What Is an Empath? From Self-Discovery to Self-Acceptance

What does it mean to be an empath? Most people are quite capable of human empathy or understanding the situation of others. Being an empath is something more than this. In popular psychology, it refers to an innate ability to synchronize with other people’s emotions and feelings. There are both benefits and disadvantages to this as well as different types of recognized empaths. You may be one of these and not even know about it.

Let’s find out more and how you can cope better as a natural empath.

What is an empath?

The term ’empath’ originated from a work by J.T. McIntosh, “The Empath.” The word simply meant a being with the mental ability of empathy.

Nowadays, this term is most commonly defined as “someone who is highly empathetic.” 

Apart from that, there is no purely objective way to tell whether someone is an actual ’empath’ or not.

Empath psychology and emotional contagion

Having the ability to feel others’ emotions is not a mere soft skill. It actually involves complex neural activity in the brain.

When two brains ‘synchronize,’ the sensory area of one mimics the same stimulations in the other. More fascinatingly, this happens unconsciously (1).

This emotional contagion can happen when you interact directly or indirectly with another person. For example, you can be triggered into ‘brain synchrony’ by human facial expressions or behavior (2).

Empathy can also drive us to perform certain actions. For example, J. D. Trout mentioned in his book “Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment,” 

“We see a homeless person, and we give them money. We donate canned goods to the neighborhood food drive. And when we have the means and inclination, we send a check to a charity.” (3)

The difference between an empath and a sensitive person

Empaths tend to be highly sensitive to both their own and others’ emotions. A highly sensitive person (HSP), on the other hand, is acutely sensitive to sensory input (4).

An HSP might be overwhelmed by very loud noise, bright light, or strong odors. While an empath is more about taking on the feelings of people surrounding them.

When syncing with the emotions and feelings of others, empaths may also be motivated to act in response to stimulating factors (5).

Being an empath and having human empathy

Empaths have the ability to experience other people’s feelings as if they were their own. 

Having empathy for others, on the other hand, is the ability to comprehend and share the sentiments of others without necessarily feeling the emotional state of others (1).

While an empath’s ability is considered to be innate, having empathy for others can be learned over time (6).

Signs of being an empathetic person

Although there is no clear clinical definition of an empath, there are a few common empath traits that can alert you to whether you fit the definition or not.

First of all, you are highly empathetic.

Secondly, you tend to have a lot of understanding for others, even though you may not have experienced the same situation before.

You strongly feel the emotions of those around you or sense the atmosphere as if the emotions were yours. This also enables you to develop a strong bond with your interpersonal connections.

Science also suggests that besides being emotionally affected, there is a drive or need to imitate and understand others’ feelings. This may be due to a belief that is important to do so in certain or most situations (5).

You become overwhelmed or overload

You are likely to pause to look around, especially when you are in an unfamiliar situation. You probably feel the need to ‘calm down’ so you can have a better judgment of the situation (5).

You pay attention to the details and, at times, may consequently feel overwhelmed by the situation. Your awareness and attention are raised to cope with all the stimuli. This can happen with even positive and negative factors (5).

You are sensitive to physical sensations

Your bodily functions may often be affected by your increased sensitivity. This could mean stimulation of limbic functions regarding fight or flight responses or even sensorimotor integration (5).

You need time to recover from an overwhelming situation. 

You may need to avoid loud noises like sirens or sounds of construction sites.

You have difficulty setting boundaries

Once you are in sync with other people, it is hard for you to separate yourself emotionally from them or the environment (5).

You tend to develop close connections with other people. This can lead to difficulty in identifying the differences between your needs and those of others (5). 

Additionally, you also have the tendency to help other people alleviate their hardship. Sometimes, you even forget to care about your own needs (5).

Different types of empaths

There are several different types of empaths, each with specific traits and sensitivities. If you are one, you may be one or more of the following types:

Emotional empath

Emotional empaths are sensitive to the emotions of others and often pick up on detailed nuances. They are good with attention, emotion, and self-referential processing (5).

Emotional empaths may find it harder to set healthy boundaries and are prone to experience emotional exhaustion if they do not practice self-care.

Physical empath

A physical empath is someone who is sensitive to physical sensations, including other people’s pain or even illness (7).

Although it has not yet been proven, they may also be able to sense changes in temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors. For example, when someone else is in pain, a physical empath may experience discomfort in their own body.

Intuitive empath

Intuitive empaths can read the intentions of others. They may also be able to sense the underlying motivations behind the behavior of others (5).

This has great benefits when it comes to therapeutic relationships. This deep level of understanding can help with positive outcomes in psychotherapy (8).

What is toxic empathy?

