In my last post, I wrote about being an introvert. It’s estimated that roughly one-third of the population falls somewhere on the introversion spectrum, so I’ve got lots of company.
Introverts are also often “highly sensitive people” or HSPs. 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 when it comes to empathy.
And then there are empaths. Maybe two percent of the population are empaths. They may or may not also be introverts or HSPs.
Definitions of an empath usually read like this: A person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. Empaths are highly affected by other people’s feelings, emotions, energies, actions and thoughts. They have the innate ability to deeply understand the people they are confronted with. They perceive the underlying motivations of other people’s actions, their intentions, and their desires.
Karla McLaren, M.Ed, offers this definition: “An empath is someone who is aware that he or she reads emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, intentions, thoughts, social space, interactions, relational behaviors, body language, and gestural language. A hyper-empath is someone who reads these things to a greater degree than is deemed normal.”
I’m pretty sure I’m an empath. There’s no scientific way to assess with certainty, but after pondering the possibility and doing my usual due diligence research over the past few years, the evidence is strong.
My Empath Journey – Some Anecdotes
I was a very sensitive child. I could barely tolerate being reprimanded or scolded; I would instantly dissolve into tears. (My father joked I was an easy child to discipline; one stern look and I would run crying to my room.) I became a people pleaser and learned to read people in order to avoid conflict. I felt deeply for people and animals if they were sad or unhappy, and got very upset if I thought someone was being mean. I mostly bottled those feelings inside.
When I was about nine or ten, I discovered my cat caught by a hind leg in a snare in the woods next to our house. It was howling in pain. I screamed; I felt its pain and was horrified. My father came running and rescued my cat. She wasn’t permanently injured. But when my father later admitted that he had set the snare to try to remove a skunk, not thinking it would catch my cat, I was so upset that I refused to speak to him for days. (I had forgotten that part of the incident; he reminded me years later and apologized again. I think he was as traumatized as I was.)
I’ve always been athletic. In junior high school, my PE teachers often selected me to be the captain who selects her team one-by-one from her classmates for the day’s game. They knew I would usually choose the weakest or least-coordinated student first, or at least not leave them for last. I put myself in their place and refused to cause them discomfort of being chosen last, even if that meant our team was weaker. To this day, I don’t like being in situations where there have to be winners and losers.
Fairness has always been a big deal to me. And I hate bullies because I despise the anguish they intentionally inflict on others they sense are weaker. I internalize the pain and shame of the bullied. I get upset at injustice toward the vulnerable and feel protective.
Is it any wonder I ended up in a profession where I could advocate for those with little or no voice – children, the elderly, the incapacitated?
But mostly, it’s my life-long ability to easily read people (and animals), to discern their true, unspoken motives and feelings, that made me wonder if I’m different, an empath. A few years ago, while learning more about my introvert tendencies, I came across articles describing the small subset of people who are empaths. I kept having those head-nodding experiences as I read the articles, the lists of traits. They were describing me.
There isn’t much scientific research regarding empaths, although some recent brain research regarding altruism has parallels. I’m not one to self-diagnose, especially based on New Age internet tests, but in this instance, I found the articles and self-evaluations offered by two authors, one a psychiatrist, the other a masters level therapist, enlightening. As with realizing I’m an introvert, considering that I might be an empath allowed me to make sense of so much of my life’s experience. It’s a suit that fits.
So. I’m an Empath.
That’s an admission that brings both pride and dis-ease. I love that I’m highly sensitive and intuitive – the superpowers I mentioned in my post about introversion – but I’m aware that those who aren’t are often dismissive of these traits. My mother certainly was. I’ve had a hard time writing this post, poking at it piecemeal over several days, asking myself why I’m so reluctant to put this out there. One answer is, they won’t believe me.
I’ve lost sleep over it. Should I write about this? I’m working on this at 4:30 am on yet another night of fractured sleep.
Another answer, the one keeping me awake this particular night, is that describing the day in 2009 when I finally had to admit there was something unusual, something more going on with me and empathy, is painful to think and write about. Maybe finally sharing it will allow me to sleep.
