Empaths: What Does it Mean to Be an Empath?

empaths and empathyHas anyone ever told you that you are too sensitive or too emotional? Do you feel drained when you spend time around certain people? Can you tell when people aren’t telling you the whole truth? Do you feel anxious in crowds? When a friend of yours is feeling particularly happy or distressed do you find yourself feeling these same emotions? If your answers to these questions are yes, you might belong to a special group of people known as empaths.

What are Empaths?

Empaths are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empath to describe a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense. However, the term empath can also be used as a spiritual term, describing an individual with special, psychic abilities to sense the emotions and energies of others. This particular article will focus on the psychological aspects of being an empath.

There are many benefits of being an empath. On the bright side, empaths tend to be excellent friends. They are superb listeners. They consistently show up for friends in times of need. They are big-hearted and generous. Empaths also tend to be highly intuitive and emotionally intelligent.

However, some of the very qualities that make empaths such fantastic friends can be hard on the empaths themselves. Because empaths quite literally feel what their friends are going through, they can become overwhelmed by painful emotions, such as anxiety or anger. Empaths have a tendency to take on the problems of others as their own. It is often difficult for them to set boundaries for themselves and say no, even when too much is being asked of them.

Additionally, it is common for empaths to feel drained after spending time around people. Empaths are usually introverts, and they require a certain amount of alone time in order to recharge. A study from 2011 suggests there may be a link between highly empathic individuals and social anxiety. Crowds can feel particularly overwhelming to empaths, who are often highly sensitive to certain noises and incessant chatter. They often feel their best when they are surrounded by nature.

Am I An Empath?

Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, offers this short quiz to evaluate whether or not you are an empath:

Ask yourself:

  • Have I been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive?
  • If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it too?
  • Are my feelings easily hurt?
  • Am I emotionally drained by crowds, require time alone to revive?
  • Do my nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
  • Do I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please?
  • Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
  • Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?

According to Dr. Orloff, “If you answer ‘yes’ to 1-3 of these questions, you’re at least part empath. Responding ‘yes’ to more than 3 indicates that you’ve found your emotional type.”

“Recognizing that you’re an empath is the first step in taking charge of your emotions instead of constantly drowning in them,” Dr. Orloff says. Once you begin to understand your empathic nature, you can learn to take better care of yourself emotionally.

How to Manage Your Empathy Without Getting Drained

Set Healthy Boundaries

Being naturally caring and concerned for others, empaths have a hard time saying “no.” This can lead to problems as you overcommit and drain yourself emotionally. Dr. Orloff suggests, “Control how much time you spend listening to stressful people, and learn to say ‘no.’ Set clear limits and boundaries with people, nicely cutting them off at the pass if they get critical or mean. Remember, ‘no’ is a complete sentence.”

Practice Mindfulness

Because empaths tend to get caught up in what is going on around them, it is particularly important for them to set aside time to tune in. Practicing mindfulness can help you reconnect to yourself. Focusing on your breath, for insistence, quiets the mind and centers you in your body. It can be helpful in meditation to practice “non-identification” with others, try to see yourself and your emotions as separate from anyone else’s.

Ignore Your Inner Critic

The Critical Inner Voice is like a nasty coach that lives inside our heads, waiting for any opportunity to criticize us. Empaths, being sensitive, are vulnerable to these self-critical thoughts. They may think things like, “Why do you feel so much all the time? What’s wrong with you?” or “You’re just too sensitive.” However, it is important not to believe these self-attacks or act on your inner critic’s bad advice. You can read about how to overcome your inner critic here.

Practice Self-Compassion

While it is easy for empaths to feel compassion for others, it is often difficult for them to feel compassion for themselves. Self-compassion is the simple (yet challenging) practice of treating yourself like a friend. It is called a practice because it is something that you get better at over time. According to Dr. Kristen Neff, there are three components to practicing self-compassion:
1) Acknowledge and notice your suffering.
2) Be kind and caring in response to suffering.
3) Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience and something we all share.
You can find self-compassion exercises on Dr. Kristen Neff’s website.

Spend Time in Nature

Nature has wonderful healing effects for all humans, but particularly for empaths. Essayist John Burroughs said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” Because empaths are highly sensitive to the people (as well as noises and environments) around them, time in nature is the optimal way for them to relax and recharge. Whether you live somewhere that allows you to walk on the beach, hike through the woods or sit in a park, it is important to make time to rejuvenate in a beautiful, natural setting, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed or emotionally depleted.

