What Is an Empath?
Do you find yourself crying for no reason? Curled in the fetal position and averting your eyes while watching a fight on TV? You may be an empath. Learn what an empath is and how to thrive in your life and relationships.
The other day, a man stepped into the street, and I stopped my car so he could cross. Suddenly, I felt the overwhelming urge to cry for no apparent reason.
Then I looked more closely at the man walking just feet away from me. He looked like I suddenly felt. “Ahh, these emotions are not mine.” I sent him a silent prayer, grateful I had finally learned to tell the difference between my emotions and those of others.
Am I an Empath?
Recently, I read an article describing the difference between an empath and someone who is highly sensitive. They distinguished an empath as someone who can feel the emotions of others, sometimes even physical conditions, even though they are not actually going through the same experience. Someone who is highly sensitive, someone who has a high sensory awareness and feels extremely emotional due to others, their surroundings, and visual images (even TV shows). And the resulting experience can be intense and confusing.
Researchers say around 20 percent of us are genetically predisposed to empathy and have highly sensitive brains that respond powerfully to emotional images and our surroundings, while 2 to 3 percent of us are actually empaths.
This means that, to varying degrees, 1 out of every 4 or 5 of people is experiencing the emotions of others—in addition to your own. You (especially as children or teens) may not even know you are sensitive to the energies of others. You may even be oblivious to the reality that such a thing exists. Consequently, there is a tendency to think something is wrong with you.
If you are not empathic, you may think those who are, are overdramatic, over-reactive, and get too involved. You may not understand why your empathetic partner or peers cry when someone else in the household is depressed. You don’t understand why they can’t watch violent movies or fights on TV. In fact, my husband often points out to me: “They are just actors. It is just a movie,” while I assume fetal position on the couch, looking the other way.
Feeling other people’s feelings, being sensitive to images, wanting to cry for “no reason,” and processing emotions that do not belong to you can hit you like a ton of bricks from unexpected places at unanticipated times.
If you don’t know these emotions are not actually yours, it can cause a lot of stress, depression, anxiety, and confusion for both you and those who love you.
These are particularly challenging traits to have at a time in our history when nearly everyone has strong feelings of fear, concern, hope, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and divisiveness due to our current political environment. Actually, most of the world is deeply concerned. Your own emotions can be overwhelming by themselves, but now, possibly more than ever before, the challenges of being empathic are amplified. And in a personal relationship, unknowingly feeling the emotions of others can be devastating.
What Empaths Must Know for Relationships
First, we need to practice self-observation and self-inquiry, which leads to self-awareness. Get to know yourself well enough to be able to decipher your emotions from others. This can be as simple as asking yourself, “Is this emotion mine?”
This awareness helps to unravel what you are feeling when a wave of emotion washes over you. If it is your emotion, take responsibility for handling what needs to be handled. Cry if need be. Apologize. Forgive. Express your needs. Grieve. Make some changes. Break up. Heal the rift. Identify what the emotion is showing you.
If nothing has happened in your life to cause the emotion—if there is not a triggering event or experience—the feelings are probably not yours. Simply understanding that can make processing the emotions easier. And knowing this offers you the choice: to process the emotions, release the emotions, or determine if another action needs to take place.
There may not be anything that needs to be done—in which case, simply be aware and breathe as the emotions pass through. If you can identify the person to whom the emotions actually belong, you can use the information to offer guidance or compassion. If the emotion is coming from a loved one or housemate, you can use that wisdom to heighten your sensitivity to their needs. If it is collective emotion, it may well be that, as you process these feelings, meditate, or pray for the planet, you vicariously ease the pain or tension in others.
But, before you jump into caretaking of other people and trying to solve their problems or intervening, assess the situation. You don’t want your empathy to move you toward codependency while leading other people away from personal responsibility.
Sometimes all that is necessary is a heightened sense of awareness, a few tears, and some carefully sent prayers.
Read more on being an empowered empath.