I have many high school memories of dealing with panic attacks that I now realize were in part the result of my being an empath. I would sit in my classes, overwhelmed by the realization that each person had their own inner thoughts, feelings and sensations and it was almost like a magnetic pull to want to know what was going on with them and feelings of concern that they might be struggling somehow. Walking down the crowded halls produced even more anxiety as my mind could not wrap itself around all the souls with their own inner worlds. I couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t feeling the way I was. I felt like a freak.
It turns out that I apparently was born an empath. It was not something I chose, and I assumed that this was just the way all people experienced life until I realized I wasn’t fitting in with others who could not understand my fascination. Family and friends often told me I was way too sensitive, as if there was some way to turn that off. I learned that I was calmer when by myself but that led to extreme loneliness and isolation. Eventually I learned it was better to have a few close friends and to avoid crowds of people. Learning now about the world of the empath helps me to at least understand, appreciate and accept my feelings and to set some boundaries in my own mind for self protection.
According to the website verywell mind “An empath is a person highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around them. Their ability to discern what others are feeling goes beyond empathy (defined simply as the ability to understand the feelings of others) and extends to actually taking those feelings on; feeling what another person is feeling at a deep emotional level.”
I was recently introduced to Angela Boswell, author of The Educated Empath: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Sensitive Souls for Self-Care, Protection, and Healing. Upon meeting Angela, we resonated with each other like long-lost friends. While there are dozens of books describing and exploring empathy and empaths, Boswell’s book easily helps the reader gain clarity about the experiences of the typical empath. She also offers very practical suggestions for managing and celebrating the many attributes empaths typically possess. If you want to learn the basics to increase your understanding of empaths, I highly recommend this as a foundational book.
Research says that true empaths are rare: approximately 5% of the population. Anyone can work on becoming more empathetic but you can’t decide to become a true empath which means you experience a continual heightened sensitivity and what many call intuition in experiencing what is going on for others.
Once I realized I am an empath, I now appreciate how this enhances my abilities to actively listen to others, putting into words what I can sense is going on for them. It is an amazing relationship builder! I am grateful for this very positive aspect of being an empath.
Conversely, there can be a lot of pain associated with vicariously experiencing the feelings of others, especially those feelings that overwhelm and cause pain such as grief, anxiety and depression. It can be very difficult to set and maintain boundaries when my empathic thoughts and feelings cause me to experience the grief, anxiety and depression of others. Sometimes I literally have to walk away, and try to turn off my brain. Often I share with a friend who also is an empath just to have a safe sounding board to discharge feelings and process experiences.
In my previous blog entitled The Power We Have To Prevent PTSD I shared information from the book Compassionomics. In this book the authors differentiated between empathy and compassion, noting that compassion is “the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering, involving an authentic desire to help them” whereas empathy is feeling for another person’s pain or other emotions. When a person is being empathetic, it impacts the activated pain centers in their brain. When someone is demonstrating compassion which involves actions to try to reduce another person’s suffering, a very different part of their brain is activated: the reward pathway associated with affiliation and positive emotion. My conclusion is that empaths are not automatically compassionate: they may stay with the vicarious pain they are experiencing but are not necessarily demonstrating actions to help alleviate that pain as happens when one is compassionate. The good news is one can learn to be compassionate as a result of what they appreciate as an empath.
After speaking at length with Angela Boswell and then doing my own research on empaths I was deeply impressed with the many complexities of being an empath and the various ways empaths experience and demonstrate this human trait.
If this resonates with your life experiences, you too might be an empath. Or you might recognize someone in your life who seems to get overwhelmed emotionally when others are experiencing strong emotions. Learning these basics can help you when you are interacting with those who are very sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
Invitation for Reflection
- Are you or is someone you know an empath? What are some of the characteristics you or they display that make you think this is true?
- What are some of the specific pros and cons of being an empath you have experienced and/or observed?
- What extra support do you or others who are empaths need? How can you offer them?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Educational Network