At the end of the day, it is important to recognize both the blessings and challenges of being an empath. In a world where so many people struggle to identify and express emotions, empathy can seem like a superpower. Embrace yours!

About the Author

Lena Firestone Lena Firestone is a writer and new media specialist. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. She currently works at PsychAlive.org and leads private writing workshops in Santa Barbara, CA.

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31 Comments

kastina moore

I can relate to this article. I ask a lot of questions when someone is venting or what I have been told ” you make me feel so comfortable to speak. ” I’m not being noisy I need more details to empathize and I get a sense of who people are.

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Denise

I am and it is exhausting! Anxiety, heartbreaking. And have been taking advantage of many times

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Chidimma Clare

I can totally relate to your feelings as such is mine current emotions now. I can use a friend now that understands how I feel cos those I have around do not understand.

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DEEDA131

I am already a ‘living miracle’ 61 yrs old now……….
my 1st cerebral hemorrhage was January 2000. I lived with the pain,limited vision and only able to crawl when I finally allowed my mom to call an ambulance (6 days after my traumatic headache which occurred at 615 am almost a week earlier). I was just visiting them in Ventura county and I live in LA. I have always been ‘overly’ sensitive to friends/family pain/joy/and depression. I now know who/what I am and my rare sensitivity – sometimes wonder if that is why I have had/have survived 4 brain aneurysm surgeries – I should have died when the 1st one was misdiagnosed to just be a ‘migraine’ headache.

Jack M

I feel you. It is life controlling. Yet, sometimes I envy someone who simply doesn’t give two hells about another’s emotions or mindset because they can’t even see or feel it. They “take care of themselves” much more efficiently. Sometimes outside looking in, it looks so appetizing. 🥺

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Kris Werkheiser

I sometimes feel so overwhelmed. I have lost myself and I’m so tied up with my family. Thinking about myself is non existent. I need time to recharge but I can’t find the time. I am truly exhausted.

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Tim

I’m positive anyone who has googled this, but also feels compelled enough to post their connection to this is someone like me. I know so much about myself and the world, yet I’m at a roadblock…. I never really believed in mystical stuff (and still don’t) and am not religious, but I feel like if I had a twin to help me or someone just like me to help me break-though I so desperately need.

Ok, So really really don’t believe in astrology or horoscopes, but I have been more curious about the history of it—Now I understand the whole concept of cognitive dissonance and all the other psychological reasons people buy into these things, but—long story short—I end up looking up my horoscope and while I still don’t believe in it the way General society does, I do think mine describes me (or empaths) exactly: https://cafeastrology.com/articles/piscesmanlove.html

I know, I feel insane for even reading that, but it does a good job of generally describing me, regardless of astrology AND i’ve interest in reading daily horoscopes written by baby boomers (or millennials) trying to sell magazines, papers, read their blog….but that one page describes me really well—and I’m going at I from a scientific perspective, but that also includes ideas that there are things in the universe we still don’t fully understand….

Some days I just wish I was more of a psychopath or narcissist, because the world as it is right now seems to reward those people and they are able to get things done without emotions getting in the way, yet then again, the last thing I want in the world is to be one of those people….

I don’t know..I’m all over the place with this post. it’s 2am , so i’m too tired to write it all pretty, yet I’m so sick and tired of being an empath….it used to make me so creative and special, but certain events led me to a bad place 5 years ago and I don’t know how to get my life balance back…

I don’t know, I have the tiniest hope of finding someone, maybe here—maybe someone like me who has found their secret out of an emotional void as is willing to post here and eventually reach out…I’m such an empath that even in my despair I hope its a mutually beneficial relationship that helps both of us get past a problem that each other has the solution…

Anyways —here’s to hope…

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Em

Well that’s just scary. That same site described me to a T! Unfortunately, I do not have much help for your circumstance. I am in the same boat, my soul searching for someone who just “gets it”. Who gets me, accepts me, without judgment. I will say that being in therapy (CBT for anxiety) has revealed some tremendous breakthroughs for me. Just this week we really nailed down the fact that I am an empath. Having an answer for why I do certain things led me to accepting this personality trait which is already leading to my no longer feeling a need to “fix” myself. There is nothing wrong with any of us (at least not intrinsically just because we are empaths, LOL!). Perhaps therapy would a place for you to start as well… xoxo

