What does being an empath really mean?
Empath is a recently popularised concept, but the psychology behind it is not well-understood. An empath, or a hyper-empathic person is someone who is extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of people, animals, and to the elements in the environment. They are acutely aware of the feeling tones, nuance, subtexts and energy current of their surroundings. Their senses are so acute that they feel as though they ‘absorb’ others’ emotions beyond their conscious control. In its extremity, this ability can even seem mystical.
The term ‘Empath’ has become popular in recent years, often used to describe someone with a higher-than-normal degree of empathy, to the point of being an ‘emotional sponge’. They do not have the filters most people do, and they absorb other people’s stress and feelings into their bodies. Despite mounting attention to the concept, the existing definition for “Empath’ tend to be inconclusive, fuzzy, and often not very useful.
Intuition and perceptiveness are some of the core dimensions of being intense. When you are an empath, you are also endowed with a high level of empathy, and when this is combined with emotional strengths and velocity, it can seem as though every day you are fluttering through not just your own, but also other people and even the world’s feelings.
Here, I would like us to examine what it means for an empath to ‘absorb’, take in, or feel into other people’s emotions’, how it happens and why some of us seem to do it more frequently and intensely than others. I will draw on research and ideas from the scientific to the esoteric realm, some of which more controversial than others.
These theories are not mutually exclusive. Just like the answer to the perennial question of nature versus nurture, it is probably somewhere in between. The categorisation is arbitrary and simply a way to help us organise information. Please use your discernment to take away what is useful, and leave behind the rest.
“The most spiritual human beings, assuming they are the most courageous, also experience by far the most painful tragedies: but it is precisely for this reason that they honor life, because it brings against them its most formidable weapons.”
― Friedich Nietzsche
EMPATH: ARE YOU ONE?
When you are among a group of people, you feel as though you ‘absorb’ the energy in a room.
Even when the reason is not apparent, you have a strong sense of ‘knowing’ that there is more to a story than what meets the eyes.
When a friend is upset, you feel it too; You feel others’ emotions in your own body and mind as though they belong to you.
You can read between the lines, beyond the obvious and under the surface of what is going on in a social situation.
Sometimes you are emotionally drained by crowds and require time alone to rejuvenate after being in a group.
Your nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talking- especially when what is going on is not engaging for you.
You see through hypocrisies and lies, and incongruence affects you so much that you feel compelled to point out the truths or to take actions.
You easily or automatically take on the mannerisms, accents, and body language of others without consciously doing so.
At work or in relationships, you feel you need to learn how to say no without feeling guilty or to set more explicit boundaries to preserve your inner resources.
As you tend to take on so much, sometimes you are afraid of becoming swamped by the needs of others or feeling engulfed by friendships or intimate relationships.
EMPATH “FEELS WHAT OTHERS FEEL”
– EXPLANATIONS FROM THE SCIENTIFIC TO THE ESOTERIC
IN PSYCHOLOGY: EMOTIONAL CONTAGION AND EMPATHY
The idea that people can ‘catch’ others’ feelings is not new. As Carl Jung observed decades ago: “Emotions are contagious”. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as precisely that: ’emotional contagion’. The term describes our innate tendency to take on the sensory, physiological and affective states of other people. Studies have found that as social beings, we unconsciously mimic the emotional expressions of others, to the point of actually feeling the same thing. In doing so, two or more people ‘converge emotionally’ (Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson 1994, p.5).
Emotional contagion does not equate empathy or empath ability. Emotional contagion is fast, unconscious and automatic, and relies mostly on the non-verbal communication that bypasses our conscious mind. While empathy— what some psychologists call ‘mentalizing’ or ‘perspective taking’— involves a more sophisticated cognitive process (Decety and Svetlova, 2012). It requires you to stand in one’s perspective, while at the same time, put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand their emotions. In a nutshell, emotional contagion is primitive, automatic, implicit, and uncontrollable, while empathy takes more work (Decety and Lamm, 2006; Preston and de Waal, 2002; Prochazkova and Kret, 2017). Some scholars define emotion contagion as a more ‘primitive’ form of empathy, but it is also what separates most people from psychopaths. Psychopaths are capable of the ‘cognitive’ element of empathy- such as perspective-taking, but the element of being immediately impacted by another’s feelings on a feeling level is missing.