My father – my hero, my confidant, the one person who always loved me unconditionally – had barely survived a respiratory illness in 2008. He regained strength for a time, but by early 2009 was growing increasingly frail. For months I spent every Sunday afternoon with him, massaging his legs, feet, shoulders, hands, doing range-of-motion exercises with him, trimming his nails and nose hair, chatting, reading, anything to make his life a bit better and easier against the backdrop of his wife’s abuse and neglect. One day in August, while I was at work, his wife called and said I should come right away. My workplace was 60 miles from his home; 60 miles of Seattle traffic between me and him. Not long after I started the journey, I got another call: he’s on the way to a hospital. Inching along I-5, stuck in stop-and-go traffic, my mind whirling, preparing myself for the worst, I suddenly…knew. An indescribable feeling – like a thud, hitting me square in the chest, making my heart stop for just an instant, then quickly radiating chills throughout my body – came over me. He’s gone. I’m not an easy crier, but tears leaked from my eyes. My rational self, sensing something strange, looked at the clock on the dash. Remember the time. No, no, I whispered over and over to myself as I cried, still inching along in traffic, hands gripping the steering wheel tight in frustration. I was so sure he was gone I almost took an exit to turn home. But what if I was wrong? I kept driving. Thirty minutes later I arrived at the hospital to learn my father had died in the ambulance on the way there. Days later I learned the official time of death; it was within a minute of when I felt that thud in my chest and looked at my dash clock.
I’ve since attributed that eerie feeling of knowing when my father took his last breath to our deep bond and strong connection, our strong mutual empathy. After all, if empathy is an inherited trait, I got it all from him.
How Being an Empath Plays Out in Daily Life
For me, every interaction, whether with people or animals, involves empath traits and abilities.
My highly-tuned focus allows me to truly see people when interacting with them. I know I often make people uncomfortable as I look intently into their eyes – the windows of the soul – and at them as we talk, watching their body language out of the corner of my eye for an endless string of clues. How do they position and use their body? How do they modulate their voice? What is their face really saying, even if at odds with their words? What does their choice in clothing tell me? What’s their mood? I’ve learned to moderate the length and placement of my gazes to fit social norms, especially if I notice the other person’s discomfort. But there’s so much information to be gleaned from observation. I can’t ignore it.
I love observing strangers interact when they’re unaware I’m watching. Airports and courthouses are terrific venues for this. I try to discern moods, histories, backstories, and motivations, or predict next moves.
Usually what I notice in those settings as well as in social interactions is benign. I might pick up on someone’s shyness or awkwardness. Or maybe their bluster and over-confidence, hiding low self-esteem. I sense who’s uncomfortable, happy, sad, impatient, trying too hard, on and on. It’s a ton of non-verbal information, and mostly I find it fascinating and useful if I’ll be around the person in the future, but usually it doesn’t involve me directly.
Sometimes, though, I sense something not quite right, and that’s not fun. Warning bells go off in my head, my guard goes up.
In some cases, I might hear what someone says, but their body language, their actions, their demeanor all mean something quite different, something dark, or off, something to be wary of or avoid altogether. I might sound an alarm to a confidant – Uh oh, a fight’s about to start – but because others don’t “see” what I do, they often brush off my concerns and warnings.
By now I’m used to people dismissing my intuition, my gut reactions and sense of what’s right and wrong about others, but as a young adult, those dismissals made me second guess myself, doubt what I intuitively knew to be true but couldn’t articulate in a way that others could understand or believe.
It’s so hard to describe. I just…know.
Often these realizations, especially if I’m sensing something bad or dangerous, or unexpected and surprising, are accompanied by a small internal burst of adrenaline. It feels like a mild jolt of electricity, like when you catch a toe on a bump in the sidewalk and almost fall, that instant rush through your body that prickles the hairs on your skin for the briefest moment, your body prepared for fight or flight.
When someone’s words and body language are congruent, making sense to me on a gut level, I’m relaxed and trusting. No jolts of adrenaline.
