Do you often pick up on other people’s feelings, sometimes even before they do? Do large crowds overwhelm you? Do you need to retreat into either nature or a dark bedroom just to recharge from life? Do others often seek you out for emotional support?
If you answered yes to these questions, you might be an empath.
In this article, we’ll break down what it means to be an empath, ways in which it makes life more challenging but also more awesome, and we’ll go over plenty of tips to help you harness this power of yours.
What is an Empath?
Empaths are people who have an innate ability to understand and feel the emotions of others as their own. They are highly sensitive and often described as “emotional sponges.” Empaths often pick up what someone else is feeling without even trying–they can just sponge it by being in proximity.
Are You an Empath?
Read through this list of questions, adopted from empath expert Judith Orloff M.D.’s1https://drjudithorloff.com/quizzes/are-you-an-empath-20-question-self-assessment-test/ more comprehensive list, to discover if you might be an empath.
- Do you frequently get overwhelmed or anxious?
- Are you drained by crowds and need alone time to revive yourself?
- Are you overstimulated by noise, odors, or non-stop talkers?
- Do you have chemical sensitivities or can’t tolerate scratchy clothes?
- Do you prefer taking your own car places so you can leave early if you need to?
- Are you afraid of becoming suffocated by intimate relationships?
- Do you absorb other people’s stress, emotions, or symptoms?
- Do you replenish yourself in nature?
- Do you need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people or energy vampires?
- Do you prefer one-to-one interactions or small groups rather than large gatherings?
You can’t exactly take a blood test to determine if you’re an empath. But if you answered “yes” to at least 7 of the above questions, you are likely an empath.
And if you answered “yes” to any of them, this article will still be relevant to you. You may be a very empathic person, or even part empath, and can still use the tips in this article to navigate the world.
Recognizing that you are an empath is the first step to harnessing this ability as a superpower and learning to navigate its challenges.
If you need professional support
We are honored to help you navigate your empathic skills. Please note that all content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice.
If you do need extra support, make sure to consult with a doctor or licensed therapist. For a good resource for therapists, you can check out Mental Health America’s helpful list.
There are also plenty of therapists who specialize in working with empaths. Here are a few you can look into:
How Do People Become Empaths?
Judith Orloff points to a few different causes2https://drjudithorloff.com/4-reasons-why-people-become-empaths-from-trauma-to-genetics/ for people to become empaths.
It’s genetic: Some children come out of the womb as empaths. Every child has some natural disposition and temperament, and being an empath is one of them.
It’s learned: Other children grow up with a parent or caregiver who is either narcissistic, codependent or generally abusive. Narcissistic parents are hard to predict, and children learn to match their behavior to their parent’s moods perfectly. For their survival, these children become masterful at intuiting emotional cues from others to create safety.
When a parent is co-dependent, they may absorb their child into their emotional sphere and incite guilt if the child tries to individuate. This type of codependence can teach the child to develop empathic skills by anticipating and mimicking others’ feelings for their safety.
It’s similar to folks who have perfect pitch. Children develop perfect pitch3https://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/03/science/perfect-pitch-is-linked-to-training-before-age-6.html at a young age based on their genetic disposition and early musical training. But it is challenging for adults to develop perfect pitch like a child might. It’d be like trying to learn Chinese as a non-native—it’s possible, but it’d be tough to become as adept as a native speaker. We can all become more empathetic, but it’d be hard to reach the level of an empath as an adult.
The Spectrum of Empathy
Empathy is the expression of our mirror neurons4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510904/. When we see someone experiencing an emotion, our mirror neurons pick up on their feelings and activate the part of our brain that feels that same emotion. Even some animals exhibit empathy5https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2015.0077.
Empathy is a skill that we can all learn, but being an empath is different than being empathetic.
You can think of empathy as a spectrum.
On the right side, you have people who are good at imagining how others might feel and understanding others’ points of view.
Further right than that, you have empaths.
Empaths tend to focus their attention outward, picking up how others feel. In contrast, narcissists tend to focus attention inward, focusing more on what they are feeling.
What is the difference between an empath and an empathetic person?
For most people, empathy contains a cognitive or visual component—where you discover how others might feel by actively imagining their situation or interpreting their body language. For empathetic people, it can support their empathy if they’ve had a similar experience to the other person.
