However, the study also showed the pitfalls of being highly sensitive – where it placed greater increased cognitive and metabolic demand upon individuals.
So, how do you best navigate life as a highly sensitive empath? Is it possible to decrease the impact of this stimulation on your mental health?
According to Abrahams, the biggest tip is learning how to set clear boundaries.
“Without boundaries that protect the empath, they will find themselves overwhelmed and run ragged,” she said.
These boundaries include:
1. Protecting your time.
First off, be cautious who you surround yourself with. “Empaths need to consider how much time they spend helping others with their emotional states,” said Abrahams.
“As they see themselves as a resource, they often go the extra mile to help people understand their struggles and to ease their distress.”
2. Protecting your energy levels.
It’s also really important to know when to carve out time for yourself in order to decrease the excess energy and stimulation you’re getting from others and the surrounding environment.
“Without protecting their energy levels, empaths can become immersed in the overwhelmed and emotional lives of others, which may leave the empath feeling depleted and exhausted.”
3. Looking after self-care routines and rituals
“When empaths absorb the emotional information from others, they may expose themselves to hardcore emotional states. This may happen often – at work, with colleagues, with friends, with family,” said Abrahams.
“Such levels of emotional exposure can be experienced as stress in the empath’s mental and physical system. For this reason, empaths need to take care that their system can actually manage repeated exposures without being compromised.”
4. Understanding what’s your stuff and what isn’t.
This is a tricky one, and it can end up being really detrimental to your mental health if you can’t work out what’s yours to care about.
“Just because empaths can absorb emotional information doesn’t mean they always know where the emotional experience originated,” said Abrahams.
“Sometimes the information will hit up on their own emotional stuff. Therapy is a great way for empaths to learn to distinguish what’s their own stuff and what’s someone else’s.”
5. Don’t provide solutions constantly.
Another important rule? Don’t feel like you have to ‘fix’ everything. Set some clear boundaries and know when you should remove yourself from a conversation.
Often empaths will take on other people’s energy so as not to offend them (read: the person at the party who mentally unloads everything on you) – which only leaves you feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
“It’s important that empaths don’t provide all the solutions for other people’s struggles. They should point them in the direction of help so that they can grow and have the opportunity to join the dots of their own experience,” suggests Abrahams.
“This facilitates a developmental journey without the empath needing to fully immerse themselves in their development.”
6. Speak out about poor behaviour towards you.
Lastly, Abrahams urges empaths to learn how to speak up. Just because you have the ability to understand other people’s motivations and behaviour, doesn’t mean you should use this as a way of excusing their behaviour.
“It’s great to understand people, however the empath needs to ensure they call out crappy behaviour towards them and don’t suffer for their understanding.”
If you would like to hear more advice from Lissy Abrahams, check out her e-book on how our ego can harm our relationships.
Are you an empath? Do you relate to any of these characteristics? Share your experience with us in the comment section below.
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