This ability to intuit and sense the motives of others, and their truthfulness, has been extremely useful in my legal career. Judges rely on my “sixth sense” about what is truly going on with the parties in the cases I’m assigned. [You’d be amazed how much lying goes on in open court.] I’m adept at detecting deception, contempt under niceness, hidden motives. Because I show empathy and listen carefully, people easily open up to me, even when it’s not in their interests to do so.
My keen intuition has also been a boon while navigating through daily life, often keeping me safe.
Unfortunately, being an empath also means no matter how hard you try to turn a blind eye to the faults of family, friends or colleagues, their half-truths or dissembling, you can’t. You see it all. You feel the dissonance at gut level.
An example. When I took a job as a county prosecutor between 2009-2011, I was thrown into a toxic work environment that came as a surprise because I’d known many of my new colleagues on a professional basis for years. The bullying and character assassinations I observed within my small unit were shocking and unrelenting. People weren’t who they pretended to be. While not directed at me, I was upset and felt helpless to stop the bullying. My complaints to the head prosecutor went unaddressed. Those being bullied shared their stress with me, confided in me. I began to internalize their stress and helplessness. After over a year of this I developed constant stomach aches, weeks on end, with no medical basis. When I took a short vacation, my stomach was instantly fine. First day back in that office environment, my stomach ache returned and remained until I took another short vacation weeks later. When I returned from that second trip, I gave notice. My stomach ache disappeared.
Empaths feel things intensely, including not being believed, even though – over time – our gut instincts are almost always proven correct. I can’t count the number of times family or friends have eventually told me, “You were right,” but it hurt when they didn’t initially believe me. The primary bully in that office environment years ago? She was finally, just this year, fired by a new head prosecutor, and other lesser bullies disciplined.
I’ve read that some empaths take on the physical symptoms of others. That’s not true for me. I do, though, often internalize the negative emotions of those around me, especially their anger and frustration, and those emotions can cause physical symptoms in me. I’ve learned to set boundaries and do my best to avoid angry, yelling, or bullying people because it’s too much, too hard on me.
Similarly, I absolutely hate dog fights. The growling and snarling of the dogs, no matter how brief, twists my insides, makes my skin crawl, and I almost feel the bites as if they were happening to me. There’s invariably human yelling around the dogs as well, adding to the sensory overload. I’m the first to run in and try to break it up because I so hate the sounds and the potential for harm I just want it to stop. Afterward, I’ll replay the fight in my head for hours, even days, on endless loop, unable to let it go. It’s horrible. As a result, I do everything possible to avoid any situation that might lead to either of my dogs being attacked.
My empathy for animals also means I loathe hunting and especially trapping. The more I learn about animal sentience, the more I know in my heart and soul that they understand. And they suffer.
The Good Part of Being an Empath
On the positive side – yes, there is a positive to this! – empaths experience beautiful things intensely. Many are artists, poets, writers, musicians. One reason I spend so much time in the forest, in addition to recharging my introvert’s emotional batteries in the peace and quiet I find there, is to soak up its natural beauty, taking endless digital photos of the details – drops of water on leaves burned by fire, for instance – so later on I can enjoy editing them, getting an extra dose of the dazzling details I observed earlier.
Being an empath can be both blessing and curse. Walt Whitman observed that those capable of “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” often also “dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.”
Empathy, Highly Sensitive People and Empaths
Being an empath is different from being empathetic. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, e.g. to respond with appropriate words when someone loses a job.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli. Empaths take empathy up a big notch, actually feeling another person’s happiness or sadness internally. Empaths are often also HSPs.
According to Dr. Judith Orloff, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, who identifies as an empath and is the author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, there are differences and similarities between empaths and highly sensitive people:
“Empaths share all the traits of what Elaine Aron, Ph.D., has called “Highly Sensitive People,” or HSPs. These include: a low threshold for stimulation; the need for alone time; sensitivity to light, sound, and smell; and an aversion to large groups. It also takes highly sensitive people longer to wind down after a busy day, since their ability to transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. Highly sensitive people are typically introverts, while empaths can be introverts or extroverts (although most are introverts). Empaths share a highly sensitive person’s love of nature and quiet environments, their desire to help others, and their rich inner life.
