I’m an empath.
Most people look at this word with confusion or curiosity. Empath? And? I suppose that’s a positive. If I had said I’m clairvoyant or I have psychic powers, chances are you wouldn’t have made it this far down the page. But empath? That’s relatively “normal” enough to still be intriguing.
To be clear, empaths are not the same as clairvoyants or psychics. The word empath is derived from empathy, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”
Empaths, then, are fine-tuned to the experiences and emotions of those around them: people, animals, and even the natural world.
We generally perceive having empathy as a good thing. And it is. But empaths have so much of it, it can often be debilitating, affecting a person’s ability to function happily and productively in society. Thus, much like pimpin’, being an empath ain’t easy.
I didn’t always know I was an empath. This was a term introduced to me by a fellow blogger, Mamawolfe, with whom I used to interact more frequently when I blogged under a different pseudonym. She, too, is an empath and, like me, a bit nervous about admitting it for fear of being labeled crazy. It wasn’t until I read an article she sent my way that I realized all those things I understood as being “wrong” with me or as me just being too sensitive my whole life were actually symptoms of my extreme empathy.
There are very few credible sources about empaths available on the free Web. Most of what you’ll find if you conduct a search are personal blog posts like this one. Still, I encourage you to check them out to get a variety of information and experiences related to empaths, for what follows is strictly my personal experience as an empath.
With that said, are you wondering what it’s like to be an empath or if you are one yourself? Here’s a look into my life and the characteristics that define me as one.
Characteristics of an Empath
I am a sensitive person. Overly sensitive. I’ve learned to manage this sensitivity in adulthood, but it wasn’t always so easy for me. I actually remember sitting in a classroom in high school and wishing I weren’t so sensitive — so prone to crying for seemingly no reason at all. It was a major personality problem in my estimation, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it go away.
This sensitivity can be unchecked and overpowering. I have cried at grocery store commercials, TV shows, books, movies, and stories in the news. If someone I know suffers misfortune — loss of a loved one, for example — I feel it. What’s even stranger, if someone I don’t know — such as the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting or the Oklahoma tornado that ripped through two schools — suffers a tragedy, I feel it even more, becoming overwhelmed with what I like to call “the feelings”, often bursting into tears or obsessing about how terrible the victims must feel and what I wouldn’t give to be able to make it better for them. And these reactions are not unique to the experiences of other people. If I hear of a dog being abused or tortured, for example, I feel sick about what it must have gone through. Moreover, while reading Water for Elephants, for instance, I felt an indescribable desire to punish the person responsible for abusing the elephant in the story. Most recently, I had a breakdown after taking my kids to the circus, for I couldn’t emotionally handle how sad and inhumane the treatment of those animals must be.
As part of my extreme sensitivity, I have an aversion to reality-based violence in film, on TV, and in video games (something I rarely encounter). Interestingly, however, I do enjoy crime dramas such as Law and Order and Burn Notice, though I suspect it’s because these present a very sanitized view of violence and crime. I will say that I have noticed increasing displays of violence in some of the shows I watch, though, which has soured my enjoyment of these programs.
In short, I adopt the emotional turmoil of characters on TV or in books, of those around me, and of those in the news as if it were my own and suffer or mourn in a manner consistent with someone who has experienced the trauma first hand.
Ability to “Read” People
I have a knack for figuring out a person’s true feelings or motives. What I mean by this is I can generally tell if a person is pretending to feel or be one way on the outside while really feeling or being another way on the inside. I’m not always 100% correct (or maybe I am), but I’m pretty close.
My husband often thinks I’m just making things up or being paranoid. I disagree. For example, in a social situation, I can usually pick up on people who are “fake” in their interaction with or treatment of others. I can tell, for example, if someone I’m chatting with or hanging around doesn’t really like me or another person despite outward appearances. I can usually sense if someone is lying (though I consistently question the accuracy of my perceptions and don’t always act on them). Most notably, I can “feel” if someone is a “bad person”.
I would say my latter ability is the scariest of all, though I like to think it’s saved me from some unsavory experiences in my life. These sensations that people are “bad” usually happen in public, at the mall or the grocery store, for instance, but they have also occurred upon meeting friends or acquaintances of friends. On numerous occasions, I have been standing in the checkout line of a store or walking to my car in a parking lot only to be overpowered by a sudden feeling of malevolence. In these cases, I’ll look around in an attempt to pinpoint the source of the sinister vibes, and I’m almost always able to zero in on the offending person or circumstance.
One of the most unsettling of these experiences occurred recently while I was alone at the grocery store with my children in tow. There was a man behind us in line with a little girl (presumably his daughter). Something about him just wasn’t right. As we walked out to our car with him and the girl close behind, my uneasiness intensified enough to unleash adrenaline into my veins and a feeling of fight or flight into my primitive brain. I kept a close watch on him as he packed the child (who in no way seemed anxious or upset) into the back of his car (without a booster seat, which I found odd) and eventually drove away, at which point my shaking subsided, my heartbeat relaxed, and my body came down from its adrenaline high.
Was he a “bad person”? I don’t know. But I’m glad my senses were attune enough that I didn’t have to find out.
