What is an Empath? A Guide To Thriving as a Highly Sensitive Person
What is an empath? Here is a definitive guide to thriving as a highly sensitive person (with 13 actionable steps).
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. So what is an empath, and how do they compare to the average person? Typically, there are two definitions of an empath.
The psychological definition of the term empath is someone who experiences an above-average level of empathy, sometimes to the extent of recognizing the negative emotions of others in such a way as to take on that negative energy themselves, sometimes suffering along with them. In spiritual circles, an emotional empath is someone with special, psychic abilities and a developed sense of intuition.
This article will explore all there is to know about empaths, from the psychological and spiritual aspects. Are you unsure if you’re an empath, and looking for further explanation? Or do you know someone who is highly sensitive and you’re looking for ways to further understand them and their world? This extensive guide will cover all there is to know, including 13 actionable steps on how empaths can thrive.
What does it mean to be an empath?
According to the psychiatrist and empath expert Dr. Judith Orloff, “the trademark of an empath is feeling and absorbing other people’s emotions and, or, physical symptoms because of their high sensitivities.”
Because empaths are highly sensitive people, they “filter the world through intuition.” Such sensitivity can be both a blessing and a curse — empaths are often highly creative and experience life vibrantly, yet can become overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges.
In spiritual terms, human empathy isn’t just a quirk of our nature, but a sacred gift. Many empaths are viewed as lightworkers or healers, able to support others in transforming difficult emotions or working through trauma. To get to that point, empaths have to go through a process of healing, sometimes referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul.
The link between highly sensitive people and empathy
Clinical psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD, has been researching high sensitivity since 1991. Her exploration has led to her writing a number of books related to the phenomena, including the million-copy seller, The Highly Sensitive Person.
Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, have a trait known scientifically as sensory-processing sensitivity. Interestingly, 15 to 20 percent of the population fall under this category, meaning it isn’t a disorder.
Because HSPs are more sensitive to their surroundings, they have access to an abundance of information, and can experience levels of subtlety that are usually easy to miss by others. While this can lead to a profound sense of the beauty of nature, or high emotional intelligence, the downside is that this can be incredibly overwhelming, especially in crowds or noisy environments.
There are four traits of HSPs, and only one of them is linked to empathy, meaning not all HSPs are empaths. The traits are:
- Depth of processing: HSPs typically absorb lots of information (everything from subtle human facial expressions to an overall energy) and process it on a deep level.
- Overstimulation: Because HSPs are highly tuned into their environment, but this can lead to a lack of healthy boundaries with exterior stimuli, making it easy to become overwhelmed.
- Empathy (emotional reactivity): The same level of sensitivity applies to detecting and sensing the emotions of others.
- Sensitivity to subtleties: HSPs notice subtleties of their environment, from non-verbal cues to intricacies of sensory information.
It’s worth noting that Aron’s research has led to a better scientific understanding of high sensitivity, including evidence of differences in brain processes. Any empath that qualifies as an HSP might find some relief in this knowledge, as they may have been raised to believe that what they were sensing was in their imagination, or that they were too sensitive or easily moved.
Want to know more? Here are six key habits of highly empathetic people.
Are empaths real?
There has been debate around the validity of true empaths, people who are able to genuinely feel other people’s pain or emotions as their own, especially with the rise of this being viewed as a “superpower”. Most empaths are self-labeled, and can’t point to peer-reviewed studies that back up their claims. However, in recent years, there has been a growing amount of scientific research into the concept. Some of this research estimates around 1 to 2 percent of the population report an empathic ability. A 2007 paper in Nature Neuroscience, by Michael Banissy and Jamie Ward, linked mirror-touch synaesthesia — when someone watches someone else be touched and feels it themselves — with greater emotion ratings and empathy.
Other studies have found evidence for mirror neurons, parts of the brain that activate when witnessing someone else’s state or experience. For example, if someone you love feels pain, mirror neurons could be responsible for allowing resonance with the pain. Empaths are particularly sensitive in this respect.
