Empathy is defined as identifying or vicariously experiencing the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of another. It is sometimes confused with sympathy, which is more of a feeling of compassion, particularly towards someone in sorrow or trouble. In a sense you need some degree of empathy in order to feel the compassion or sympathy. Of course there are instances where empathy is ignored, suppressed or maybe even missing altogether, in some people, particularly those with certain mental disorders.
It’s recognizing and responding to emotions that make us human; makes us a little bit easier to live with. Maybe even makes it possible to create a society, live in a community.
Some people take this natural empathy and kick it up a notch. They are acutely aware of the emotions around them, oftentimes without really realizing that is what is happening. They may experience these emotions and believe they are their own, or feel responsible for them. These people are known as empaths; also sometimes referred to as psychic empaths or intuitive empaths.
Dr. Judith Orloff, assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, wrote an article on her site that I found compelling and kind of brought me back to the roots of my own life as an empath. Her article, Are You An Emotional Empath? helps empaths recognize their own traits and gives a wonderful list of suggestions for dealing with the effects.
Here is an excerpt; the quiz that she shares on determining if you are an emotional empath:
QUIZ: AM I AN EMPATH?
- Have I been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive?
- If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it too?
- Are my feelings easily hurt?
- Am I emotionally drained by crowds, require time alone to revive?
- Do my nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
- Do I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please?
- Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
- Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?
If you answer “yes” to 1-3 of these questions, you’re at least part empath. Responding “yes” to more than 3 indicates that you’ve found your emotional type.
Recognizing that you’re an empath is the first step in taking charge of your emotions instead of constantly drowning in them. Staying on top of empathy will improve your self-care and relationships.
I have to admit that even the things on that list I might answer no to right now, I have experienced at least a few times in my life. Looking back, I know that I grew up an empath. At least I can most see it in my teenage years, when you’re already dealing with hormones and your sense of identity and self-esteem. It’s a classic case of I wish I knew then what I know now, and even now, I find that I need a reminder.
I have struggled with this for as far back as I can recall. Mostly I remember it as feeling very strongly when someone was sad or angry. My brain translates that into something that I am somehow responsible for. I think that it varies on whether I would feel as though I somehow caused the emotion, or was supposed to somehow be responsible for resolving the emotion.
It can be overwhelming, even painful, not understanding where it’s coming from or how to manage it. Or maybe forgetting to manage it, as in my case.
Elise Lebeau has an interesting website that chronicles her experiences growing up an empath as well as going into all kinds of technical details about the physiology of thought and how we send and receive information. In summarizing how this works with empathy she says;
Let’s take an example to make this more concrete: When someone is angry, there’s all kind of electrical and chemical reactions happening in their body (sweating, getting flustered, faster heart beat). All these changes trigger mild electrical currents that create a magnetic field around their physical body.
As an Empath, you are able to scan this magnetic information to “read” their state of mind: this person is angry. Although the pattern changes from one person to the next, Empaths are able to interpret it and translate it…
Although we are all born Empaths, most of us learn to ignore the information we pick up from other people through their magnetic field. And there’s a very good reason for that…imagine for a moment: every thought, every emotion, from every one on earth is currently generating magnetic information.
As an Empath, you can pick up on all of this! The sheer volume of information is staggering.
Experiencing this unchecked for long periods of time, even years, is not without its side effects. It can be the source of unexplained fatigue, mood swings, depression. If you are unaware you are picking up everyone else’s negative emotional baggage, it can build up to the point of causing physical symptoms, from blockages in the flow of energy in your body to physical pain and disease.
On the positive side, it has the potential to be a wonderful gift. If you can understand that what you are perceiving is not your own, not your responsibility, you can take steps to protect yourself and learn how to use it productively. Many empaths are drawn to healing, healthcare and counseling. It can be a positive tool in psychic and spiritual counseling; helping others see the source of their pain, helping them sort out conflicting emotions.
It wasn’t until I went to college and met my friend and teacher Ruthanne Marble, that I began to see what was going on with me. I understood by that point the term empath. In my years of practicing psychically, being an empath has helped me to see where people are coming from. I have always been a good listener, people confide in me. I am drawn to people who are in trouble.
Then I entered a period of a lot of personal trial. Beginning with the impact of a move to another state and a demanding job, then escalating with the addition of my husband’s mental health breakdown and diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, three miscarriages and all the baggage that entails. For a time it was a struggle to get out of bed some days. And while I am excellent at talking with other people about their problems, I am horrible about talking about my own.
For two years I did very little psychic work, healing or counseling. I realize now that you get what you give, and that for me that is sort of an outlet. While this was all going on, I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I was pretty much just getting pummeled with emotions. From my own, to my husband’s to the stress and emotions from work and my coworkers. I was not protecting myself and it was catching up with me.
I didn’t recognize this really, until I was inspired to write this post.
One of the side effects that comes up when one researches empaths is the feeling of having the weight of the world on your shoulders. The combination of all of it was taking it’s physical toll on me. Dr. Orloff writes:
The trademark of empaths is that they know where you’re coming from. Some can do this without taking on people’s feelings. However, for better or worse, others, like myself and many of my patients, can become angst-sucking sponges. This often overrides the sublime capacity to absorb positive emotions and all that is beautiful. If empaths are around peace and love, their bodies assimilate these and flourish…
Negativity, though, often feels assaultive, exhausting…
As a subconscious defense, they may gain weight as a buffer… (hmm really??)
When empaths absorb the impact of stressful emotions, it can trigger panic attacks, depression, food, sex and drug binges, and a plethora of physical symptoms that defy traditional medical diagnosis from fatigue to agoraphobia.
The good news is, empaths don’t have to walk around in a cloud of everyone else’s emotions every day of their lives. Like any gift, it can be controlled. Empaths can learn to recognize what they are feeling is not their own. They can learn to protect themselves.
If you think that you fit this description, you can learn how to control and work with your empathic abilities. If you can find a spiritual teacher, that is a good place to start. Finding someone who can help you clear and balance your energy and learn to shield yourself will make a world of difference in how you feel.
Elise Lebeau’s site offers an Empath Survival Program with a series of tools, techniques and visualizations for learning to “dial down” the emotions and becoming a functioning empath. Dr. Orloff’s site offers techniques for centering yourself and finding balance in the types of situations you find overwhelming. Lisa Campion is a psychic, spiritual counselor and energy healer whose site has great information on visualization techniques for cleansing your energy, shielding yourself and grounding.
Learning to recognize and work with empathic abilities means you don’t have to feel like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Suddenly that inexplicable feeling of sadness actually has an explanation, and a resolution. If you are looking for someone to talk to about empathy, trust your intuition, for several reasons. As always, the internet is just as full of useless or even harmful information as it is beneficial.
It is important to understand that while there are many wonderful light workers out there, there are also well meaning people who do not really understand what they are doing. There are also, unfortunately, unscrupulous people who are not keeping your best interest at heart. Lastly, it is possible for some of the symptoms associated with being an empath to be related to other mental health concerns. If your thoughts and feelings are concerning or frightening you, please seek professional assistance.
If you would like to talk with me about being empathic, please feel free to contact me. I’m happy to commiserate, discuss techniques for working with it, or help you find a spiritual teacher near you.