Please Note: This post was originally published April 18, 2021. It has been updated for accuracy, relevancy, and clarity.
I am an empath. That’s a controversial thing to say these days. Many people use it in a way that makes it sound like magic; a superpower, straight from the gods. I’m in a lot of spiritual groups and I hear a lot about it there. Because of that, folks tend to roll their eyes when they read the word “empath” in their feeds.
Empathy and being an empath
That said, I am an empath. There’s not much magic about it. Empathy, which is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of other living things, is important in the human species. It is generally viewed as a good quality to have and it’s what connects us. It’s being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; feel what they feel.
Empathy helps us to better cooperate with others, build lasting relationships, and make decisions based on morals. However, some people feel too little or too much empathy. Feeling too little empathy isn’t a good sign, for obvious reasons, and should be worked on with a medical professional. Feeling too much empathy can be just as unpleasant, however.
An empath is highly sensitive, often with the ability to understand, feel, and sometimes hone in on what others are feeling. They are able to see things from other’s points of view, “putting one’s self in another’s shoes.” However, they can sometimes go as far as taking on the pain or foul mood of others, much to their detriment.
But there is no magic in being an empath. It’s not a power to be wielded by “gifted witches.” Being empathic is most often the result of sustained childhood trauma; we had to be hyper-aware of body language, tone, and, other social cues. As a result, we developed the ability to read people’s emotions and moods without even realizing it. People with mental illness and ADHD are often highly empathic because of their lived experiences and the ability to feel for people who have been there.
I consider my extreme empathy both my greatest weakness and my greatest strength. I makes me better, ensures that I try my hardest to act in kindness, to never judge, and to understand the plight of others. That said, people who believe those qualities are weakness, will play them against you. Even traumatize you more. Also, sometimes it’s painful. When I try to explain how extreme my empathy can be, I often use forest or brush fires as an example.
Obviously, my heart aches for all the humans who lose their homes, pets, belongings, and sometimes their lives. Eventually, though, my brain always turns to the wild animals and my heart breaks. Animals, even the most vicious among them, are truly innocent. I imagine their terror, pain, and not fully understanding what is happening. It twists me up inside.
Obviously, I have no idea how intensely scary it would be to be an animal fleeing a wildfire. That’s when empathy enters the chat. Because I know what panic and fear feel like, this part of my brain imagines that amplified. Because I know the despair of losing your home and not knowing where to run for safety, I can empathize with them, and so on. It happens anytime that I see news of large scale tragedies. For the victims, the survivors, their families.
I’ve often wondered over the years how much of my empathy is inborn and how much of it was cultivated. It’s impossible to tell, really. The answer is most likely a bit of both. That said, the trauma didn’t start until I was seven and the extreme empathy came way before, especially where animals were concerned. I was kindly born with a soft heart.
1. You’re a sympathetic listener.
There are many different types of listening, but the one you hear most about is active listening. I won’t get into what all active listening entails, but I want to stress that active listening was created for a certain type of environment; public speaking, business situations, etc. Your doctor and therapist should be practicing active listening. You should be using active listening during important business meetings. You get the idea.
That said, I’m a firm believer that all parts of active listening were not meant for regular conversation. This brings me to empathetic listening. I am an empathetic listener in most social situations. I listen to what is being said to me and I often meet that with a story of my own to tell you that I know how you are feeling. This is considered rude by some people; they consider it one-upping or “making it about you.” I assure you, that is never the intent or any neurodivergent or emapthic listener. It’s our way of saying, “You are not alone. I can empathize with you because I had a similar experience.”
I digress, empathic people are good listeners and people often seek them out for just that purpose. They tend to be non-judgemental and supportive. Loved ones tend to confide in us because we have a calming effect on others. Empaths enjoy deep conversation, connections, and generally feel most themselves in these situations. I thrive on deep conversation with friends and I crave it when I don’t have it. It made pandemic times extremely difficult and I haven’t really recovered since.