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Nikki

wow… you even talk like me. all over the place but so dead on. I never in a million years thought if ever respond to anything like this I found on the internet but I looked up empath trying to better understand myself and while reading came across your post. I rather you reach me through facebook instead of my email if that’s possible. just look up nikki kenworthy. I have a couple facebooks one that I cant get into anymore so maybe message them all with something brief and I’ll see it on mine.. if you want

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Mariesa

This is not only enlightening to read but hilarious in the sense that I think this sounds exactly like me also ! I’m sitting here like “whoa did I just stumble upon the others?” haha. To this day and time, I have also never responded to a single Internet forum/whatever you want to call it,such as this. And Tim, I think those certain events you mentioned were just tests and the usual daily nonempath attempts at destroying your peace of mind. We can easily lose ourselves and when we let it spiral too far , we become further away from our empath traits which make us so creative and special. But it can and will come back with repeated self care and introspection! (In my experience).

Vicky

You are so not alone even though you feel you are at times. I’m two days in to acknowledging that I’m an Empath. It’s like a mysterious closed door in my life has just been opened…..the journey has just begun. Big hug to all you guys out there.

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Randall

I have a lot of these qualities with picking up on people’s radar, as well as seriously picking up on their emotions. I also have problems with my family members with trying to express myself do I share this ability with them or will it be used as a weapon against me, this is my fear

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Lisa

Yes this is definitely me. I can’t bare going into London or large towns. I hate Being in busy pubs it’s almost painful. Can’t bare loud noises and I’m a great listener always Trying to help people so much so I feel used and unappreciated or that’s just how I sometimes feel.

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Kevin

Hi everyone! I’ve been learning more and more about this incredible gift (curse?) that we all share. First and foremost if you are an empath, feel blessed because you truly are. I know alllllllll about the anxiety, depression, overwhelming feelings, difficulty saying no, the $$$$$$ spent on counseling, the seemingly non-existent boundaries….and oh yeah the vicious and seemeingly never ending cycle of abuse that we find ourselves all too often consumed by not to mention that we attract it like nothing else. But, when we see our true selves and that we were born to bring love into this world, we are an unstoppable force for good. Most if not all of us have discovered this gift because of abuse and being caught in it. Is it hard? I’m laughing at myself even thinking I could answer that one because it can be so painfully hard. But the world needs us, especially in this day and age when the world is more corrupt than it has even been and by and large many people seem to think that hate is justifiable and vengeance brings inner peace and the love that every single person is longing for. Fight the good fight (meaning fight for honest love). Give it all you have. But before you do that, fight first for the right to truly love yourself. Become educated on the matter. Seek out others who understand this gift. The worst thing we can do is isolate, shut down, and not share this gift with the world around us. You see….we can’t live any other way. Embrace it. It gets better.

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K

Thank you I’m glad to know I am not alone. Being an empath feels extremely lonely at times.

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Kanye Shrug

Thank you for the reminder. Its so easy to get lost in it all and forget why we’re really here.

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Amy F

Thank you! Wow! 🙌
After my entire day being spent on the edge of bawling my eyes out because of the “feelings” that have taken over my entire being, I find myself here, reading your words, and again I’m reminded how incredibly blessed I am to be an Empath! So, Thank You Kevin for sharing your raw emotions and truths to help each and every one of us on here searching for the answers.

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Mariesa

This is amazing. I resonated with every single word so clearly. Thank you!!!!

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Beth

Reading your post hit me to my core. Read it three times because I recognized how much this is me, my feelings exactly on not being religious and all my thoughts. I feel like an old soul in a materialistic world full of selfish, self serving and cruel people. Being a Libra fits me perfectly because I’m all about balance. Not having family or true friends leaves a void in my life. I have learned to be okay being alone with myself. I’d much rather have a true friend, partner and love to share the journey of life with. Having someone else who understands, cares and shares openly to *grow with what we *go through. Been taken for granted, used, stepped all over and verbally abused by a narcissistic man. I felt so stupid when I found out what I’d gotten myself into with this man. He wasn’t the first, he was just the worst. It’s hard to accept the fact that I started going to therapy to find out what was *wrong with me* I went secretly to a therapist because I felt so mentally exhausted wondering why I couldn’t do anything right. I gave my all monetarily, physically, emotionally and even pleaded for him to tell me what I needed to do to “fix everything.” I wanted to fix myself so everything would be right. Lesson learned and on the bright side, I have learned to love myself and how to keep myself in check mentally, emotionally and physically. If I could only find someone who relates to being an empath.
Hanging onto hope…

