What is an Empath? An Absorbent, Intuitive, Emotional Warrior
As an open-hearted and whimsical little boy, I wish this question had dawned on me sooner, “What is an Empath?” Given all the experiences that sensitive children tend to endure, I wish someone had taught me about my nature during childhood, instead of plopping it into my lap when I was a meandering adult. My boyhood battles were hard fought and rarely won. The lessons throughout the years seemed to point to one thing: I had no idea I was an Empath.
Are You An Empath?
I remember the day someone asked me that question. I was 30 years old, sitting on a beach in California, holding a friend’s hand. I felt so badly for her broken heart that I cried with her. When she asked me that very potent question, my tears turned inward, where I immediately found a beautiful and profound clarity. At that moment, I knew I was an Empath. I was free.
In the years to come, I could not only feel the feelings of others; I could see the possible trajectories in their lives. On several occasions, I took on my client’s physical attributes, including the temporary appearance of track marks on my arms when doing a session for a former heroin addict.
Yes, being an Empath can be intense.
What is a True Empath?
Over the years, I’ve seen the definition of Empath morph. It used to refer to being able to imagine feeling what other people are feeling. It grew from there to reference people who are deeply and actively compassionate, and in the face of danger or drama, can readily extend warmth and kindness to those in need.
As factions of society became more conscious, the definition of an Empath narrowed and crystalized. It’s clear now. An Empath is someone uniquely open and highly sensitive, to the point of being able to embody and process the emotions that someone else is experiencing. It turns out that Empathy is the older, wiser brother to compassion.
Not only do Empaths grow and heal by processing the emotions of other people, but they can also learn to be inspiring advisors and powerful healers. They can build schools of thought and heal nations. Nelson Mandela was an Empath.
What Does it Mean to be an Empath?
If you can feel, from head to toe, what others are feeling when they are having a tough day, you might be an Empath. If you feel overwhelmed and personally afflicted when someone else is hurt or broken, there’s a good chance you’re an Empath.
It all starts with a traumatic event for another person and the immediate feeling of being completely overwhelmed, yet unable to describe it. Somehow your voice is shackled, and your energy is restricted. You don’t feel depleted, but you feel limited, maybe oppressed. As your mind fails to land on a clear thought, deep in your heart, you realize something’s wrong. But, what is it?
At first, you try meditation, exercise, therapy, dance, essential oils, crystals, herbs, jogging, sex, tantra, mountaineering and adventure travel, plus every other modality that might help you shed inhibition or come back to life. While some of these things help you find yourself again some of the time, most of them don’t work most of the time. Empaths tend to spend 50-70% of their lives somewhat emotionally restricted, confused, or depressed.
While most now agree that an Empath is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who feels and absorbs what other people are feeling, there are different degrees of Empathic abilities.
Some Empaths can feel what an object is carrying, and possibly the energy of the person who once held it. The most intensely intuitive Empaths not only feel emotions and energy from most of the people in a room, but they also feel the residual energy and can intuit the personal circumstances surrounding the people who recently inhabited that room. Some Empaths are downright spooky. I’m one of those Empaths, and I love it.
Types of Empaths
As you can tell, there are varying levels of Empaths. Some can carry collected energy their entire lives, without ever being able to relinquish it. The reason that an Empath might be stuck in this way is that they never learned how to set boundaries, release collected energies, and reinvigorate themselves. This points to one painful fact: most Empaths have no idea how to care for themselves.
An Empath doesn’t have to be a professional clairvoyant, intuitive reader, or life coach. Some Empaths are artists, politicians, or teachers. You can even find Empaths in the military.
We tend to be bright, compassionate, and proactive, although there is also a slight tendency to over-dramatize emotional situations and events. Empaths are not perfect; we’re just open-hearted and absorbent.