2. People feel confident and comfortable confiding in you.
People with hyper empathy tend to be good at keeping big secrets. We understand what it feels like to need someone to confide in and (see above) we’re non-judgemental listeners. People sense this about us early. We are open about our own experiences (meeting story with story), so they feel comfortable and at ease.
I’ve often asked my friends if my communication style is disarming or overwhelming. I am extremely open about everything. Even the gross stuff that most people don’t talk about. I once told my entire team in a work meeting about a time that I drank to much coffee and shat myself! The consensus among my friends seems to be that it makes them feel more comfortable to talk about their own problems and issues. I find that, in most cases, the most embarrassing stuff is stuff that we all go through, but are too ashamed to talk about. I want people to know that there is no shame with me.
3. You are good at picking up on people’s moods and, at times, seem to “absorb” them (good or bad).
For people who experienced trauma as children and specifically prolonged abuse, we become more in tune with other people’s moods. We were trained to pick up on body language, facial cues, and tone as children to survive and it’s a skill that we honed to a fine tip. By adulthood, it’s often something that we aren’t even aware of, but we’re good at.
I used to know a person who woke up in a bad mood, every day. They’d stomp and huff around the house, complaining and mumbling under their breath. They’d sometimes even pick fights. It made me dread mornings. No matter how good I felt prior, I would feel their mood start to become mine. The problem was, they were fine after coffee, but the mood stuck with me all day. Likewise, if one of my coworkers shows up in a bad mood, it will ruin my whole day and I will be pissy for the duration.
4. Tragic events, even continents away, often deeply affect you.
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. We live in a world where tragedy strikes multiple times a day, all over the world. For empaths, this can be excruciating. We can see an event as if we were there; feeling the fear or the pain. The worst part is, we know that we can’t be possibly feeling what the victims are feeling. We know that it must be overwhelming for them and it makes us feel worse.
I sometimes force myself to read the names and look at the faces of victims of gun violence. We lose so many beautiful people to senseless violence. People from all walks of life and all ages. When I think of the fear and the helplessness, it’s so unfair. No one should have to spend their last moments that way. That’s not to mention the survivors and what they will go through for the rest of their lives. It’s heart-wrenching and I feel so much emotion for every person that is touched by such senseless evil.
My empathy doesn’t just extend to humans, as I said. I feel the same way about all living things. I recently read that trees communicate through ultrasonic waves and grieve each other when one is lost. As a book lover and a writer, I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same.
I digress. knowing that animals feel fear, confusion, and pain is sometimes more than I can bear. It rips my soul out.
5. You have difficulty setting boundaries.
One emotion empaths experience that we don’t talk enough about: guilt. We feel guilty not helping where we can. That guilt causes us to take on other people’s pain and problems, even when we don’t have the spoons for it. Because of this guilt, we have issues with setting and enforcing real boundaries.
I saw a meme not too long ago that said something to the effect of, “Empathy without boundaries is self-destruction.” Honestly, it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been heartbroken because I didn’t set any boundaries with people in my life. Boundaries are important to protect yourself and your empathy. We have soft and kind hearts. That doesn’t mean that everyone we come into contact with will also.
6. You avoid confrontation at all costs.
Confrontation can be terrifying for an empath. Generally, strong emotions are flowing from the start and only getting stronger as tempers flare. This feels overwhelming for an empath and can lead to overwhelm and even panic attacks.
Moreover, our emotions tend to play of the anger of our opponent. Over the years, it’s not unusual for us to be terrified that we’ll lash out in the moment and say something terrible. Once things cool down, we realize that we’ve just called our SO an asshole or wielded our best friend’s biggest insecurity at her like a weapon. The guilt eats at us and we want to avoid that scenario.
7. You have a comforting, welcoming energy.
People to be around you because you make them feel at home. When I was a young lady Bean, my apartment was always “home base” for everyone. Before work, after work, on the weekends…It was just where my friend group ended up. Sometimes there were still people in my living room when I went to bed at night and still people there when I got home from work the next day. They came because it felt like home. They stayed because everyone was welcome and accepted.