On the other hand, empaths can feel another person’s emotions just by being next to them. It’s not that empaths can read minds or sense thoughts; it’s that their body feels the emotions of other people around them.
So if you enter a room and Chris is sitting in a chair and feeling frustrated because his pencil just broke, then without knowing why, your head may start to feel hot and your firsts may begin to clench.
Signs of an Empath
Below are some experiences that are common to empaths. See which ones you relate to.
You can absorb others’ feelings through proximity
This is the central ability of empaths. Just by being near another person, you can feel what they are feeling. You can feel others’ feelings, pleasure, pain, and even some symptoms of physical illness.
Crowded places are intense
Because you naturally take on others’ emotions and energies, crowds can be a nightmare. A crowd is a soup of feelings. So if you walk into a bar, it might feel like 50 people are bombarding you with sensory information all at once.
It’s like this scene from X-Men where Jean Gray, who can read minds, is in a museum, and everyone else’s thoughts are inundating her against her will. Except empaths perceive only feelings and not thoughts.
You want to help others with their suffering
Because empaths are so in tune with how others feel, they naturally want to alleviate the suffering of others. Partially because they empathize so much, they want others to experience happiness. But also because others’ pain causes the empath pain, there is an automatic response to alleviate that pain.
Remember, an empath might feel anothers’ pain as if it’s their own.
People want to open up to you
Empaths tend to be phenomenal listeners because they help others navigate their emotions and feel understood.
If you are an empath, you may notice that friends and family members flock to you to talk through their problems and open up to you very quickly.
Being a great listener is one of the best ways to become more likable. If you want to learn more ways to become likable while remaining authentic, check this out.
Be The Most Likable Person In The Room
Learn the skills we’ve taught 500k+ students to become more charismatic and successful—including:
- 💝 5 phrases that will make you instantly more likable
- 🤯 Our secret likability strategy for introverts
- 💬 The #1 trick to never running out of things to say
You feel drawn to helping professions
Because of this gift to help others open up, express, and heal, empaths often feel drawn to careers that tap into these skills. Whether as a social worker, a counselor, or a nurse, empaths thrive in professions where they can help heal others face-to-face.
Solitude keeps you sane
Because empaths experience such intense emotional impact from others, finding time away from people can be a refuge.
This might mean in silent meditation, in nature, or lying in bed with an eye mask.
You feel a special affinity for nature
Because you pick up on the pace and energy of everything around you, nature can feel like heaven.
This idea might sound foreign to many, but in the same way you absorb the internal state of people around you, many empaths also absorb the internal state of plants around them.
So when you are sitting in the woods, you are “sponging” the trees around you.
You can also empathize with animals6https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0170730, which feels nourishing because they move at a slower pace than humans and tend not to feel the intense emotions that come with the bustle of human society.
You have a strong intuition
Empaths tend to have a rich inner landscape because they feel so deeply. As a result, empaths tend to be in tune with their intuition. They hear clear signals about what decisions to make.
Physical spaces have a significant impact on you
Because you are so attuned to your outer world, the layout of physical spaces will impact your mood.
You might feel anxious and even overwhelmed if a room is too cluttered, the lighting is too dim, or all the furniture seems mismatched and discordant.
You have a deep appreciation for art
Because of your rich inner world and your attunement to external stimuli, art may have a profound impact on you.
Whether you are engaging with a painting, a play, or a song, the art can absorb you so deeply that it creates a transformative experience for you.
Violent movies and news reports weigh on you
You must be careful of the media you intake because of how much you relate with the people you see.
If a movie contains too many harrowing screams and painful deaths, you might take on the feelings of the victims, and it could take a while to shake them off.
Similarly, if you watch too much news about natural disasters or public shootings, you might take on too much negative emotion.
You may feel averse to intimate relationships
Because empaths feel others so deeply, they may overly enmesh in intimate relationships and lose their sense of self.
For other empaths, because other people bring such intense feelings, an intimate relationship may feel manageable only with the right amount of space. That might mean separate beds or bedrooms or intermittent relationship breaks built in throughout the day, week, and month.
Misconceptions About Empaths
Empaths are not the same as highly sensitive people
What is a highly sensitive person?
