Recently I was scrolling through my TikTok feed where I came across a video about what it means to be an 'empath'. I’d never heard of the term before, so it came as a bit of a shock to find myself nodding along to every bit of criteria.
I always knew I was empathetic — I mean, all human beings are to a certain extent. But since that fateful day on TikTok, I’ve had my eyes opened to my empath ways.
What’s the difference between empathy and being an empath? Empathy, as we all know is "the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation." The word ‘empath’ comes from ‘empathy,’ but its meaning is not quite the same.
Helen Spiers, Head Psychotherapist at Mable Therapy, explains: “The term ‘empath’ is being used increasingly, in both psychological and more mainstream circles, to describe someone who is more in tune with the feelings of others.
Neurologically, she tells me, empaths have a very advanced "mirror-neuron system" which is apparently is the part of the brain which enables compassion. "Put simply," she continues, "an empath is someone with higher empathy levels." But while this sounds like something we’d all wish to have, Spiers warns that it can have negative effects both emotionally and physically. Having high levels of empathy means usually means you’re "very open to stimulation and lack the sufficient protective barriers needed to cope.”
Empaths absorb external stimulants more than most people, which can leave them feeling overwhelmed by experiences that others would consider normal. According to Spiers, this can be anything from crowds and noises to itchy fabrics or bright lights. This is in addition to the extra stimulation the receive from social interactions (more on that later).
But is being an empath a diagnosable condition? Spiers clarifies, “In psychological circles, it’s historically been more common to assign those who lack empathy with Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD).
However, awareness of and research into empaths is growing.”
In my personal experience of being an empath, I find that I can sense and take on the moods of the people around me, whether it’s good or bad, minor or major. I feel every sassy hair flick, nervous shudder or sarcastic eye roll. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that’s both enlightening and exhausting.
Being around peace and love allows empaths to thrive. Yaourou Konaté Lehrmann, a French model and empath living in London, says, “I’ve learned that I can feel very much myself in the presence of certain people — smiley and happy with good energy because their energy matches mine.”
Conversely, being around other people can make empaths feel mentally drained — and fast. Yaourou adds, “I have to be selective with who I surround myself with. If I have to be around an energy sucker, I"ll do my best to avoid that person or I'll be cold.”
As a result, Yaourou agrees with me when I say that being an empath feels like both a blessing and a curse. She concludes, “I can tell how different I am from most people. I feel too much and I like to help others, just because." She continues: "Most people are not like that — they’ve got the ‘what's in it for me’ kind of mentality. I genuinely feel like an alien on the wrong planet sometimes.”
According to Spiers, there are a variety of reasons why people are empaths. “It’s not necessarily something we’re born with, but our natural temperament can definitely contribute. Genetics can also play a part, so if our parents are empaths then it’s more likely that we will be.”
On the other hand, Spiers says there’s also evidence to suggest that if our parents lack empathy, we’re more likely to become empaths. “This could be because we’re trained in putting the needs of others before our own.”
Research has also shown that children who go through abuse or trauma could be more susceptible to becoming empaths. “Early trauma or abuse may lead to a heightened desire to preserve life, so survival instincts will cause them to be more inhibited and avoid the ‘risk-taking’ behaviours we may associate with people who are extroverts or more narcissistic.”
There is also a well-known link between being an empath and other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Spiers tells us, “With depression, an empath may feel overwhelmed by the pain and suffering of others. This may lead them to withdraw from their usual routine as a means of self-protection, but by isolating themselves and breaking links with their families and friends, the depression can then be exacerbated.
Similarly, an empath may become highly anxious because they’ve ‘absorbed’ the pain and distress of someone else too much. This may lead to them avoiding people for their own mental health, yet the guilt they’re likely to feel at putting their own needs first may heighten the anxiety.”
When it comes to relationships, I often find that being an empath can either help or harm them. For example, when friends, family members or partners celebrate an achievement, I feed off their uplifting energy, which then has a positive effect. One of my best friends set up her own business earlier this year. When she told me it had finally launched after months of planning, I felt like I was on cloud nine with her.
She was ecstatic that I was whooping, cheering and celebrating as hard as she was. It made me feel more connected to her and strengthened the bond that we have, thus improving our relationship.
On the other hand, I’ve had confrontations with loved ones because I’ve taken an offhand comment to heart, whether this was face-to-face or through a WhatsApp message.
For instance, a family member was recently sending me short, one-line texts answering my questions when she usually sends essays. I was convinced for days that it wasn’t like her and I must have done something to upset her. After bringing it up during our next meet-up, it turns out that she was just busy and stressed with her job — there wasn’t a problem with me or our relationship at all. In fact, she was frustrated that I thought there might be an issue, even suggesting that I was “creating” one unnecessarily.
The result? We didn’t speak properly for days.
My husband says that I tend to “read into things,” but I know I can’t be the only empath with these kinds of experiences.
Jess Commons, Managing Editor of Refinery29 was told by a psychologist a few years back that she displays all the traits of an empath. "As someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression too, sometimes my feeling of responsibility for fixing everyone's feelings gets overwhelming. At its worst I soak up the sadness or anger of random people on the bus or on social media and I feel like a huge failure that I can't fix the negative emotions they're experiencing. When this happens I retreat away from everyone because it's exhausting just being in the presence of others." Of course, she continues, as someone who thrives off interaction with people, this inevitably makes her depression worse.
Sophia Husbands, a lifestyle and wellness blogger, says that she's had to accept and adapt certain things in her life to deal with the over-stimulation that comes with being an empath.
She explains, “I tend to visit stores at less busy times. It’s not uncommon to find me clothes shopping on a weekday evening or Sunday afternoon so it feels like they’ve closed the shop just for me!”
Similarly, when Sophia used to commute into London on the Tubes, she would travel earlier in the morning when there would be fewer people around. “In the busier spells, I would ‘tune out’ by either wearing my earphones and listening to classical music — or just having no music on at all.”
Spending time in nature and calm environments can help empaths to protect their mental health. According to Spiers, there are some other ways that they can combat any negative experiences.
Firstly, empaths need to build their resilience and self-esteem so they’re able to set healthy boundaries. “All three are needed as we’re unable to build resilience without believing in our ability to cope, and we’re unable to set boundaries if we don’t see ourselves as valuable enough to deserve them.”
This is, of course, easier said than done. Spiers says: “We need to become more aware of our ‘inner-critic.’ When it does rear its head, we need to challenge it. If it’s telling us we’re going to do a task badly, we can reply back that we’ve done this plenty of times before and even if we do make a mistake, that’s okay.
The more we show this self-compassion, the more self-esteem we’ll have and this will lead to resilience — a belief that we can overcome challenges.”
It's important too to realise that empaths are more susceptible to entering into dysfunctional relationships, which can have a detrimental impact on mental health. “Be clear with loved ones, letting them know how much of our time we can give them. And if we don’t have the capacity to support them, we must learn and practice the art of saying ’no’.”
Thirdly, if an empath does find themselves in a situation likely to cause overwhelm, set time aside to recover afterwards. “After going to a social event, planning a quiet day the day after where no interactions will be required can be helpful.”
Spiers says that learning mindfulness exercises can also be beneficial. “These will help empaths with ‘grounding’ and returning to the present if they find themselves getting lost in thought and overthinking things.”
As time goes on, empaths can naturally find the coping strategies that work for them. Even though I used to think that being an empath was a hindrance, I’ve grown to be thankful for it. It makes me a compassionate person who can relate to people on a whole other level.
Spiers concludes, “If people can learn to utilise their advanced empathy levels, it can be a huge gift.”