Ability to Tell That Something Is Happening or Will Happen
Much like my ability to “read” people, I can also “read” situations. I can “feel” events that are happening in close proximity to me (either physically or emotionally, as in happening to a loved one). This in no way means I’m clairvoyant or psychic, nor does it mean I can “feel” every event or situation (in fact, I’d say my ability to do so is rare in the grand scheme of everyday life); rather, it means I have a heightened intuition at times.
Two events stand out to me: the time I “felt” that something bad was happening, only to learn my dad had awoken to screaming and found a man abusing a woman in the field next to our house; and the time I knew my grandfather had passed away before anyone told me.
In the case of the first event, I had no idea what was going on except that a sense of dread and fear came over me. I was in high school and on the phone with my boyfriend late into the night when I first sensed that something was wrong. I told him simply that something bad was going to happen but that I didn’t know what, to which he replied that I was crazy. The next morning, my parents told me that my dad had been awoken by bloodcurdling screams (I had not heard them), had run downstairs to my bedroom to see if it was me, and had then followed the sound to the field beside our house where he discovered a man and a woman in a car parked on our private property. The woman looked terrified and as though she had been beaten. When my dad asked her if she was OK, the man sped away, at which time my dad called the cops. I have no idea whatever became of the woman, but I do know that a few days later, police found a woman’s body in another field in the county. Coincidence? Probably. But maybe not.
In the case of the second event, I was also in high school and had been out and spent the night at my best friend’s house before she brought me back home early the next morning on her way to work. The sun had just risen and was extremely bright and warm on that drive — enough so to make an impression on me. I went back to sleep after she dropped me off and awoke when my mother and grandmother entered my room. They told me my grandfather had passed away early that morning, and all I could say was, “I know.” Somehow, without anyone having told me, I simply knew. Perhaps it was the feeling of warmth and peace on that early morning drive that implanted the knowledge. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with empathy at all; perhaps it was just the oddity of seeing the two of them in my bedroom together that triggered my understanding.
Need for Solitude
I am a very social person in that I crave interaction with others. I love hanging out with friends and family; loathe being a SAHM, preferring to work instead; and thrive at social gatherings like bars and parties. Oddly, however, I also crave alone time and am not quick to become chummy with someone whom I’ve just met. In essence, I would characterize myself as an extroverted introvert, if there is such a thing.
It’s hard to describe what being around others is like. It’s almost as if I feed off their energy — as if their energy is a drug to which I’m addicted. I feel abuzz with stimulation when I am around people I like and am comfortable with. I experience something akin to a high when I’m with people whose presence I enjoy, so much so that when an event or vacation ends, I go through withdrawals, feeling an overwhelming sadness or dread that the good time has come to an end.
Conversely, I feel heavy — almost like I’m moving under water — when I’m around people I don’t like or am not comfortable with. It’s as if I take on their negative energy as my own, unable to shake the feeling of being weighed down or of being unhappy in their presence.
In either circumstance, I am easily drained and often turn to stimulants, such as caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol to assuage the intensity of the experience and refocus the source of stimulation from outside me to inside me. As much as I might not want the party to end, I need it to end. I need to refuel and recharge. Similarly, I need time away from energy vampires, who are “people whose influence leaves a person feeling exhausted, unfocused, and depressed.” As a teacher, I encounter the best and worst of both types of people, and it leaves me physically and emotionally crippled by the end of the week. It’s not uncommon for me to sleep an inordinate number of hours on the weekends and to want to lock myself up with my thoughts for a few hours without interruption from family and friends.
Additionally, as much as I relish interacting with people, I am hesitant to discuss “the feelings” with them. I don’t like to cry in front of others, for example, nor do I like it when people cry in front of me. I have a hard time consoling people, which, to some, may make me seem cold and awkward. In reality, I think it’s a defense mechanism. Because I know just how strongly I take on others’ emotions and how crushing that can sometimes be for me, I believe I try to avoid it at all costs. This aversion to “the feelings” doesn’t always hold true with people whom I know well and love, though. With them, I am more willing and even eager to be emotionally open.
Susceptibility to Anxiety and Depression
As an absorber of others’ emotions and energy, I am prone to anxiety and, on less frequent occasions, depression. I suffer from a constant state of worry, incessantly pondering the what-ifs of life and playing out fantasies of how I would cope with the misfortunes of others were they to happen to me — the sudden loss of a parent or, unimaginably, a child; the loss of a job or financial stability; the loss of a home or ability to provide my family with food. I have slipped into depression in the past, though this is not a constant and usually accompanies a difficult life event, such as my challenging pregnancy or my son’s traumatic birth.
Thanks to my recent recognition of my troubles with anxiety, I am on medication to manage it, which makes a host of things easier for me: sleeping, coping with taking on others’ feelings and/or tragedies, and interacting with energy vampires, to name a few.
While the characteristics presented above are in no way exhaustive of the things I experience as an empath and are in no way representative of the experiences of all empaths, they do offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be one. Are you or is someone you know an empath? Do you suspect you might be? I do not have all the answers as I’m relatively new to the discovery myself, but I’d love to hear about your experiences.