Elaine Aron Ph.D., coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person7https://positivepsychology.com/highly-sensitive-person/#:~:text=The%20term%20HSP%20was%20first,Aron%20%26%20Aron%2C%201997).” in 1996 after five years of studying what the scientific community calls “Sensory Processing Sensitivity.” She has since become the leading expert on the topic and wrote The Highly Sensitive Person.
According to Aron, 15-20% of the population8https://hsperson.com/ is highly sensitive. This trait also appears in animals.
Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) are more attuned to the environment around them. This means that HSPs can get overwhelmed easily but can also appreciate more nuance and subtlety in life.
Empaths are HSPs. Many qualities that help people deduce if they are empaths are HSP qualities (overwhelm by noises and sensory information, preference for written information over video, deep attunement to physical spaces, etc.).
But while empaths are super attuned to their environment, they have the extra quality of being porous to others’ internal states.
So while all empaths are HSPs, not all HSPs are empaths. HSPs are very attuned and overwhelmed by their environment but don’t automatically take in others’ emotions.
Not all empaths are introverts
Most empaths are introverts9https://drjudithorloff.com/ask-dr-orloff-about-empaths-and-empathy/are-all-empaths-introverts/, according to Judith Orloff. This means they might feel overwhelmed and overstimulated after a certain amount of social interaction and ultimately need alone time to find their center again.
But there are a small group of empaths who are extroverts.
These empaths might enjoy being the center of attention or ultimately find it energizing to connect with others.
Benefits of Being an Empath
While being an empath can feel overwhelming and draining, remember that it is also a gift. Here are some of the top benefits of your skills.
You make a great friend
Because you are such a good listener and so good at helping others feel understood, you can be a great friend who helps others along their life journey.
You can experience exquisite passion and joy
Because you have such so fine-tuned emotions, you also experience passion, joy, gratitude, wonder, and love in great detail.
You can also help friends celebrate their victories and tap into these beautiful emotions.
You are attuned to the beauty and poetry of life
Part of what makes the human experience beautiful and poetic is the ability to feel all the feelings to their fullest.
What makes us human is our grief, our lust, our curiosity, our devotion. Our ups and our downs.
You can feel this spectrum in its full depth, giving you a unique vantage point into the fullness of the human drama.
You have the capacity to be kind, caring, and vulnerable
So many people are blocked off from their feelings, unable to be vulnerable. So many people feel disconnected from others. Our world needs more connection and care.
You have these abilities. You can lead the way in creating a more open-hearted and connected world.
You have the opportunity to heal the generational patterns of trauma in your family
Descendants of Holocaust survivors experience the trauma of their ancestors10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6720013/. Whatever trauma you have, you will pass it down to your children, explains famous trauma physician Gabor Maté11https://www.iopt.no/en/resources/gabor-mate-transgenerational-trauma-stressed-environment-and-childs-diagnosis/. But if you resolve and heal your trauma, you won’t pass it on.
As an empath, you have a unique opportunity to explore and heal your emotional patterns in ways your parents and grandparents couldn’t. You have the chance to heal the trauma that your family has passed down from generation to generation.
Challenges of Being an Empath
Despite the many benefits of being an empath, it does come with its difficulties. If you are an empath, you’ll probably relate to many of these. At the end, we’ll go over tips to help you balance your emotional and mental health.
It can be exhausting to take on others’ emotions
As an empath, you might feel beleaguered with feelings non-stop. Sometimes they are yours, and sometimes they are other people’s.
If you aren’t yet sure how to distance yourself from others’ feelings, you might feel the constant drain of empathy fatigue because there are others’ emotions circulating through your body all the time. Anyone can experience empathy fatigue12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6005077/, as it occurs when we make the other person’s feelings into our own. But empaths are especially susceptible because this process happens so quick and automatically for empaths.
It can be confusing to feel others’ feelings
Imagine you’re having a great day, walking down the sidewalk, admiring the blooming flowers in the radiant sun, whistling a tune. Then all of a sudden, you feel sad out of nowhere. You might wonder, “What’s going on? What caused me to feel sad? Is this my sadness or someone else’s? Do I need to work through my own stuff, or did I just pick up an unwanted emotion?”
This type of experience is commonplace for empaths. Understanding one’s emotions is a journey for all of us, but if you are an empath, it can be especially confusing because you might not be sure if the emotions are yours or someone else’s.