“However, empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further: We can sense subtle energy…and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows us to experience the energy around us, including emotions and physical sensations, in extremely deep ways. And so we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others—and often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own. Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences—with animals, nature—which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people.”
As with many personality traits, Dr. Orloff asserts there is an empathic spectrum. Being a highly sensitive person and an empath aren’t mutually exclusive; many people are both. At the other end of the spectrum are those who lack empathy, such as narcissists and sociopaths. Here’s her depiction:
The Empathic Spectrum
Narcissists Loving empathic people HSPs Empaths
A Balancing Act
More often than I can count, friends going through a crisis, having relationship issues, or dealing with ongoing stress reach out to me. I seem to be a magnet for people in distress. I want to help, and do, even though I know it will deplete my energy. Friends know I’ll listen without judgment, that if I have advice, I’ll share it gently, but mostly I just let them vent to an empathic ear. What they don’t know or see is me, later on, rehashing that conversation, absorbing their stress, angst, anger or emotional pain like a sponge, unable to let it go for hours and sometimes days. Intellectually I know their problem is not my problem, but I don’t seem able to easily wring out the emotions I absorbed when we talked.
They leave the interaction feeling better. I sometimes leave it feeling heavier, drained. I head into the forest again.
I’m learning to set boundaries. But as an empath, even that step – saying “No, sorry, I just can’t talk about that topic with you,” feels…unempathic.
As Dr. Orloff notes, “being empathic has incredible benefits such as greater intuition, compassion, creativity and a deeper connection to other people. But living in this state of high sensitivity also comes with its challenges such as becoming easily overwhelmed, over-stimulated, exhausted, or absorbing the stress and negativity of others.”
So it’s an ongoing balancing act between being my empathic self toward others and protecting my introverted self and my own energy. The older I get, the less tolerant I am of negativity. Not just what others bring to me when they need to talk or share their burdens, but the negativity that permeates civil discourse and social media. Books and movies with violent scenes I might have enjoyed in years past I now avoid altogether. Too overwhelming.
I’m becoming pretty cutthroat when it comes to negativity in my life. Whether it’s in person or in the media, if on balance people are more negative than positive, or push negativity simply because they get off on it, then poof, they’re cut from my orbit.
I get better at setting boundaries with each passing year. I practice self care, in fact I’ve created a lifestyle that supports it. I spend as much time as possible in nature, and with my dogs, who provide the calm and unconditional love that is the antidote to all the negative energy I suck up from the crazy world we live in.
Where Does the Word “Empath” Comes From?
I’ll close with a fun peek at the origin of the word empath and how pop culture adopted it, from Dictionary.com:
Apparently modeled on telepath, the word empath is shortened from the word empathy, or the psychological ability to identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.
Empath originates in science-fiction literature. Consider it like emotional telepathy. The term is first cited in Scottish author J.T. McIntosh’s 1956 “The Empath,” a story about paranormally empathetic beings, called empaths, that the government exploits to oppress workers.
The original Star Trek TV series helped spread the word with its 1968 “The Empath,” an episode about a deaf woman with the ability to both experience and heal others’ wounds.
Ursula LeGuin also featured an empath in her 1971 story, “Vaster Than Empires & More Slow.” And then, in 1984, Marvel Comics introduced a mutant who could perceive and manipulate emotions, Empath, as part of its X-Men universe.
By the 1990s, empath had jumped from sci-fi to shorthand for a highly-sensitive person, sometimes metaphorically used for an artist who channels the ideas of a predecessor.
Are You an Empath?
In a 2016 blog post for Psychology Today.com, Dr. Orloff offered this list of ten traits of empathic people:
- Empaths are highly sensitive.
- Empaths absorb other people’s emotions.
- Many empaths are introverted.
