Do you take on the stress of others? Are you very sensitive? Do you feel overwhelmed in crowded spaces?
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If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may an empath.
An empath takes on the feelings of others and can relate to what someone else may be feeling, whether that’s emotionally or physically. And while being an empath can mean you’re a caring, thoughtful person, it can also be overwhelming and leave you with little or no time for yourself.
Psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD, shares signs that you may be an empath and if you’re not, how you can be more empathic toward others.
What is an empath?
What does it mean to be an empath?
If you’re looking for an empath definition, Dr. Childs explains it as this: “An empath is a person who has the ability to feel what others are feeling and understand what others are feeling. They’re also known to feel feelings on a deeper level and take on the feelings of others.”
For example, an empath may turn the channel on TV to avoid seeing a character get embarrassed. Or if you have a friend who’s sick, you may start to also feel some of their symptoms like a headache or cough.
And while being an empath isn’t considered a medical condition or disorder, there’s some science behind it.
“While we can’t say for sure if empaths truly exist, research shows that we do have what scientists call ’mirror neurons,’ which allows us to mirror others’ emotions, and we believe those who are empaths have more mirror neurons,” explains Dr. Childs.
So, is there a difference between how we sympathize vs. empathize?
Yes, says Dr. Childs. When we exhibit empathy, we’re able to understand how someone else feels and can relate to their situation. When we have sympathy, we tend to feel pity and are relieved that we don’t have the same problems.
Types of empaths
There are different kinds of empaths. A few common ones are:
- Emotional empath. With this type of empath, you’re sensitive to the emotions of others — feeling happiness when someone else is happy or feeling anger when someone else is angry.
- Physical empath. This type of empath is tuned into other’s physical pain. In some cases, a physical empath may even experience symptoms that aren’t their own.
- Intuitive empath. A unique kind of empath, intuitive empaths are exceptionally perceptive and may even have psychic ability.
And you might have heard of the term “dark empath,” which means that you use your ability to understand other’s feelings for your own personal gain. Sometimes, being an empath and narcissist can go hand-in-hand.
“A dark empath can be a dangerous person because they know exactly what they’re doing,” explains Dr. Childs. “They have elevated levels of empathy, which allows them to be manipulative. Instead of using their powers of empathy for good, they’re using them for malicious purposes. Protect yourself by setting good boundaries, indulging in self-care, leaving the situation or person and seeking therapy, if needed.”
Signs you might be an empath
While you can take an empath test online, there are some basic signs you might be an empath — no test required. Dr. Childs says if you’re an empath you may have these empath traits:
You have empathy
You’re able to understand someone else’s feelings — and people tend to tell you their problems.
“An empath can show empathy in several ways. However, at the core is them helping in whatever way they can to alleviate another person’s pain,” notes Dr. Childs. “This could be listening, holding their hands, donating to a cause or just being in silence with someone as they sit in their emotions.”
You have good intuition
You tend to trust your instinct and go with your gut when it comes to making decisions.
This is also helpful when it comes to trusting people — you tend to pick up on subtle cues that help you determine if someone is being untruthful.
“We have all that time when we wanted to trust our gut. Empaths have this on a higher level,” says Dr. Childs. “This can alert them to stay away from negative energy, people, places or situations — thereby lowering stress levels.”
You also tend to be unselfish.
“You take great strides to make sure others are happy, as you’re often tuned in to what others need,” she says.
Others may see you as a kind, warm-hearted person whom they can turn to for advice or help. On the downside, it may be hard for you to set boundaries, as you’re always concerned with how others are feeling and what you can do to help.
You have high sensitivity — and not only to emotions or how others feel.
“Some people are sensitive to sights, sounds, smells and textures — and those can be triggers for empaths,” notes Dr. Childs. “For example, those diagnosed with misophonia have difficulty with certain sounds.”
This can mean that you often feel overwhelmed in crowded spaces — and often need to take time to recharge after social situations.
Pros and cons of being an empath
As with most things in life, there’s an upside and a downside to being an empath. Dr. Childs explains.
You’re considered a good listener and can determine when someone is being dishonest or deceitful. And by understanding others on a deeper level, you can improve someone’s mood when they’re sad, upset, scared or overwhelmed.
“If you’re attuned to how others feel, you’re also in a position to help them feel better,” says Dr. Childs. “You’re genuinely a person who cares for others and is attentive to the needs of others. You don’t suffer fools or liars — you can spot them.”
Being an empath can take a mental toll and increase your risk of burnout.
“Being an empath can become overwhelming if you’re continually giving of yourself and not providing the same care for yourself,” she continues. “Self-care is imperative and even more so for an empath. Compassion fatigue can become a serious issue where you take on other emotions that it begins to impact your mental health in a negative way. We all need an outlet. Remember to replenish your cup before pouring into someone else’s.”
You may also tend to avoid conflict or be easily hurt by what someone says to you. This can be because not only do you have your own feelings, but you also tend to take on the feelings of the other person.
How to protect yourself
As mentioned, it can be overwhelming and draining to be an empath. So, how do you protect yourself? Dr. Childs suggests the following:
- Make time for yourself. Self-care is important. While you tend to spend time taking care or supporting others, make sure you also focus on your own mental well-being. Take the time to reset and recharge. There are many ways to engage in self-care. For example, take a walk outside, practice yoga or curl up with a good book.
- Spend time with people who can pour into you as well. You may have a relationship (or two) that seems one-sided — all you do is talk about that person’s problems and life. So, be aware of those toxic relationships and work on setting boundaries. And Dr. Childs says it’s important that you surround yourself with others who take the time to ask how you’re doing and who you know you can turn to for advice and support.
- Find a good therapist to help balance yourself if having difficulty with this. Therapy can teach you tools to manage your own emotions and how not to carry the emotions of others.
How to be more empathetic
If you don’t identify as an empath, there are ways you can weave more empathy into your everyday life. Here are some things you can do:
- Be more open. Taking the time to be vulnerable with others about your feelings can help them feel more comfortable sharing with you.
- Practice active listening. Consider what they’re saying, how they’re saying it and look at their body language — this can give you clues to how they’re truly feeling.
- Picture yourself in their position. Imagining how you’d feel or act in someone else’s shoes can help you have more empathy. You’ll be more likely to understanding and show compassion.
If you consider yourself an empath, there are highs and lows to being more attuned to how others feel. If you can establish boundaries in your relationships and take time for self-care, you’ll be able to use your empathic traits in a positive way to help others work through their problems — and you’ll be seen as a trusted, caring person.
“The feeling of connectedness, shared experience and being in tune with another person can be a beautiful thing in moderation,” says Dr. Childs. “Being an empath is good if you can establish boundaries on the amount of energy you give to others, making sure to reserve energy for yourself. Make sure you take the time you need for self-care and that you replenish your energy.”