It is hard not to overgive
Because you feel others’ pain so acutely, you probably have a strong impulse to do everything you can to help them.
Empaths may want to help alleviate all the suffering they come in touch with. But if you always follow that impulse, you’ll have no energy left for yourself.
Setting boundaries is difficult
As an empath, setting a boundary can feel like you are leaving someone in their pain when you could be helping them. It can be doubly difficult because if the other person is sensitive to rejection, you might experience their hurt at your boundary.
Setting healthy boundaries is a journey of empowerment and communication that an empath will have to go on if they don’t want to feel drained all the time.
It can be challenging to feel at home in your own body
If you grew up in a household with a codependent caretaker, you may have been absorbed into their emotional world. You might have turned other people’s emotions into your “home” because it helped you feel safe.
As an adult, you might still feel safer in other peoples’ worlds than your own. So the challenge for you is to learn to feel safe in your own body and emotions.
Big groups can be intense
As an empath, you’ve probably felt socially overwhelmed more than you can count. Parties, concerts, sporting events, and bars might not be for you.
You might attract toxic people
Because empaths are drawn to healing and helping others, they tend to attract wounded and toxic people like moths to a flame.
One of the most common dynamics for empaths is to attract narcissists into their orbit. Narcissists seek connections that revolve entirely around themselves13https://drjudithorloff.com/business-insider-empaths-and-narcissists/, and the caring orientation of the empath is a perfect target.
15 Tips to Protect Yourself as An Empath
Here are a few self-care tips you can try to help you navigate life as an empath.
Make a mantra out of “no thank you.”
As you go about your life, notice any time someone else’s emotions or pain enters your awareness. As soon as you notice this happening, silently say, “No, thank you.” You can take it a step further by first putting your awareness on the physical sensations that you notice, and then as you breathe out, imagine them leaving your body and returning to where they came from.
Action Step: If you’d like to be more proactive about building this “no, thank you” skill, walk around a park for 20 minutes and when you walk by someone, notice your natural inclination to absorb their energy. Then, internally, say, “no, thank you” and send it back to them.
Study your feelings
Your inner landscape of feelings is like its own language. In the same way that someone who has mastered the English language can convey vivid visualizations with astonishing beauty, the more you master the language of your inner landscape, the more self-understanding and agency you’ll develop.
And the more you know and can articulate your feelings, the more you’ll be able to discern your emotional reactions from others’.
Action Step: Try out this practice for a week and see what you learn:
Every morning for just three minutes, write down what you feel. See if you can name three different feelings and the body sensations associated with each feeling. If you need some inspiration, below is a list of emotions. You could also consult this article to go deeper into the topic.
And if you need help naming the sensations you’re feeling, you could also consult this map.
As another benefit to this practice, if you’re feeling an intense or painful emotion, just naming it will actually decrease its intensity14https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Putting-Feelings-Into-Words-Produces-8047 because it activates the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which lowers activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that processes threats).
Actively choose not to help
As an empath, you are probably holding space for people all the time and going out of your way to support others. See if you can take some time off and just focus on yourself.
Action Step: Challenge yourself to go an entire week without giving your energy to help someone else. This might be terrifyingly difficult, but taking on this challenge will reveal to you how often you might be inclined to help others and how much energy it’s expending. If a week feels like too much, try a day.
Practice setting a boundary
Is there a relationship that has you feeling consistently drained or disempowered? What’s one way that you are giving too much of yourself to that relationship? Maybe the connection is always enjoyable at first, but you need silence after 30 minutes and don’t ask for it. Or maybe you like this friend, but they unload their problems on you too much.
Action Step: Once you find a relationship where you are consistently crossing your own boundary, bring it up with your friend the next time you see them.
If you feel scared that you might word it incorrectly, you could try something like this:
“Hi friend, in an effort to feel more connected with you, I want to share something. I often have a tendency in my relationships to _______. I notice I am bringing that pattern into our relationship, and it often results in me feeling ________. Next time I notice this happening, do you mind if I bring it up so we can workshop it together?”
If you’d like more boundary practice, check out this article.
Practice being in your body and with your emotions
One of the best ways to do this is to practice mindfulness meditation, where you rest your awareness as a meta-observer of your inner experience and just curiously invite and welcome any feelings and sensations that you notice.