Normally, toxic empathy refers to when an empath constantly sacrifices their needs for the sake of others (9). This may happen when one takes on too much to the point of being emotionally drained or burned out.

On the other hand, it could be when one allows consistent boundaries-crossing. This can result in unhealthy behavior, such as conflict or conflict aversion.

Can empaths be narcissistic?

Empaths are more likely to prioritize the needs of others above their own. Narcissists, however, focus purely on their own needs and desires.

This is not to say that those with narcissistic personality disorder lack empathy. It is increasingly understood that narcissists have difficulty processing intense emotional reactions that they may encounter (10).

Although there is no concrete evidence, it is possible for someone to exhibit the traits of both an empath and a narcissist.

Empaths and spiritual awakening

Spiritual awakening is believed to be a deeply personal and individual experience that relates to the desire for deeper meaning and connectivity.

People with high empathic concern are more likely to believe in supernatural agents. Their heightened sensitivity may make them more attuned to so-called spiritual energies and experiences (11).

According to studies, there is a strong positive link between empathy and the spiritual well-being of one person (12). 

How to become more empathetic

Studies show that the ability to empathize with, comprehend, and experience the emotional state of others is beneficial to social connections (13).

During the COVID pandemic, the ability to empathize helped people to recognize the importance of how their health affects others, especially in times of social distancing (14).

The best thing you can do to become more empathetic is to find ways to maximize your own growth and the growth of those around you. These are some things you can try:

  • Recognize your own emotions through mindfulness, journaling, or therapy.
  • Practice self-care and grounding to connect to inner wisdom and intuition.
  • Volunteering or helping others can be a great source of empowerment. 
  • Join a social group to share experiences or provide support.

Benefits and challenges of being an empath

Most of the benefits are social in nature. The ability to deeply connect with others can help build strong relationships and can support others in meaningful ways (5).

Being responsive to others’ needs is a key factor to build relationships and trust.

Having a greater sense of empathy and compassion for others can lead to a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment in life (15).

Physiologically, it takes more energy for empaths to process emotional and physical reactions. This demands an increase in cognition and metabolism to provide more energy (5). Empaths may need to compensate for this metabolic cost.

Self-care for empaths

In order to prevent being overwhelming, empaths can try to reduce sensory input from their environments. Compatibility between an empath and their environment is extremely important (16).

You can try the following things:

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness, or being present at the moment without any judgment, can help distance yourself a little. You then become more of an observer or a witness with a non-biased perspective (17).

Get into yoga

Yoga is a good way to relieve stress. When you release stress, you are able to engage in normal cognition, thus keeping negative emotions at bay (18).

Doing yoga every day is proven to increase your self-compassion (19). You have more time to attune to yourself and your own needs. This could alleviate emotions you have unconsciously taken on from other people.

Create a shortlist

Although it is good to empathize with others, you might want to seek ways to conserve your own energy (5).

It is helpful to have a mental list of things that you need to prioritize. For example, it could be your health, inner peace, or someone that is very important to you. 

Try to minimize your list down to two to three things so you can easily remind yourself that you have more important things to care about.

1. Is being an empath a weakness?

Being an empath is not a weakness. Empathy is a valuable trait, but it is important to recognize and practice self-care to avoid burnout and other negative consequences.

2. What causes you to become an empath?

The specific causes of being an empath are unclear. However, there may be contributing factors like genetic makeup, childhood experiences, brain structure, and cultural and social factors.

3. What part of the brain makes you an empath?

To fully understand the functions underlying empathy, more scientific studies are required. To date, several brain regions have been implicated in empathy. These are mirror neurons, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), insula, and prefrontal cortex.

4. Can you love an empath?

It is possible for you to love an empath. Empaths are highly attuned to the emotions and needs of others. A deeper emotional intimacy and understanding may develop based on this.

5. How to be more empathetic?

There are several ways you can develop empathy. You can practice active listening, put yourself in the other person’s shoes, or appreciate different perspectives. Be patient and open-minded in order to develop empathy.

Summary

While being an empath is not considered a weakness, it can pose challenges since empaths often absorb the feelings of those around them. To stay balanced and avoid feeling overwhelmed, empaths should practice self-care techniques like mindfulness and yoga. By working to cultivate empathy, everyone can foster deeper connections and greater compassion in their relationships with others.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Anthony20Cardillo MD NYU

Medical reviewed by Anthony Cardillo, MD

American Board of Pathology, Board Certified in Clinical Pathology

Anthony20Cardillo MD NYU

Medical reviewed by Anthony Cardillo, MD

American Board of Pathology, Board Certified in Clinical Pathology

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