- Empaths are highly intuitive.
- Empaths need alone time.
- Empaths can become overwhelmed in intimate relationships.
- Empaths are targets for energy vampires.
- Empaths become replenished in nature.
- Empaths have highly tuned senses.
- Empaths have huge hearts but sometimes give too much.
Since those traits describe me to a T, a few years ago I dug deeper and took Dr. Orloff’s online “test” to determine whether you’re an empath. Here are the questions, and my answers.
1. Have I been labeled as “overly sensitive,” shy, or introverted? Yes, since earliest memory.
2. Do I frequently get overwhelmed or anxious? Overwhelmed, yes, by noise, crowds, yelling, and when in those situations, anxious to get the hell away.
3. Do arguments or yelling make me ill? Yes; have always absolutely hated fighting, whether between people or animals, and being yelled at makes me want to throw up.
4. Do I often feel like I don’t fit in? Yes, especially when trying to fit into a group or crowd, but also because of many of my lifestyle choices (e.g. choice of location; approach to work/retirement).
5. Am I drained by crowds and need alone time to revive myself? Absolutely, every time.
6. Am I over-stimulated by noise, odors, or non-stop talkers? Yes, to noise and non-stop talkers; sensitive to some odors, like cigarette smoke, stink bugs, and when my dogs have been skunked!
7. Do I have chemical sensitivities or can’t tolerate scratchy clothes? Yes. First thing I do with any new piece of clothing is cut out the tags. I don’t wear underwear (TMI, I know) and avoid tight clothing because I don’t like the sensation of pinching or constriction. Wearing a ball cap makes my head hurt. Pantyhose was torture!
8. Do I prefer taking my own car places so I can leave early if I need to? Absolutely; started doing this in my early twenties and still do.
9. Do I overeat to cope with stress? Yes, I overeat when unhappy or stressed and often forget to eat when focused happily on an activity like writing or running.
10. Am I afraid of becoming suffocated by intimate relationships? Yes. I easily feel suffocated, unable to meet the other’s needs for togetherness because I’m dying for “me” time and they, not understanding, see that as rejection. A vicious downward cycle and the primary reason I’ve been single most of my life. It also applies to friendships.
11. Do I startle easily? No. Good thing, too, given how much time I spend in the forest with just my dogs for company!
12. Do I react strongly to caffeine or medications? Yes, have always been sensitive to drugs, especially pain killers, so avoid them altogether or take half the prescribed dose.
13. Do I have a low pain threshold? No. I have a very high pain threshold, except for dental work, when I need extra Novocaine.
14. Do I tend to socially isolate? Yes, always have, even as a child. This applies to my professional life as well and is the reason I went into solo practice early in my legal career, working from home.
15. Do I absorb other people’s stress, emotions, or symptoms? Oh yeah, from friends, and especially as an attorney representing family law clients, which is why I began working just part time in my early thirties. I couldn’t handle taking on all their stress and emotions full time, I needed time away and outside (where they couldn’t find me) to decompress.
16. Am I overwhelmed by multitasking and prefer doing one thing at a time? No.
17. Do I replenish myself in nature? Yes, always have, daily whenever possible, and if I can’t, I feel it.
18. Do I need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people or energy vampires? Yes, especially if they also haunt my dreams and keep me awake at night. It can take days for me to shake off interactions with truly difficult people.
19. Do I feel better in small cities or the country than large cities? Yes, so much so that in 2005 I left Seattle for five acres in the mountains of Idaho, the nearest town having a population of 500.
20. Do I prefer one-to-one interactions or small groups rather than large gatherings? Absolutely. Although, oddly, I do enjoy occasionally giving presentations to large groups, probably because mostly I’m talking at them, not with them.
Scoring: If you answered yes to one to five questions, you’re at least partially an empath. Responding yes to six to ten questions means you have moderate empathic tendencies. Responding yes to eleven to fifteen means you have strong empathic tendencies. Answering yes to more than fifteen questions means that you are a full-blown empath.
My score: “yes” to 17 out of 20.