Although emotional contagion is a universal phenomenon, there are individual differences in our susceptibility to it (Hatfield et al., 1994). In each interaction, there is an energy dynamic that determines which person’s brain will more forcefully draw the others into its emotional orbit: The ‘senders’ among us can infect others more powerfully with their emotions, while the ‘catchers’ are more likely to be infected with the emotions. Studies found that senders tend to be “more charismatic, expressive, entertaining, and scoring high on dominance (Hatfield et al., 1994)”, and the catchers are more prone to being attentive to the emotional details in their surrounding. This explains why some people are categorised as being an empath while others are not.
Besides our natural temperaments, other factors such as the setting, moods, and attention also determine how much an empath is affected by emotional contagion. For instance, when there are power differences in a group, such as in a work situation, it is usually the most influential person that sends emotions, setting the emotional tone for everyone else. When the team leader is in a positive mood, the group picks up on that feeling, and their performance is enhanced; If the leader is in a negative mood, the group catches it, and their performance suffers. (Goleman, 1995)
Emotional contagion may be a part of empathy (Maclaren, 2013), but catching others’ feelings do not automatically translate into healthy and functional empathy. If an empath only has unregulated emotion contagion, and all they do is sponging up others’ feelings, they can quickly get overwhelmed and burn out. In the long run, they may even shut down, numb ourselves, and dissociate from other people altogether to protect themselves. For a natural empath to be effectively and healthily empathic, they ought to develop skills such as context observation and emotional regulation to move beyond emotional contagion.
THE NEUROLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE: THE MIRROR NEURONS
In recent years, scientists have discovered a set of neurons in our brain, known as the mirror neurons, that have furthered our understanding of the empathic tendencies. Mirror neurons allow us to feel into other people not through conceptual reasoning but direct neurological activities. These cells create a neuro-physical link between us and other people, so when we observe someone else doing something, the same regions in our brain which would’ve been involved become activated. Empathy happens when this applies to our feelings: just seeing another person’s emotions would automatically activate the same somatic responses in us (Anders et al., 2011; Gallese and Goldman, 1998; Goldman and Sripada, 2005; Keysers and Gazzola, 2010). Scientists also refer to this phenomenon as ‘neural resonance’ or ‘brain-to-brain coupling’ (Anders et al., 2011; Jackson et al., 2005; Jackson et al., 2006b; Keysers and Gazzola, 2009; Lloyd et al., 2004; Prehn-Kristensen et al., 2009). Mirror neurons are present in us from birth; we know this when we see one crying infant setting off a wave of crying in a hospital ward.
Neuropsychological findings have confirmed that humans empathise with each other to different degrees (Vignemont and Singer, 2006), and it is likely that empaths have more a more active mirror-neutron system when compared to the norm.
The mirror neurons system can be over or under-active, depending on a myriad of factors (Mbemba, Marte & Christian, 2007). One extreme example of having an overactive mirror system is a condition known as ‘mirror-touch synesthesia’. Synesthesia is where sensations that normally are experienced separately get blended. In mirror-touch synesthesia, when another person gets touched, the synaesthete feels a touch on their body. On the other end of the spectrum, some suggest that under-activity of the mirror neuron system is linked to autism.
Despite its recent hype, the research in this area is relatively new. Theories around the role mirror neurons play in the human condition remains controversial. If you are interested, a book titled “The Myth of Mirror Neurons” captures a lot of these discoveries.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL PERSPECTIVE
While some people are born with a more active mirror system, other empaths/ hyper-empathic people have gained their abilities from their early childhood experiences. However, it is important that we do not assume a direct link between childhood trauma and empathic gifts in an overly simplistic and linear way, or pathologise this trait.
Chaotic Childhood Environment
In psychoanalysis, the term ‘ego boundary’ is used to describe our emotional and identity distinction between self and others. Boundaries of a young psyche are extremely permeable. From birth, most of us read the world around us to figure out how we need to be, and what we need to do. Through infant studies, we know that from as early as six weeks, we start to mirror our parents’ faces and emulate their emotions.
Individuals who have grown up in a chaotic childhood environment might have developed a hyper empathic ability as a way to survive. In environments that are unpredictable, our brains will adapt by extracting patterns from information (Adolphs, 2001). Children at risks are extremely attuned to the micro changes in others’ energy levels, facial expressions, and tone of voice for self-protection because they have trained themselves to pick up on the earliest, most subtle signals of their caregivers’ outrage, or the bullies’ attack.