Action Step: One simple practice is to put on a timer for 5 minutes (or even 2 minutes) and sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Aim to focus on your breathing. And if you notice a feeling or a sensation come up, witness and allow that feeling without getting carried away or diving too deep into it. Simply notice it without judgment and relax. Once it passes, return to your breath until something else arises in you. When you are witnessing a feeling, you can also approach it with curiosity to get to know it more.
Watch Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., founder of the famous Spirit Rock meditation center, talk about this practice.
Take a beat before accepting invitations
The next time a friend invites you to an event, pause before you respond. If it’s in person, maybe tell them you’ll think about it and get back to them in an hour or so.
Action Step: Before you respond to the invitation, close your eyes and take a few breaths to ground yourself. Then imagine yourself attending the event, and notice how your body reacts. If the image of the event stokes too much anxiety or resistance, listen to that and tell your friend that you’ll raincheck this time but might be interested in catching up 1-on-1 or in a smaller group sometimes.
Reflect on the energy math of your connections
Grab a piece of paper and write out two columns. One labeled “energize” and one labeled “drain.”
Then make a list of rows of all the active relationships in your life. So your paper should look something like this:
Then, for each person on the list, put a number 1-5 under “energize” based on how much that person tends to give you energy. How much do they inspire, uplift, or recharge you? A 5 means you always leave their presence feeling highly energized, and a 0 means you don’t receive any positive energy from them.
Then in the “drain” column, put a number 1-5 for each person based on how much they drain your energy. How wiped, exhausted, or depleted do you feel when you finish hanging out with them? A 5 here means that they destroy your energy reserves, and a 0 means they don’t tend to take energy from you.
Next, make a third column titled “Total” on the right of your “Drain” column.
For each person, subtract the drain number from the energize number, and put the difference in the “Total” column.
Your list should look something like this now:
Now take a look at your “Total” column.
If anybody has a total that’s less than zero, they are causing you to lose energy. Consider taking space from this person or cutting them out of your life entirely if possible. In this case, Mr. Whiskers has got to go!
If the person with a negative total is a family member or someone you must keep in your life, see if you can make your interactions with them as short as possible.
Go to nature as much as possible
Going for a hike or sitting by a pond is the ultimate way to recharge. No people. Just you and the great outdoors. For the most optimal recharge, seek to spend two hours a week in nature.
This study of 20,000 people15https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3 found that people who spend two hours a week in green spaces, whether parks or natural landscapes, report substantially better health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. The 120 minutes could take place all at once or throughout several visits.
If this is not possible for you, do what you can. This study shows that even looking at pictures of nature16https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6926748/ causes your body to relax.
Action Step: This week, plan out several trips into green spaces to hit that two-hour mark and notice if it makes you feel different.
Spend time with a pet
While fellow humans are taxing for many empaths, animals can be rejuvenating.
If you don’t have an animal friend, consider investing in a pet.
Action step: if it’s not tenable for you to own a pet, reach out to your pet-owning friends and let them know you’d love to pet-sit for them the next time they travel.
Invest in sensory deprivation gear
The world is an overwhelming place for empaths. If you just need to blot out the world and return to yourself, consider purchasing earplugs, a sleeping mask, and light-proof curtains.
When the outside world feels like too much, hide under your covers and block off all your senses.
Action Step: Purchase earplugs and an eye mask. Once they arrive, set aside 10 minutes to lie down and turn your senses off.
Express your needs
Many empaths are uncomfortable asking for what they need in a connection. It means prioritizing themself and their feelings. But identifying and expressing your needs is a vital skill that will keep relationships feeling healthy and restorative.
Action Step: Pick a relationship and then reflect on the question: “Is there anything I need in this relationship that will make me feel safer, healthier, or more connected that I’ve resisted asking for?”
Then summon your courage and see if you can ask your friend or partner for what you need.
Build 5-minute breaks into your day
Take breaks from people, from work, from media, from everything!
See if you can carve out a 5-minute break anytime you feel overwhelmed. If you’re in a conversation, excuse yourself to the bathroom. If you’re working, hit pause and lie down. If you’re watching a movie, turn it off.