Part of the challenge of proving empathic ability is a mainstream, material worldview that doesn’t have space to logically “prove” some forms of communication. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t influenced by other people’s emotions or state. A wealth of scientific research shows all sorts of fascinating connections, such as heart rates and brain waves synchronizing in audiences, from musical performances to theatre.
In addition, the HeartMath Institute has spent decades researching the electromagnetic fields of the human heart and brain. Not only are these fields detectable, but can be affected by the Earth and Sun. Could empaths be more sensitive to this form of communication? There’s still much to explore scientifically, but for many people, this is a big part of their lived experience.
Common empath traits according to Judith Orloff
If you’re still understanding what it means to be a member of the empath community, the 10 common empath traits listed below will provide a richer overview of how this could appear in your life.
These are taken from Judiff Orloff’s book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People:
- Empaths are highly sensitive: Empaths are great listeners and support systems due to their ability to understand and connect, but they’re also more likely to experience emotional extremes.
- Empaths absorb other people’s feelings and emotions: Perhaps the biggest giveaway, empaths are highly attuned to the feelings of others.
- Many empaths are introverted: Because of their sensitivity, many empaths prefer time alone or quieter forms of interaction.
- Empaths are highly intuitive: A lot of empath’s skills are beyond rationality or logic. Instead, empaths are gifted with high intuition and gut feelings.
- Empaths need alone time: In addition to being introverts, many empaths need solitude to recharge their batteries.
- Empaths can become overwhelmed in intimate relationships: There can be a fine line between empathy and codependency. High sensitivity makes for the extra vulnerability of relationships more demanding.
- Empaths are targets for energy vampires: The receptivity of empaths makes them prone to experiencing relationships with so-called “energy vampires” (a term I’m not convinced by, personally) or those who drain energy.
- Empaths become replenished in nature: Although there’s growing evidence that nature benefits everyone, empaths may find extra benefits due to the overwhelm of busy, day-to-day life.
- Empaths have highly tuned senses: Sensitivity applies to the senses, in addition to emotions.
- Empaths have huge hearts but sometimes give too much: Due to their extra-sensory ability to empathize, empaths are generally kind-hearted, but can often become imbalanced by overstretching themselves or taking on too much responsibility.
There are more empath traits outside of Orloff’s list. Due to high intuition, empaths usually sense when something is “off” with people or situations, or might see through people’s lies or deception. Because of their levels of intuition, empaths are easily able to connect to others on a heart-based level, as well as animals, the Earth, and the wider cosmos.
Away from personal relationships, empaths are often drawn to the existential or “higher power” (something widely circulated in spiritual communities). All of these tendencies can make for a fulfilled life, or overwhelm. Part of the empath’s challenge is to integrate their sensing capabilities and, if that way inclined, find a wider meaning in their lives.
The shadow of empathy
I consume a lot of content, including empathy quotes. In addition to my personal experience, something my work exposes me to is not only to peer-reviewed research, psychological theories, and ancient wisdom, but also blog posts, social media, and the general zeitgeist of pop psychology. In a world of increasing polarization, certain narratives have formed around the empath, especially in opposition to “the narcissist.”
Why this is problematic won’t be unpacked fully here. But I do wish to touch upon the shadow side of empathy. In psychology, the Dark Triad was discovered in 2002 by Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams. This covers the “dark” personality traits of narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism).
However, research has discovered the “dark empath,” a personality trait that mixes the above with empathy. “A dark empath may actually be more dangerous than a more cold and unfeeling dark triad type, because the so-called dark empath can draw you in closer—and do more harm as a result,” clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD told Well + Good. “The closer you are to someone, the more you can hurt them.”