Empathic intuition of the empaths can be developed out of a precarious environment is often coupled with sensory high alert and anxiety. This state, known as hyper-vigilance, is a result of the neuro-pathways that have been formed in the brain. The traumatised empath is wired to constantly scan the environment for anything or anyone that could be a potential threat. Even realistically, as s grown-up they are no longer facing any danger, whenever there are changes in the atmosphere of a room or the emotional tone of other people, they still have an automatic and visceral fight-or-flight reactions, such as tightening of the chest, increased heartbeat, and a feeling that ‘something ought to be done’. In the long run, such physiological stress could lead to symptoms such as adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, and depression.
Individuals who had grown up with intact boundaries can have an internalised sense of safety, and a capacity to set appropriate limits with the world. The empath whose life was repeatedly violated by chaos, however, have not developed the ability to filter external stimuli. With a blurred line between their inner and outer experiences, they are able to rapidly attuned to others and the environment, but at the same time, they feel swamped or invaded by other people’s energies and emotions.
As a part of healthy childhood development, children ought to grow out of the initial symbiotic state with their parent, and forge their path towards independence. However, either due to traumas in the family or limitations in their emotional resources, some parents are not able to let go, and would— overtly or subtly- limit their child’s need to separate from them. Some parents may have a fear of not being needed or being abandoned by their children; they may — subtly, through their outpouring emotions and behaviours— pass on these messages: “Don’t go”, “I cannot survive with you”, or “Don’t ever leave me”.
The result of this dynamic is enmeshment- a relationship in which two or more people are overly involved with and reactive to one another. In an enmeshed family, the boundaries between family members are blurred, or too permeable. There is a ‘spill-over’ happening from one person to another, where an emotional change in one person would quickly reverberate and escalate throughout the entire household. The parent may not be consciously aware of what they are doing, but merely repeating the cycle that had played out in their childhood.
A child growing up in an enmeshed household never really have the opportunity to develop intact boundaries, or to draw the line between themselves and others. They are used to being intensely affected by, or even feel responsible for other people’s feelings. As adults, they struggle to tell the difference between their feelings and those they care about, or they may feel the compulsion to rescue someone from their negative feelings.
THE PSYCHOANALYTIC PERSPECTIVE: PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION
Over the internet, we often hear empaths sharing how they attract ‘emotional vampires’, or ‘energy suckers’ into their lives. While this is not a language used by the scientific community, it is not unlikely that a natural empath can draw in others to use their gift for a kind of psychological discharge or healing.
A concept in psychoanalytic psychology known as ‘projective identification’ can help us understand this phenomenon. Projective identification is an unconscious mental strategy in which a person discharges feelings and qualities that they reject in themselves onto (and into) others. You know you have been the recipient of projective identification when you suddenly feel seized by an intense feeling that comes from someone else (Ogden, 1979).
To understand this process, we can delineate it into a few phases. In reality, these phases can all happen in an instant, or unfold over a period, such as in a friendship or an ongoing partnership.
In the first phase, the person who wishes to projects outward is wrestling with a part of himself that frightens or repels him. As he is unwilling to accept this part in himself, he tries to avoid seeing, feeling, or owning it.
Then, to be rid of this part of himself, the projector ‘dumps’ it onto someone else. He exerts pressure on the recipient to experience his projection as a reality. It is an unconscious ‘if it was you, then it wasn’t me’ manoeuvre, springing out of their shame and self-rejection. For example, if someone feels guilty over their impulsive behaviours, they may split impulsivity off from themselves, and instead, criticise their partner for being impulsive. Although the mental process was unconscious, the exerted pressure is not imagined but played out in the relationship as interactions. Projective identification can take many forms and many of which may not be explicit, or verbal; they can range from changes in the tone of voice to passive-aggressive silence, bodily movement, being late or just disappearing.
Then, finally, the recipient experiences themselves as what was being projected ‘into’ them. The difference between mere projection and projective identification is that the recipient would ‘receive’ and internalise whatever is being projected. With the above example, the partner of the impulsive person might begin to experience themselves as an impulsive, wasteful and sinful person. Under the pressure of constant criticisms, they may manifest even more impulsive behaviours, and in a way becoming more of what was projected.