You might be an Emotional, Medical, Intellectual, or Spiritual Empath. Regardless, the traits of an Empath can vary. Here is a list of potential characteristics, according to the newly emerging category of Empath psychology:
- Often considered a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
- Materially, energetically and spiritually generous
- Absorbent to the point of having to shed the emotions collected from others
- Highly intuitive, telepathic or clairvoyant
- Sleep is filled with potent dreams that are easily remembered and interpreted
- Appear to be slightly sad or depressed, more than most
- Come off as mystical or spiritual
- Tend to be shy, introverted or avoidant of conversation
- Able to heal others of physical, intellectual and emotional challenges
- Easily manipulated or coerced
- Easily overwhelmed
- Can quickly become the dumpster for every else’s negativity
- Energy can be rapidly drained
- Equally helpful to friends and strangers
- Often feel better in solitude
- Feel as though they can deeply and genuinely relate with trees, plants, and animals as if they are kin to human beings
- Able to pick up the disease and physical symptoms of the sick
- Able to quickly parse the emotions and thoughts of others
- Attractive to narcissists and energy vampires
- Attuned to the moment someone is lies
- Tend to give far more than is required or necessary
- Tend to have a tipping point where the individual cuts cords with others
- Might temporarily hate themselves, and as a result, get stuck for a while
- Might be seen as a doormat or sucker
- Sensitive to smells, sounds, and tastes to the point of being immobilized
- Feel full of love and light when they are surrounded by nature
- Feel replenished during thunderstorms and snow storms
- Shocked by event crowds, cocktail parties, and busy department stores
- Loves to write, paint, sculpt, color, dance or play music
Empath and Narcissist Romances
If you’re an Empath, you’ve probably spent some time in a relationship with an extremely needy person or a narcissist. The Empath-narcissist pairing is alluring because the Empath is always absorbing something palpable from the emotion-addicted narcissist. With their hearts full of light and love, this can be exciting or energizing for an Empath.
With each projection that extends from the vampire-like partner, the Empath will find ways to reflect healthier versions of the projection, with the hope he or she might save the narcissist from yet one more drastic rise or fall.
It’s the Empaths throughout the world that tend to act as the psychic receptacles of emotional and dramatic events. Yes, Empaths can save the universe.
Are Empaths Real?
Once in a while, I bump into people who reject the notion that Empaths are different from others. They say things like, “You’re too sensitive” or “Why do you choose to feel that way.” As an Empath, you eventually learn to tolerate these statements, without reacting to them. I will often respond, “If I wasn’t feeling things so deeply, I might never have seen your immense value.” Or “If I wasn’t truly Empathic, how could I have seen that subtle event that broke your heart and told you what it felt like.”
It’s an honor to be an Empath, yet it takes time to learn how to maneuver through all the emotional and energetic fascia throughout the environments and relationships that we encounter.
There are millions of Empaths around the world. If you’re on the Meyers-Briggs scale as an INFP or INFJ, you might be one, too.
Here is a list of a few of the more popular Empaths throughout history. There are many more.
Look around at your family and friends. Chances are there 10% of them are empathic in some way. Be gentle with these folks and nurture these relationships. At some point in the future, you might need a deeply loving friend to come to your rescue.
7 Tools for Managing Overwhelming Emotions
Let’s face it – sometimes emotions get the best of us. Once we are triggered, it is tough to be in pain and not do something that essentially makes it worse. It’s much easier to numb the pain temporarily, but unfortunately those coping methods tend to have negative consequences. Basically, we get into the habit of choosing short-term symptom relief rather than addressing the core issue. You know what I’m talking about. How many of you have used alcohol to cope with your feelings of stress or sadness? How many of you ended up in much worse pain the next day or, worse, by the end of the night in tears in front of people you don’t quite trust?
Other popular unhealthy coping methods include: TV, drugs, sex, cigarettes, food, gambling, prescription pills, and the ever so popular sweeping-it-under-the-rug method. I must admit these methods are very tempting, but we all know how they end. What’s worse is that we still engage in these behaviors. Why?! Well for one, these unhealthy solutions work very well in the immediate. The second reason is that they are much easier to engage in and usually come with pleasure.
What are we hiding from, though? It’s funny, but when you think about it, we are only hiding from negative emotion. What’s an emotion? Is it going to kill us? Is it going to last forever? Sometimes emotions can feel that they are going to last forever, but the answer is no. All emotions crescendo and then dissipate. They imitate movement like a sign curve. Keeping this in mind would make it a lot easier to navigate our emotions. In order to deal with overwhelming emotions it is helpful to have a tool belt to reach for in times of distress. Here are a few of these less dangerous, and unfortunately, less fun, ways of dealing with these pesky negative emotions:
- Put it in perspective
Sometimes when you take a step back and think about what is really important to you, the problem that you think you are experiencing becomes very small. Ask yourself, “Will I still be in this much pain in one week? A month? One year from now? Will I remember this as significant? When I die do I want to remember this as something I spent a lot of time on?