That’s not to view empathy itself as bad. The crucial distinction is that this type of “dark” empathy means some people might cognitively understand someone’s point of view or emotional state, but lack a desire to help or support. This form of cognitive empathy is distinct from affective empathy, the capacity to resonate with other’s emotions, in a way that promotes ease.
The purpose of highlighting this is to illustrate that humans are much more complex than binary labels. Empathy is one of the finest qualities of humanity, it breeds togetherness, service, and the desire to create a better world. Yet, even then, it’s not only used with good intentions. On the flip side, occasional narcissistic behaviors don’t instantly equate to pathological disorders.
The call to action here is to be wary. Of course, emotional abuse or harmful behaviour doesn’t have to be tolerated. And, yes, some people absolutely take advantage of kind-heartedness, consciously or unconsciously. But keep an open mind, and try to avoid snap judgments of others. The ability to always seek to understand, and to hold nuances and paradoxes, are all hallmarks of a thriving empath.
Action steps: using empathetic skills for good
Okay, here we are, where the magic happens. Being an empath isn’t easy, especially in the modern world of sensory overload. But that doesn’t mean things can’t change. High levels of sensitivity have to be honored and treated tenderly at times. At other times, they have to be transcended and overcome.
A self-care routine is crucial, including tools to help you familiarize with your extra-sensing capabilities, and a healthy container to thrive. Below are 13 steps to help you transform your empathic skills, so you are in control of them, rather than them having a hold over you:
1. Accept your levels of sensitivity
A lot of empaths resist their sensitivity. It can be perceived as undesirable, wrong, or pathological. Maybe you’re a person that has experienced your sensitivity as affecting relationships, or feel as if you don’t belong. A powerful first step is to accept the ways you aren’t “normal” or see or experience life differently from others.
What ways do you resist your sensitivity? Are there any ways this sensitivity offers an added layer of depth to life?
2. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Many empaths struggle to set boundaries. Because of an enhanced receptivity to other’s emotions, setting emotional boundaries is an essential skill. “A key to setting boundaries is to come from a centered, unemotional, place—not to be reactive,” writes Orloff. Initially, getting this balance right is tricky.
When I first started setting boundaries, I did so from a place of fear. I’m sure over time I’ve been too abrupt, but it’s all part of the learning process. Whilst open-heartedness is a gift, there is a shadow — by overextending or acting from obligation, you might develop resentment towards people.
Instead, by learning how to say no or clearly state your needs, you’ll have more energy for yourself, and in turn, be able to better support those you love.
3. Get comfortable saying ‘no’
One of the toughest parts of setting boundaries is saying no. As Orloff says, no is a complete sentence. This might be a no to requests for your time, or it might be a no in response to someone who regularly dominates interactions with their problems or always looks for your help or advice, without offering support in return.
In the beginning, it might feel like a “no” is rude. It’s not, it’s just not what you’re used to if you’ve spent all your life pleasing others! On that note…
4. Let go of people-pleasing
People-pleasing and empathy go hand-in-hand. After all, if you’re always sensing others’ emotions, wouldn’t you want to do all you can to help that person feel better? The overlap is that, as an empath, you might start taking too much responsibility for how another person feels.
That doesn’t mean you have to let go of supporting others. But be aware of certain dynamics that exploit your high sensitivity, such as guilt-tripping or anger. The more you create boundaries, the more choice you have to respond productively.
5. Work on emotional regulation
Emotional regulation is a broad topic, but for an empath, there are a few key practices. The first is using mindfulness to explore the feelings and sensations in the body. Learning to accept the presence of emotions allows for greater space reduces the impulse to run away, or become completely wrapped up in them.
The benefits are twofold. Not only will you better understand your own emotions, you won’t be thrown off balance when sensing the emotions of others. As an additional step, learning various energy moving techniques is worthwhile. The goal isn’t to completely sanitize emotions, but to allow them to move, freely and organically, through you.
