Having empathy means not only understanding and relating to what someone is going through, but walking through it with them. As Brené Brown, professor and a leading researcher on empathy, explains, “Empathy is feeling with people.”
But what if you felt someone else’s emotions as if they were yours? What if the emotions of others manifested for you in authentic physical or emotional responses? For example, if you’re consoling a friend who just lost their job, do you feel their pain as your own? Does their situation make you anxious?
If you find yourself connecting deeply in this way with the emotions of others, this could be an indicator that you’re an empath. While research on empaths is inconclusive, psychiatrist and author Judith Orloff has brought the concept to the forefront with her bestselling book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the traits of highly empathetic people and the unique challenges and advantages that they have.
- 15–20% of the population is considered highly sensitive.
- Being an empath can be rewarding but also harmful if not properly managed.
- Narcissists, psychopaths, and Machiavellian personalities are an empath’s opposite.
- With the right tools and boundaries, empaths can thrive amongst non-empaths.
What Is an Empath?
An empath is someone who is able to deeply sense and understand the emotions of others, often to a highly intense degree. Empaths can absorb and share the emotional experiences of those around them, leading to a greater amount of sensitivity and an overall strong capacity for compassion and connection.
The term “empath” became popular following the research of psychiatrist Dr. Orloff. Orloff has since been dubbed “The Godmother of the Empath Movement” and has delivered numerous keynotes about the powers those with empathetic ability hold. In The Empath’s Survival Guide, Orloff says, “Empaths are creators, inventors, visionaries, artists, and people who feel first.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula describes empaths, particularly in a society of narcissists, in this way: “They are human lifeboats. . . life preservers, an Oasis in the midst of the desolation.”
10 Signs You’re an Empath
“As an empath, you are part of a countercultural revolution to put what is humane back into humanity.”Judith Orloff
Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I an empath?” The following signs may indicate you might be one.
1. You’ve Been Told You’re Highly Sensitive
If you’ve ever been called sensitive, this is a sign you’re an empath. According to Psychology Today, about 15–20% of the population are highly sensitive people (HSPs).
Sensitive people can feel the emotions of others, but a trademark of being an empath is that you feel their emotions even more deeply. This is because, according to Dr. Orloff, empaths are said to have hyper-responsive mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of cells in the brain that enable one to “mirror” the emotions of others.
In The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Elaine N. Aron shares, “HSPs do more of that which makes humans different from other animals: We imagine possibilities. We humans, and HSPs especially, are acutely aware of the past and future.”
2. You’re Extremely Aware of Yourself
Insight author Tasha Eurich reveals that while 95% of people believe they have self-awareness, only about 12–15% are truly aware of themselves internally and externally. Yet, self-awareness is closely linked with having empathetic ability, according to The Self-Awareness Guy. If you have a keen awareness of yourself and how your behaviors impact others, this is one of the signs you’re an empath.
3. You’re In Tune With the Emotions of Others
Empaths have the unique ability to detect others’ energies and emotions. This is tied to their hyper-responsive mirror neurons, which enable them to empathize with these energies and emotions and pick up on them when non-empaths often can’t. If you’re in a social situation, and you can tell that your friend is upset without any obvious clues, you’re likely an empath. Even subtle clues, such as facial expressions, are easy for you to read.
4. Large Crowds Are Draining to You
Empaths feel everything on a greater level, and they notice all the people, chatter, and movement around them. It’s for this reason that large crowds and social events can be draining for them. In fact, one study discovered negative associations between empathetic people and the presence of clinical social anxiety. If you’ve ever attended a large social event and felt the need to withdraw for several days afterward, you’re likely an empath.
5. Your Nerves Are Easily Jarred by Smells, Noises, and Talking
In The Empath’s Survival Guide, Dr. Orloff says, “What makes an empath’s overload symptoms worse? Fatigue, illness, rushing, traffic, crowds, loud environments, toxic people, low blood sugar, arguing, overwork . . .” Just as an empath is sensitive to the subtle energies and emotions of others, so, too, are they sensitive to other external stimuli. If you find yourself affected by smells, noises, or visually overwhelming stimuli, this could be related to your empathetic nature.
6. You’ve Been Told You Take Things Too Personally
One common way to discern if you’re an empath is if you’ve been told by others that you take things too personally. Empaths can feel and perceive things more deeply than non-empaths. As a result, the things that they experience or that are said to them are taken more seriously and personally.
Of course, hearing this can be upsetting to an empath. As Lauren Valko with The Highly Sensitive Refuge states, “Empaths need to be around people who accept their beautifully in-tune nature instead of trying to change them.”