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Thinking of ending

How do
U balance it
I
Am so out of tune
Overwhelmed
Can’t
Get control
Picture
This
Your with family friends crowds LOVER
AND YOU FEEL what they won’t say or u don’t have to hear what there saying cause u feel it
Lust,hate, contempt, manipulation ya da Yada
And one day u can’t manage Anything
You learn your families true feelings,mainly selfishness and greed.Always looking to take advantage and wondering Wth is wrong with her” me”
Relationship pfffft I’m a narcissist magnet or CONARTIST

IAM RELIGIOUS
It took a long time to
Realize people don’t think
It feel like
I do
Yeah this is so screwed grammatically and more but the
Tears and snot are
In my way who
Care at my end

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Leslie R

Thank you for this article.

And for those that posted in the comments that are struggling with being an empath, I want to provide some of my experience…

Being an empath can be incredibly rewarding but you must protect yourself. It can be so draining. I spent decades depleting myself, feeling cursed or like something was wrong with me. Through acupuncture, meditation, yoga and guidance from some transcendence books, I have found ways to keep my energy up and still have more than enough to share.

The hardest thing to do is to learn to let go. To surrender to your empathetic abilities, to let other peoples energies simply flow through you and out of you, including your own thoughts and emotions.I don’t always have a lot of time, but meditation can fit anywhere, I do it on my way to and from work. I simply pay attention to my breath, any thoughts that enter my head, I just let them fall away. I don’t label them, I don’t agree or disagree with them, I don’t judge them, they’re like a cloud and I just let them float away. Return to simply being aware of my breath. When thoughts start appearing again, I noticed them but return to paying attention to my breath. I do this while standing in line at the grocery store, walking down the hallway at work, or any place where I can just simply pay attention to my breath even if it is only 5 to 10 breaths. Meditation can be that simple. It keeps me grounded. For an empath, this is so important, we get so lost and so overwhelmed. These simple meditations are like filling up your gas tank along your journey.

Some of the books I’ve read are “The Power of Now”, “The Four Agreements”, and “The Untethered Soul.” These books guide you on how to let go and restore your energy. Another important lesson I learned was to not take things personally. Being sensitive people, this is probably the hardest thing to do. Learn to let go of other people’s judgments and opinions, let other peoples problems and emotions flow through you and out of you. You can be there for them, and take on their energies which is helpful to them, and then you just simply let it go, do not hold onto it otherwise that energy can consume you and deplete you.

It amazes me how many empaths are out there, and yet we still feel very much alone. Take care of yourself. You are an amazing soul born with an equally amazing gift.

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Richard H. C.

Yes I try to focus on that wonderful

Empathic energy e.g. Hope is sometimes
The thing that is greater than Fear.
Thank you

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Sensitive child of 49

Our society needs more like us. I still weep for deaths that occurred decades ago. How can u get thru life w/o an understanding therapist, counselor or coach? (a trained or experienced person, not from your inner circle) It took me almost 50 yrs to realize this! I also realized I had Cluster C personality traits (avoidant / fearful & perfectionistic). As a “warm” child in a “cold” family my feelings weren’t acknowledged, deepening these traits. At work (public health), it hurts (& angers) me to realize that some co-workers (thankfully, few!) who don’t care. People who judge quickly or listen poorly (e.g., family members, friend, colleague) might misperceive my anxiety & panic in times of personal (or family) crisis as “selfish” when my distress is due to deep feelings of pain & insecurity (or grieving & compassion for others ). My cry for help or understanding backfires! I may withdraw for awhile, but seem to become even more sensitive towards people (I know or can just empathize with) who are hurting or suffering a loss, even if their situation is completely different than mine. P.S. When someone says, “You’re too emotional”, an authentic response may be, “No, I just feel very deeply”. –> If anyone has a different response, please share!! (Thank you.)

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