6. Know you don’t have to feel the world’s pain
Emotional regulation is more challenging for empaths because many share the suffering of humanity, or the Earth, or the wider universe. With war, inequality, hate, and injustice in the world, it’s understandable to feel consumed by suffering, and end up taking on the world’s pain.
However, there is a balance. Having compassion for others is one of the finest qualities of the human spirit, yet if it starts to overwhelm you, or cause you to be unable to help others, or yourself, there’s work to be done. Part of this is accepting that you don’t have to feel the world’s pain. Not feeling the world’s pain doesn’t mean you don’t care.
Buddhism is a fantastic source of wisdom around working with suffering, both individual and collective. The meditation practice of tonglen serves this exact purpose, allowing you to connect to the suffering of others, whilst giving love, compassion, and happiness back. As Pema Chödrön explains:
“In the in-breath you breathe in with the wish to take away the suffering, and breathe out with the wish to send comfort and happiness to the same people, animals, nations, or whatever it is you decide. Do this for an individual, or do this for large areas, and if you do this with more than one subject in mind, that’s fine… breathing in as fully as you can, radiating out as widely as you can.”
The idea isn’t just to take on the suffering of others but to transmute it, from pain into compassion. Incidentally, the HeartMath Institute have found that states such as compassion and love reflect in heart rate coherency, and can influence others — this is far from a passive exercise.
7. Develop your intuition
Empaths are highly intuitive. However, many empaths aren’t given the tools or understanding to develop their intuition, as modern society prompts logic, reason, and intellect over gut feelings or instinct. Fully embracing your intuitive abilities is a key factor in thriving as an empath.
Developing intuition is a process of regaining trust. Intuition is a type of wisdom, outside of the mind. It’s often illogical or irrational, and it’s innate. The skill is mostly connecting with how intuition appears to you — what does it feel like? Where can you locate it?
Intuition is calm and slow and certain. You have to clear away a lot of false beliefs and distortions, and calm the mind, to fully access it. But as you do, you’ll learn to work with intuition. You’ll know when to follow it, and allow it to become a trusted guide.
8. Know your authentic comfort zone
The first step, accepting you’re an empath, is required to also gain a genuine insight into your comfort zone. You may feel there are certain ways you “should” or “shouldn’t” feel. However, with high sensitivity, there will be certain challenges. Take, for example, being overwhelmed in crowds — for some, this won’t even be a second thought. But for an empath, attending a demonstration or going to a music concert is a bigger deal.
Your comfort zone will always increase if you keep making efforts to push the boundaries. But start from where you are, and appreciate you have specific traits that make some day-to-day activities more challenging. Embrace your sensitivity, and don’t forget to celebrate successes that to you are meaningful.
9. Focus on grounding techniques
A big part of energetic work is to find ways that ground you. By being highly sensitive, it’s easy to become dizzy by the world’s sights and sounds, and movements. Grounding is a way to regain balance, find your center, and introduce inner calm.
These practices vary, from meditations focusing on the body (such as visualizing roots from the bottom of your feet into the Earth) or activities that help you feel calm and connected. Most grounding techniques include focusing on the five senses, to bring yourself back to the present.
10. Avoid “emotional blame”
Opening up your intuition and sensing others’ emotions is an enriching journey that can lead to deeper relationships. However, there’s a potential setback: blaming people for the way they feel. Blame is an unhelpful mechanism. It avoids self-accountability and creates a sense of powerlessness.
Blame occurs in a multitude of ways, but for empaths, there’s an additional flavor — emotional blame. And by this, I mean picking up on someone else’s emotion and blaming them for the emotion being present.
This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least that, a lot of the time, people are unaware of their own feelings! When overwhelmed by others’ emotions it’s easy to build resentment. But this isn’t an empowered state. Instead, relinquish blame by focusing on self-compassion and tonglen, and continue to practice emotional regulation.