Projective identification is insidious and seeps in slowly, and it can be incredibly difficult to distinguish between what is yours and what is the result of others’ ‘dumping’ (Curtis, 2015). Being the ‘recipient’ of projective identification is highly unpleasant, confusing, and difficult to bear. Analyst Bion (1977) characterises it as like ‘having a thought that is not one’s own’. It is an infiltration of the mind and body of the recipient- you can even feel it physically.
It is worth pointing out that the person who projects outward is likely acting out from the less developed parts of themselves, so their rational self is not aware of their destructive behaviours. The fantasy of putting a piece of oneself into another person reflects a developmental level wherein there is a blurring of boundaries between self and others; this mechanism is unconscious, and they might even have been a victim of manipulation as a child. However, this does not take away the aggressiveness of the behaviour. Ultimately, projective identification is the use of power and coercion as a means to control one’s undesirable and unbearable impulses. As they compel another person to ‘carry’ an unwanted portion of themselves, they are instigating an emotional and energetic boundary violation.
Empaths and Thriving in Our Times
While it does not lay an easy life path, being an empath in today’s times means something beyond an individual level.
More and more people are becoming aware that humanity has reached a critical stage in its evolution. What we see now in our environmental, economical and political spheres reveals a pattern of civilisation collapse (Wheatley, 2017). Instinctively we know that our materialistic and self-serving worldview has reached its limit. Our highly fragmented, superficial culture have little to help us feed our soul’s cries, and the answers we desperately need lies in our inter-connectedness as human.
The ability to take in more substantial amounts of sensory data might be an evolutionary leap for the human species, and having a group of people – empaths- amongst us who are hyper empathic is a sign of progression in our collective consciousness. While at first glance this seems radical, the idea that empathy plays a critical role in our evolution is not novel.
Biologists have long suggested that our ‘other-regarding instinct’ is what separates us from other animals. Under the catchphrase ‘The survival of the fittest’, a competitive, ruthless and selfish view of human nature has been mistakenly attributed to the Darwinian perspective. A deeper look at Charles Darwin’ work, however, reveals a very different picture (Ekman, 2010): He proposed that natural selection favoured those who have the ability to be affected by the feelings of others, and the most successful societies had succeeded because of their sympathetic instincts: “for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best.” In fact, Darwin hoped that the apex of our human nature— the refinement of our empathy— would eventually herald the end of the struggle for existence (Boddice, 2017). Ultimately, he envisioned a human triumph over the state of nature in which only the fittest survived, and the life of the majority was defined by pain and suffering.
Likewise, philosophers including Adam Smith, David Hume, Edmund Burke proposed that the ability to perceive other people’s suffering is a key determinant of how society hang together and fall apart. For Smith, the capacity for individuals to mutually enter into one another’s emotional experiences were the foundation for both moral behaviour and social action. This ability helps us build the social bond that distinguishes civilised societies from more primitive cultures (Boddice, 2017). Smith suggested that a system entirely on competitive principles would collapse, and his foresight seems to be coming true in our world today.
Although our level of scientific and technological development is unprecedented and has brought many material benefits, people are feeling increasingly isolated, anxious and depressed, lacking a sense of meaning and purpose. According to the theory of civilisation’s chaos cycle (Wheatley,2017), systems that were failing now will continue to deteriorate; Uncertainty, confusion and fear will continue to predominate our psyche. People in fear will be preoccupied with self-protection, and strike out those different from themselves. Corrupt leaders will intensity their false promises, and our collective numbness will perpetuate our silent subjugation.
The concept of ‘psychic numbing’ describes our societal reaction to the impending doom and chaos. With the constant barrage of our 24-hour news cycle, it is easy to become desensitised to our collective sufferings. In ‘Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity’, psychologist Paul Slovic theories that as the number of endangered lives increases on our planet, our reactions are dulled down just as it would with brightness and loudness: “We can detect a small increase in a dim light’s brightness,” he says, but moving from bright to brighter is another matter: ”The energy level must change more drastically for us to notice.” For humanitarian crises, war and terrorism, this dilution comes in the form of a lack of empathy.