7. You Require Time Alone to Revive
While HSPs tend to be introverted, empaths are often introverted extroverts. Empaths enjoy the company and connection of others, but they typically need alone time to recharge. In an interview with Business Insider, Dr. Orloff says, “An empath is an emotional sponge,” and therefore, “absorbs the stress and also the positive emotions into their own bodies from other people.” If you need ample alone time after engaging socially, this is a common indicator you might be a highly empathetic person.
8. You Always Plan an “Exit”
Feeling external stimuli and the emotions of others can be overwhelming and even anxiety-inducing for empaths, so they often need to ensure a smooth “exit” is available in social situations. If you prefer to take your own car when going out, meet people in neutral places, or otherwise make plans that allow you to leave easily, you might be an empath.
9. You Get Anxious When People Yell
Yelling—and confrontation in general—can be anxiety-inducing to empaths and sensitive people. Often, when an empath is in a confrontational situation, their anxiety prompts them to withdraw, disconnect, or even shut down.
In an interview with Power of Misfits, HSP expert Dr. Tracy Cooper shares, “The need to withdraw, even when witnessing the suffering of others or in conflict situations, may be self-protective and stem from boundaries the person may have found necessary to set and enforce or sometimes due to traumatic experiences in the past where the person has felt powerless or endured abuse.”
10. You Sometimes Don’t Know Why You Feel a Certain Way
As intuitive as empaths can be toward the emotions of others, they sometimes have trouble understanding or separating the causes behind their own emotions. As Dr. Tracy Cooper further shares, “Untreated trauma, lack of ability to regulate the intensity of emotions, and distinguishing between the emotions that are our own versus the emotions of others may all be contributing factors to the ‘empath shutdown.’” If you’ve ever had trouble identifying why you feel the way you feel, it may be because you’re getting your empathetic lines crossed with the emotions of others.
Challenges of Being an Empath
“If you’re an empath, just being around someone in a bad mood can be enough to absorb their energy as your own.”Brooke Nielsen, LMFT
Being an empath can be incredibly rewarding. It can mean having deeper relationships, greater trust, and a unique ability to help others. It can also come with some challenges. Since empaths connect so personally with external energies, protecting their mental health is paramount.
Common challenges faced by empaths:
- Inability to separate others’ emotions from your own.
- Difficulty trying to voice your own needs or set boundaries.
- Adapting your personality to what you think others need or expect.
- Over-apologizing and feeling unnecessarily burdened by the weight of others’ emotions.
Dr. Teyhou Smyth, with Psychology Today, explains, “Empaths have a greater risk of taking on others’ problems. Even when an empath knows they should allow others to solve their own problems, the urge to help can be strong.” She continues, “Empaths are also at greater risk of entering relationships with narcissists, who, by definition, lack empathy for others.”
Tips for empaths to find solace and balance:
- Know your triggers and limitations.
- Practice saying “no” without explaining why.
- Prioritize alone time for reflection and decompression.
- Respect your empathetic needs and establish boundaries.
- Use the “shielding” technique (visualizing yourself being protected by light to deflect negativity) to combat sensory overload.
The Opposite of an Empath
“The narcissist is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom: No matter how much you put in, you can never fill it up.”Dr. Ramani Durvasula
Narcissists, psychopaths, Machiavellianists—also known as the “dark triad”—and even dark empaths comprise the other end of the empathy spectrum. While empaths and HSPs are extremely empathetic, these personality types are void of empathy entirely and feed off negative emotions.
The “Dark Triad” Personalities:
- Narcissism: Narcissism is characterized by excessive attention and focus on one’s own physical appearance and needs for admiration.
- Psychopathy: Psychopaths can be identified by their reduced inhibitions and empathy toward others. They can deceive, threaten, or even harm people while appearing friendly.
- Machiavellianism: Machiavellianism refers to people who revel in exploiting others and often use manipulation to get their way.
Resources for Navigating Life as an Empath
“Highly sensitive people are too often perceived as weaklings or damaged goods. To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate.”Anthon St. Maarten
Being an empath is a gift. It means being the light in the darkness or the “oasis in the midst of desolation.” However, the key to navigating life successfully as an empath is knowing how to put yourself first sometimes.
One of the key struggles of empaths is that they give too much of themselves, often sacrificing their own mental, emotional, and physical needs. If this happens, being an empath can begin to feel more like a curse. However, by recognizing your own needs and limitations, you can enjoy the rewards of embodying empathetic leadership without compromising your mental health.
Tips and resources for empaths:
- Read The Empath’s Survival Guide by Dr. Orloff.
- Read The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People by Mel Collins.
- Enroll in Dr. Orloff’s online survival course for empaths.
- Connect with an HSP coach or healer for personalized support.
- Subscribe to The Empath Podcast with Robin Scott.
Continue learning about empathy and the important role it plays in the workplace by reading “Why is Empathy Important as a Business Leader?“
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