Do people sometimes tell you that you're extraordinarily sensitive? Perhaps you become exhausted when you're in a large group for too long, almost like you take on their feelings.
Maybe you have an uncanny ability to pick up dishonesty in others, or you become overwhelmed by an awareness of other people's struggles.
If this picture sounds familiar, you might just be an empath. But what exactly does this mean, and how can you best use it to your advantage?
Meanwhile, if you're not an empath, is it possible to become one?
We'll outline the nature of an empath as well as how it benefits you to be one, and we'll look at how being sensitive is different from being an empath.
Most importantly, we'll look at four ways to enhance your empathy. Whether you're already an empath or want to become one, these techniques will help you make you most of your ability to tune into other people's feelings.
Sometimes, empaths are so capable of relating to other people that they take on pain that doesn't belong to them, which can be exhausting.
However, as we'll see below, there are also many benefits of being an empath.
If you want to know whether you are an empath, the following questions are a helpful guide.
If you answered “yes” more than twice, you at least have some empathetic tendencies.
At this point, you might be wondering if being an empath is just the same as being sensitive.
However, while all empaths are highly sensitive, not all sensitive people are empaths.
Empathy expert Dr. Judith Orloff notes that sensitive people and empaths share certain traits.
In particular, they're easily overstimulated by noise and crowds, they need to be alone to recover from social activity, it takes them longer than the average person to wind down after stress.
Therefore they are self-reflective and imaginative, and they typically have a desire to help others.
In addition, they often love nature and begin around animals, spending time outside to relax.
So, where does the difference come in? As Dr. Orloff explains, empaths take all of the above much further. More specifically, if you're an empath then you can sense subtle changes in the emotions of others.
You essentially absorb their emotions into your bodies, while even very sensitive people rarely do this. Consequently, empaths can have difficulty differentiating between their own feelings and the feelings of those around them.
However, once you learn to do this, your empathy puts you in a unique position to form deep connections with others.
Before we look at the benefits of being an empath and explore techniques to harness those benefits, it's worth thinking a little more about the daily life of an empath.
In particular, it's important to be aware of how to take care of yourself as an empath. While (as we'll see below) empaths are typically wonderful friends, close relationships can be hard on those who are deeply empathetic.
Because of the emotions, they take on from their loved ones, they can feel like they're drowning in negative feelings like hurt, fear, or anger.
Perhaps as a consequence of this, empaths often take on the problems of others as well. If you're an empath, you might feel it's your responsibility to solve these problems.
Being an empath also influences your needs on a daily basis. When you've been in a crowd or even just a medium-sized group, you'll need to deliberately take time out.
If you don't do this, you'll easily become exhausted. All that said, however, there are many more benefits than costs attached to being an empath.
Now that you understand the basics of being an empath and have a sense of whether you are one, let's turn to the major benefits of this higher level of empathy.
We'll focus on benefits associated with the interpersonal connection in particular, and note how this connectedness can enhance your success and satisfaction more broadly.
Firstly, as we've noted above, if you're an empath then you have an uncanny ability to know what others are feeling. Even when you don't know someone very well, you very quickly develop a read on their emotions.
You learn how to interpret their body language, start to pick up what they want from you, and often get a read on some of their biggest insecurities as well.
Why is this such a benefit? For one thing, when you express this empathy, others instantly feel closer to you. You make them feel heard and understood, which is enormously valuable.
This not only helps you form bonds with friends and lovers – but it also helps you be shrewd in-network in your career. After all, your ability to read emotions isn't limited to reading the emotions of those you like.
On a related note, being an empath gives you a head start in particular jobs, such as teaching, counseling, customer service, and creative writing. And as a bonus, your empathy puts you in a great position to detect dishonesty. As a result, you're less likely to put your trust in people who don't really have your best interests at heart.
Secondly (and relatedly), if you're an empath then you can experience a whole further level of emotion that is closed off to many other people.
With your enhanced ability to feel love and compassion, you have access to more joy and more connectedness. When you are deeply in love or have a profound friendship, you feel incredibly close and validated.
You also cope with conflict or disagreement much more effectively, as you can tap into the other person's perspective. When you express your empathy in an argument, you immediately deescalate it.
And you can come to a compromise more easily, as you can see how to balance your needs with the needs of others.
The benefits of being an empath are profound and far-reaching.
However, these amazing benefits can be harder to access and appreciated when your empathy feels uncontrolled and you feel overwhelmed by the feelings of others.
With that in mind, let's look at four strategies for making the most of your empathy. These techniques can also be used to develop and build your empathy in a healthy way.
Unfortunately, if you experience high levels of empathy then it's common to also have a loud inner critic.
In other words, you probably have a voice in your head that promotes self-conflict, telling you that you're not good enough.
You are vulnerable to this voice because of your deep sensitivity, and it will arise at any time you feel vulnerable or insecure.
Perhaps you find yourself thinking “You're too sensitive – it's pathetic!”
Or even “Why are your emotions so intense? You're irrational.”
To work on battling your inner critic and second thought, develop a habit of responding.
Have something to say back to these negative messages, such as “Because I'm sensitive, I can show love to others and help” and “My emotions are a reliable guide to truth.” In addition, try to find the origins of your inner critic.
When you understand why you are down on yourself, you can lead yourself to a new sense of self.
In brief, it's the art of offering yourself the same understanding and kindness that you so easily offer to others. It simply involves treating yourself as you would treat someone you love, but it can be very difficult.
However, if you deliberately practice self-compassion, it gets progressively easier over time. First, notice when you're struggling, and acknowledge that you're finding life difficult.
Next, respond kindly. What do you need? Do you need a day off, or to spend extra time on something you love? Throughout, try to remember that we all experience struggles, and all find life incredibly hard sometimes.
We don't need to be perfect to be worthy of love. You don't expect others to be perfect, so try to judge yourself by the same standard.
Mindful mediation practices are helpful for anyone who wants to work on regulating their emotions.
It's especially useful if you're an empath, as it will improve your ability to separate other people's feelings from your own.
Neurological and psychological research shows that mindfulness practices and meditation actually change the structure and response of your brain over time.
You become progressively skilled at non-judgmentally observing your feelings and your situations, and at regulating those responses.
Any time you feel overwhelmed, meditation can recenter you.
The good news is that you don't need to do any particularly sophisticated meditations in order to get these benefits. Something as simple as daily breathing exercises will help you develop the same skills.
Try setting aside 10-15 minutes each day, and focus exclusively on slow, deep breathing. Allow any distractions or unrelated thoughts to drift by, gently redirecting your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing.
Finally, when you're an empath, your understanding of other people's emotions can tempt you to use all your resources to try to help those people. Some will take advantage of your empathy and kindness, while others will be too distressed to realize that they're draining you.
That's why it's important for you to consider the boundaries you need to have, and to do what you need to in order to upload those boundaries.
What does it mean to set boundaries on your empathy? One thing you can do is notice how much social contact you can tolerate before you feel overwhelmed. Then, try to keep your interactions within those limits.
In addition, consider pulling away from people who repeatedly try to violate your boundaries. Healthy friendships and relationships should involve reciprocal support. So, if you feel like someone is using you for your empathy, they may not be a healthy addition to your life.