I was always “the mom” of the group, worrying about where they were going and who they were with, and probably even more so now that I’m an actual mom. The people that I love know that I will be there for them, I will worry for them, I will keep their secrets, I will lend my shoulder for their tears…I will love them unconditionally. I know from my own amazing friends that there is such comfort in knowing that you have people in your life that will love you no matter what.
8. You often care too much or can’t stop yourself from caring.
Hyper empathy can be a real kicker. Sometimes, it makes us care too much and it puts us in tough situations. Over the last few years, I’ve lost a few friends. These were long-time friends; people that I believed would be in my life until the day that I died. I loved them dearly and I knew them very well. I knew who they were and what they were afraid of. I knew about the things and the people who had hurt them and, until a certain point, I understood them as people. Like I said, I just really fucking loved them.
And then the tide turned. They hurt me deeply, all of them. I knew that they were hurts too deep and that I had to cut ties with them. That’s exactly what I did. That said, I still think about them all of the time. I wonder how they are doing and I hope that life is treating them well. I shouldn’t care. I really shouldn’t. But I can’t help but feel bad for them. I feel empathy and sadness for them. I spend precious energy on them that they no longer earn. It’s tough.
Bonus sign: You have great intuition.
This also goes back to trauma and skills that we honed while going through the trauma. We teach ourselves to read patterns, body language, facial cues, and behavior to help us to put together pieces of the puzzle before we really understand that we’re processing it. This can sometimes seem like a magical power, but it is actually a coping mechanism that we’ve perfected over time.
To note: ADHD folk are often credited with this ability, with or without trauma. Our brains move fast and process a lot of information all at once. Not only that, we tend to think things to death; we have to look at it from every possible angle. The result is that our subconcious mind figures it out slowly, in the background. However, the signal that it sends it sudden and that’s the only part we know about.
One problem that faces empathetic people however, is not trusting one’s intuition. We often try to see the good in everyone, without realizing that there just isn’t much good in some people. So we ignore the tug and pull of our guts. We don’t enforce any boundaries and get ourselves in a mess. It is important to trust your gut when it speaks up. It usually has something important to say, even if it’s just telling you you’re hungry.
There is such thing as too much empathy and it can start to become a toxic presence in your life. As you can see from the list above, hyper empathy isn’t always sunshine and fuzzy feelings. It can be extremely painful and difficult to deal with. It can ruin entire days and put undue stress and strain on your brain. When a person over-identifies with someone else’s emotions, feelings, or mood and takes them on as their own, you get toxic empathy.
Here are some ways to combat toxic empathy:
- Separate other’s problems from your own; don’t take them on for yourself.
- Don’t allow your emotions to be controlled by others; notice how you are feeling and ask yourself if the feelings belong to you. Be aware.
- Make sure you are getting as much as you are giving in the relationship. You should not be a sounding board for a “friend” that is only around when they need you, and vice versa.
- Set clear boundaries from the beginning and remember, setting them doesn’t do any good if you don’t enforce them.
- Allow yourself to listen to your loved ones and then let go of the emotions and problems that they brought to you. Use grounding techniques to recenter yourself.
- Take a break from the news cycle. Allow yourself to refresh and take a break from the bad things that happen in the world.
- Take a break from social media. As we all probably already know, social media can be toxic in itself. Often the dregs of humanity find their voices there. Allow yourself to step away and recharge.
- Be sure to stay grounded in the here and now, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by someone else’s emotions and problems.
Make sure you take care of yourself, first and foremost. You are important too and you should turn some of that empathy inward, from time to time. Take care of yourself. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself.
That’s all I’ve got today, my friends; just a little ditty about empathy and what it’s like to feel an inordinate amount. It’s not magic, actually much more tragic, but it does have its benefits. I wouldn’t change that aspect of myself for the world. I’ll cry while watching commercials and I’ll rage at the news. I’ll keep writing my blog posts because I care about how people like me are fairing in the world.
But, you can also see from the list that being empathic can be hard and painful. We have to be mindful of ourselves and to the extent that we identify with other people’s negative emotions, pain, and problems. The world needs people like us, but the world needs us healthy and ready to face the day. Take care of yourselves. Be gentle and kind. You deserve it.