Life for an empath can feel like a constant overload, so make a habit of taking breaks whenever you might need them. Or better yet, take breaks before you feel like you need them.
Action Step: Try setting your alarm to go off every 90 minutes, each one signifying a 5-minute break from whatever you’re doing.
Recognize that others’ feelings are not your responsibility
Everyone is responsible for their own feelings. If someone feels hurt, it is not your job to make them feel better, even if you believe you can.
And similarly, if you feel negatively impacted by another person’s pain, it’s not their fault that you are picking up on their feelings.
See if you can allow other people to be responsible for their own feelings while also taking responsibility for your ability to pick up on the feelings of others.
Action Step: The next time you notice yourself blaming another person for your feeling bad (because you sponged up their feelings), see if you can immediately reflect on the thought, “It’s not their fault that I am picking up their feelings. I am responsible for my empath antennae.”
Or the next time you notice yourself thinking, “I should help them with their feelings,” remind yourself, “Their feelings are their own responsibility.” If you have the capacity and they want you to help, you can. But it is not your responsibility to do so.
Take a media break
Notice what types of media impact you negatively. Is it local news? Social media? Movies?
In fact, too much exposure to negative news17https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8096381/ will make personal worries seem worse, create acute stress reactions akin to PTSD, and will even induce pessimism.
Action step: If there is a type of media that seems to particularly dysregulate you, plan a week to take a hiatus.
Try a Vow of Silence or a No Mirror Challenge
Sometimes it can be helpful to limit the number of inputs coming in and outputs going out. Attempt a vow of silence so you can focus just on listening. Our founder Vanessa Van Edwards tried a vow of silence and found it life-changing.
You can also try a no-mirror challenge where you do not look in the mirror for a few days or a week to practice being with your mind and not your body.
Try these meditation techniques
In this meditation, you will practice separating yourself from your environment. Many meditation practices aim to create more connection and merging, though as an empath, you are already quite connected and could likely benefit from the opposite!
Sit across from a candle (or any other object you can focus your gaze on). First, close your eyes and take a few breaths to connect with your body.
Then open your eyes and gaze at the candle. With every in-breath, imagine your separateness from the candle. Visualize yourself as a completely separate entity looking at the candle. Then on the out-breath, relax the separation and imagine merging with the candle. Try this for about 5 minutes.
Afterward, reflect on what you noticed.
You can also try this practice in a public place (like a park or cafe) and pick a person nearby to imagine separating from and then merging with.
If you’d like to practice even more intensely, try this practice with a partner while in eye contact.
Here is a visualization practice from Judith Orloff18https://drjudithorloff.com/5-protection-strategies-for-empaths/.
Sit or lay down and take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed. Then visualize a beautiful shield made of pink light about an inch or two away from your body that encompasses your entire body like a cocoon. Imagine that this shield “protects you from anything negative, stressful, toxic, or intrusive. Within the protection of this shield, feel yourself centered, happy, and energized.”
You can even summon this shield visualization whenever you feel uncomfortable with a person or situation.
Clipping energy cords visualization
As an empath, your feelers are constantly pointed outwards. Here’s a visualization practice you can try to turn your attention back inward.
Sit or lay down with your eyes closed. Imagine yourself as a dynamic field of energy. Waves of color and texture swirling in and around your body. Sit with that feeling and visual for a few moments.
Then bring to mind a person or situation pulling on your energy, and imagine a cord of your energy coming out of you and connecting with them. Notice how thick the cord is, what color and texture it is, and where it’s coming out of your body.
Then imagine that you snip that cord with a pair of magic scissors,, and your energy rushes back into your own body.
Take several breaths, basking in your own renewed energy.
Repeat this process for as many people or situations are pulling on your energy.
While empathy fatigues, compassion does not12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6005077/. In fact, researchers have found19https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23576808/ that practicing compassion can actually help people overcome empathic distress because it activates parts of the brain involved in dopamine rewards and oxytocin processes.
These researchers explain that empathy means “feeling with,” and compassion means “feeling for.”
The Buddhists, who have studied the topic for thousands of years, define compassion20http://ccare.stanford.edu/research/wiki/compassion-definitions/compassion/#:~:text=Compassion%20%E2%80%9CIn%20the%20classical%20teachings,in%20the%20face%20of%20suffering. as “The heart that can tremble in the face of suffering.” Put another way, compassion is the ability to remain in a seat of warmth, care, and love in the face of another’s pain.