Psychic numbing, however, does not come naturally to the empaths. Even when they had tried to dull their senses, a niggling feeling remains. The same way they are hypersensitive to the changes in noise and sounds, they are not able to fully filter out others’ cries for help or the manifestation of the world’s pains. Highly empathic people are the canaries in the coal mine. In the old days, miners sent canaries into unknown pits. If the canaries stopped singing, they knew the mine was toxic, and they would stay away. Without realising, they are feeling and carrying the world’s sadness, anxiety, and rage. They cannot ‘unsee’ hypocrisies and injustice. Not only are they viscerally unable to separate themselves, but they also the ones who struggle to stay passive and silent. Being aware, outspoken or taking conscious actions are natural to them, even when it gets them into trouble.
The hopeful ones amongst us believe that this chaotic time is filled with potential, that we born into this time to ‘blow up’ the current system to build a new one. The split between the hearts and the mind, and between the talk and the walk can be bridged by the hyper empathic amongst us. They are the ones who push against the system we have held since the Industrial Age- of power, control, action and logic, with their skills in intuition, emotion, communication and love.Our world is calling for a new kind of leadership— one that is driven not by tyranny or coercion, but based on compassion. The empaths as leaders can help humanity as a collective whole to narrow the split between theoretical understanding, knowledge and our emotional commitments.
In many ways, the empathically gifted has no choice but to respond to the summon to be the game-changers of the world. Endowed with the sensibility to feel into the world, to see things penetratively and the compulsion to take action, they must channel this energy outward. If these abilities or qualities are stifled or suppressed, they will experience a physical and psychological internal collapse, manifesting self as physical pain and sadness, existential guilt, depression, and chronic emptiness.
This is by no means an easy task. It requires resilience, courage, and the ability to stand up to ones’ truths. Their first step is a paradigm shift- instead of thinking of themselves as fragile, lonesome beings that need to protect themselves against the world, they become in touch with their interconnectedness with all things in nature. Rather than defend, they embrace. Instead of closing down, they open. They need first to root and then rise.
Once an empath has owned their unique life path and qualities, they will realise the gifts of living a congruent life: It is through our meetings with each other that we learn to be tender with sadness, be compassionate with the dark, be tolerant in the face of uncertainty and be humble with glory. By aligning themselves with a bigger purpose, they will also find the strengths and peace that carry them through.
THE FORK IN THE ROAD FOR AN EMPATH
Dear Empathic Soul
It is terribly challenging
to live with little or no filter;
To hear every drop of tears from near and far away;
To see human and non-human’s expressions of sorrow;
To every day have the world’s pain piercing through you;
To sensing the lies and hypocrisies when others don’t;
To feel trapped in your heightened sensitivity and perception.
At some point, you reached a fork in the road
where you have to decide:
Either to stay here with us, in this imperfect world, or you float up, dissociate, and leave.
I bet you have tried them all:
The spiritual bypassing, the closing down, the tuning out, the numbing using addictions, or dulling through drugs.
The desert offered transient tranquillity, but eventually led you down a path of emptiness, deep aloneness, meaninglessness and eventually,
Boredom is a result of fear—
It was all too edgy to sit with, so you left.
As you withdraw from the heartache, you also left behind your hope and love.
At some point, you will reach another fork in the road
where you have to decide:
To stay, or to leave.
A yes or a no to the marriage with life.
The key to moving forward is ‘commitment’;
You either commit to being a part of humanity, or you divorce yourself from it all.
You might have thought that you were too weak, too porous, too soft
for such a commitment.
Yet something magical happens when you say ‘I do.’
The words clear your path, the intention gives you strengths.
How does this work?
By committing to staying with the world, you must also live with other people’s limitations and dysfunctions.
Then, you come face to face with your shadows and your own dysfunctional parts.
Your heart softens, and you learn the art of unconditional love and acceptance of yourself and others.
By committing to cohabiting a space with others, you deal with the daily irritants, inconvenience, and transgressions.
In doing so, you come to embrace life for what it is, rather than constantly trying to change it to the way you want it.
Eventually, you become strong.
With all the terrors comes glory.
As your commitment to the world ripens, it rewards you with richness, joy and strengths.
So you were born an empath.
Where do you go from here?
Do you rise to the occasion, yield to the path that you were given,
let it shape you, and allow Life to use you as a vessel,
Or do you hide, shrink, and leave?
Do you choose the path of psychic retreat or that of emotional warriorship?
Ultimately, you root to rise
not because it is moral, or even particularly honourable,
But because it is the only way to go.