From an early age, I felt that I was different. I had a great deal of emotional pain as a child and was often told by my mother and other adults that I was just sensitive and to get over it. I preferred to be alone and did not like to be outside. I didn’t like to watch TV shows or movies and could not bear watching the news. Being around adults was the most difficult, and I would often get headaches or other physical ailments. It was many years before I figured out that what I was feeling wasn’t always my own, and that the cause of these issues was a gift and not a curse.
Today, I identify as an empath. And that goes further than having empathy for others, according to Judith Orloff, M.D., a psychiatrist, self-described empath and a pioneer in the field of study of empaths.
Having empathy, for most people, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, according to the Oxford Dictionary. However, empaths “actually feel others’ emotions in our own bodies, without the usual defenses that most people have,” Orloff writes in her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.
You may have seen references to empaths in recent years: For instance, you can take a Buzzfeed quiz to find out if you are an empath. The gift also has also been simplified on social media — I am a member of a Facebook group for empaths that has over four million members — and in popular culture, such as with character May Boatwright in the book and movie The Secret Life of Bees.
I learned to identify myself as an empath once I accepted that I was feeling the emotions of others, even those I did not know personally. Although I had been living with these feelings for my entire life, I had never heard the term “empath” until I was in my early 20s. It felt really good to finally have an explanation for what I was going through. From there, I was able to do research with the understanding that I had a rare and unique gift, and I no longer felt that there was something wrong with me.
Common Traits of Empaths
Some of the most common traits of empaths, according to Orloff’s work, are being highly sensitive, absorbing other people’s emotions, introversion, being highly intuitive, being easily overwhelmed and sometimes giving too much to others.
For example, in 2009 I was in a crowded bar and began to feel the overwhelming anxiety and anger of a man several tables away. I experienced it as personal feelings of anger and anxiety, as if they were my own. I was immediately terrified and knew that he wanted to hurt someone. His body language and facial expression matched the emotions that I was feeling, increasing my fear. Before I had the chance to leave, the man pulled out a gun and shot another man, who turned out to be the husband of the woman he was in love with. For years, I lived with his pain, the wife’s pain and the guilt of thinking that I could have done something to prevent this tragedy.
Self-Care for Empaths
So what can we do to make life as an empath a little easier? I reached out to Orloff for guidance. She suggests newly awakened empaths begin by taking her free 20-question assessment, which will help empaths narrow their specific challenges and triggers.
“The key to self-care is to quickly recognize the first signs of sensory overload or when you start absorbing negativity of stress from others,” Orloff notes in her “5 Protection Strategies for Empaths” guide. In short, know when to get out of a situation that may be difficult. Other techniques that Orloff describes on this list include shielding visualization (creating an invisible shield between yourself and others), clearly defining and expressing your relationship needs to others, setting energetic boundaries at work and home and preventing empathy overload by recognizing the signs and retreating.
I have found that once physical and emotional barriers are in place, it becomes much easier to distinguish between my emotions and those of others. Now I can choose when to allow the emotions of others in (for help and healing purposes) and when to block them out.
“Once they have self-care tools, empaths can stop absorbing the pain of others and the world — and start enjoying their many gifts such as intuition, a loving heart, creativity and deep empathy,” Orloff wrote to me in an email.
In my experience, when properly understood and managed, being an empath can be a gift in the healing fields and others. For example, I am a librarian and have mastered how to use my gift to provide caring services and programming for my patrons.
How Loved Ones Can Help
From my personal experience as an empath, and from my relationships with fellow empaths, I have found that friends, family members and partners of empaths also can offer support. If you know an empath, or suspect you do, try not to minimize the empath’s feelings or try to fix them. If you’re not an empath, you likely won’t fully understand what it is like to be one. But you can still have empathy.
- Give empaths space to recharge. How much space they need will be up to the individual. For me, it is OK to ask.
- Be understanding if they cancel plans because they are too overwhelmed. If this continues to happen, it may be helpful to ask what they would prefer to do instead, as the types of activities that are planned may be overwhelming to them.
- Do not try and force them into doing things that make them uncomfortable, such as going to events with large crowds.
- Be open and available. In the end, a simple, “I’m here if you want to talk,” can work wonders.