When you are feeling compassion you do not reach outside of yourself to pull their emotions into you—you simply wish healing and happiness for them while staying in your center.
Action step: Try this five-minute (or less) meditation practice.
Sit or lay down with your eyes closed, and take a few deep breaths to settle into yourself.
Take a moment and connect with your heart—the part of you that feels warmth, care, and love.
Then bring to mind a friend of yours who is going through a challenging time. And silently repeat the thoughts: “I wish you strength. I wish you healing. I wish you happiness.” Feel free to adopt the words to whatever feels most suitable to you. As you are wishing your friend support, make sure to practice feeling for them, not with them
Do this practice with as many people in your life as you’d like.
You can also try this 2-minute compassion meditation from meditation teacher Miles Neale, PsyD.
FAQs About Empaths
Below are concise responses to some common questions people tend to have about empaths.
Some major signs of an empath are the ability to absorb others’ feelings, feeling overwhelmed by crowds and large groups, a desire to help others to feel better, experiencing frequent overwhelm, and a deep appreciation for nature.
If you relate with most or all of these signs, you might be an empath.
Empaths are very sensitive to their environment and to other people. They are often kind and caring and feel motivated to help others. Empaths are notoriously good listeners, and others will often naturally open up to them.
There is a difference between empaths and sensitive people. Both empaths and sensitive people can feel strongly impacted by their environment and easily become overwhelmed with sensory input. But empaths can feel others’ feelings in their own body, whereas sensitive rely on more traditional empathetic skills like assessing body language or imagining themself in others’ positions.
Because it’s so easy for empaths to merge with other people, they may fear losing their sense of self in relationships. Empaths are easily overwhelmed by others and may need a lot of space in connections, perhaps wanting to sleep in separate rooms or take frequent solo vacations. Many empaths struggle to communicate these needs and can find themselves feeling frequently overwhelmed in relationships.
One likely becomes an empath partially because of their genetics and partly because of their upbringing. Many empaths report growing up with a narcissistic or chaotic caregiver, so developing highly refined empath skills at a young age was necessary for survival.
Empaths often feel overwhelmed by social situations and sensory stimuli. Many empaths also struggle to voice their boundaries and needs in relationships and can fall into disempowered relational dynamics.
Empaths are unique in their ability to “sponge” others’ emotions. Just standing next to someone, an empath can pick up and feel what that person is feeling.
Moving Through Life as an Empath
Many empaths struggle with how overwhelming life can be. But if you are an empath, recognizing this will allow you to embrace the fullness of your gifts and move gracefully through the challenges that come with your gifts.
If you are an empath, try out some of these tips and practices:
- Make a mantra out of “no thank you.” When you can feel yourself starting to take on someone’s emotions, just say “no thank you” and return the energy to where it came
- Study your feelings. Try taking notes every morning on your feelings and the associated physical sensations
- Challenge yourself to go a week without helping others
- Think about a boundary in your life you’ve been too afraid to set, and then share that boundary with the person
- Practice mindfulness meditation, where you curiously observe your emotions
- Next time someone invites you to a social engagement, pause and reflect inward before responding
- Reflect on which relationships are giving you energy and which are draining you, and see if you can distance yourself from the draining connections
- Spend two hours in nature this week
- Either purchase a pet or offer to petsit for a friend
- Get quality earplugs and a lightproof sleeping mask so you can retreat from your senses
- Think about a relationship where you are holding back from sharing your needs, and then state your needs
- If you catch yourself either blaming someone else for your empath abilities or taking responsibility for their feelings, take a pause and remember that everyone is responsible for their own feelings
- Think about which type of media impacts you the most, and then take a week break from it
- Try a meditation where you either practice seeing yourself as separate from another object, or where you visualize yourself in a pink shield protected from the world, or where you cut the energy cords connecting you to other people so you can go inward
Being an empath can be a difficult road, but it is ultimately a blessing that makes your life more rich and more beautiful and allows you to connect deeply with others. Once you learn how to navigate the overwhelming parts, you can harness your superpower and share your gifts with the world.
If you’d like to study empathy further, you can read about empathy fatigue here.
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