11. Understand self-limiting narratives
Having grown up highly sensitive, it’s likely you will have established a certain relationship with sensitivity. This has to be explored to be understood. For example, you might have a narrative that you’ll never be able to feel comfortable in crowds or a belief your sensitivity is a curse.
Feeling other people’s emotions is distinct from storylines. What does this mean? Well, the somatic, embodied experience is distinct and free from judgments of good or bad, right or wrong. Although you may intuit a meaning or reason behind the emotion, the storyline the ego creates from these emotions shouldn’t be taken as truth.
The storyline can be distorted or filtered through your own trauma, or relationship to certain emotions. For example, let’s say you struggle with anxiety. When detecting anxiety in someone, you may feel impatient, and notice storylines such as “why can’t they calm down” or “this person’s anxiety is putting me off balance.” You might even begin to try and pinpoint the why for their anxiousness or project frustration.
The practice is to let go, focus on the feelings and sensations, and become aware of any storylines that appear, without taking them as truth. From this place, there is scope to communicate. In my relationship, I pick up on my partner’s emotions frequently. Rather than make assumptions, I ask if everything is okay, by explaining “I’m sensing x, y, z, but I could be misunderstood.”
12. Know the emotions of others aren’t your fault, but are your responsibility
You are responsible for everything that manifests in your consciousness. The “advanced work” of an empath is to understand that, as soon as you sense someone else’s emotions, they’re your responsibility. That doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to help others every time you absorb emotion. It means that you are ultimately responsible and have a choice of how to react, rather than blaming or rejecting their presence.
The moment you feel someone else’s anger, for example, it becomes a part of you. Your choice is how you respond to the experience of the emotion. If someone is angry but isn’t behaving in a damaging way, you might wish to be present to the anger, and ask if there is a way you can help. Of course, if someone starts to project (such as being passive-aggressive) you then have a choice to set boundaries.
I can tell when emotions aren’t mine, but it took time. Often, they have a different “flavor.” I ask myself: is this my emotion? Just asking this question allows the emotion to move through me and dissolve, and that’s when I know for sure it’s not mine. On the other hand, there are times when emotions persist, and I realize I have something to explore and unpick within myself.
On an additional note, there’s a risk of projecting your emotions onto others. This is another pitfall of identifying as “an empath.” You might end up not taking responsibility for your emotions by blaming everyone else — you’re just absorbing theirs! This link between absorbing and psychological projection is one to explore and discover.
13. Spend time in nature
Finally, another powerful grounding technique for empaths is Mother Nature herself. Finding a place with plenty of greenery, away from traffic or the rush of the day-to-day, time focused on a screen. The benefits of nature are widely documented, with increasing research for just how beneficial time in nature is.
The Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a great example. The practice is becoming completely present to the experience of the first, of slowing down and tuning into the senses. Dr. Qing Li, author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing, offers practical guidance:
Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.
The final step in the path of thriving as an empath is to let go of the label of being an empath. Why, having understood more about who you are, would you want to let go of the label of “empath”?
Labels serve a purpose, they don’t define your entire identity. There is a risk of forming an ego around being an empath, manifesting in ways such as a sense of superiority (I’m more caring than others) or victimhood (no one respects my sensitivity), or the shadow elements of empathy, mentioned above.
When the ego is involved, genuine empathic abilities aren’t being fully utilized. The journey of uncovering your talents and gifts, and knowing how to integrate the challenges that come with high sensitivity, is a personal one. That means unlearning beliefs about who you are, even the belief you’re an empath!
By applying the above tools, you’ll be more grounded and be able to get your sensitivity on your side. You’ll develop your intuition, collaborate with emotions, all boost self-awareness. Your gifts will rise to the surface, and you may even find yourself drawn to helping others, or doing “light work.”
Learn how to use the label skilfully to provide understanding, to integrate your sensitivity, to grow. But don’t become overly attached to the concept of being an empath — you are you, and all your empathic abilities are just part of a much, much more expansive universe of uniqueness.