Death is the ultimate teacher. Life is precious because it is limited. Nothing is worth sacrificing our happiness for. Nothing. It is impossible to control outside events that cause disturbance within, but it is completely in our control to either hang on or let it go. When we cling or feed the negative emotion, it robs us of our limited time on this planet. You are not your thoughts, your emotions, your body, or your things. Do not let death teach you this at the last minute.
- Engage in an act of self love
Many people understand being physically ill and respect it as painful. If you get sick, oftentimes your loved ones will tell you, “You poor thing. Go home and take a hot bath!” But there is a double standard when it comes to being in pain from emotions. If you don’t feel well emotionally, it can be tough to find an empathetic ear. We all get scared to share our emotions at times. We are ultimately afraid to hear, “Suck it up or get over it.” These words do more harm than good. If you are not feeling well emotionally, I challenge you to engage in acts of self-love as if you were physically ill. Go home. Take a hot bath. Sleep. You never know, it might make you feel a little better to take care of yourself. The idea would be to soothe with the 5 senses. Find activities that are soothing to your each of your senses:
- Sight: Look at the sunset
- Sound: Listen to relaxing music
- Touch: Get a massage or go to yoga
- Smell: Aromatherapy in a nice hot bath
- Taste: Eat something that brings up good memories or give yourself that treat you love!
- Put a time limit on it
When we are hurt it is so easy to get lost in the rabbit hole. In the rabbit hole we become the emotions and thoughts that are plaguing us. We ruminate and get lost in trying to solve a problem that is unsolvable. We feed the emotion by believing the catastrophic thoughts that come up like, “I hate him and myself for trusting him. He never liked me and was just using me the whole time. I never want to see him again. I am going to call his parents and tell them what a bad person he is.”
Instead of letting these thoughts come and go we might actually act on them. We feel so horrible that we avoid people, stay in bed for weeks at a time, drink too much, or eat too much. In order to avoid this, put a time limit on it. Tell yourself that you are going to think or talk about this problem for only one hour a day until it is resolved or you come to acceptance. Once the hour is over, choose an activity that is the opposite of the emotion you are feeling to change your mood.
If you are sad, listen to happy music. If there is anger, watch a comedy on TV. If you are stressed and tense, go take a yoga class. Everyone deserves a break from time to time. Do not let one area of your life that is causing you pain engulf your entire world. You have the ultimate control over your happiness.
- Let the negative energy pass through you
Negative emotion is just negative energy. It does not help to squash it down, numb it or avoid it. The only way, is to face it head on and allow it to pass through you. This takes some bravery on your part. You must allow yourself to feel the pain. There are some tools that can help while you do this. You can allow yourself to get the support you need. Oftentimes, it is very difficult to be vulnerable and admit to others that you are having a hard time. In order to move the negative energy through your body it helps to talk to another trusted person. You can also release the energy by exercising, writing in a journal, or simply relaxing your body and letting your preconceived notions of how it “should” be, go.
- Observe the emotion
You are not the emotion or your thoughts. You can take a step back and witness what your thoughts and emotions do when there is a disturbance. Watch the thoughts or self-talk get faster as they ask you to fix them before they become abusive. Watch the emotion crescendo and dissipate. Do not avoid. Avoidance makes the emotion and the thoughts louder. Allow yourself to have the emotion, don’t fight it, and don’t escalate it by falling down the rabbit hole and attaching to the thoughts. Eventually it will pass. You do not really need to do anything for the pain to subside. It will on its own.
By this, I do not mean that you should not deal with your problems. By all means take care of yourself and your responsibilities. Just do not make decisions when you are in a heightened state. Wait until the emotion passes and then solve the problem. You will be able to see much clearer once the intensity has lessened.
- Delay, distract, and then decide
This tool, created by Marsha Linehan, is useful in order to inhibit negative reaction to a negative emotion. Many times, if we make a decision in the emotion it will make it worse. Basically, any negative urge or craving lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes. Help yourself by delaying your reaction and any subsequent actions for 20 to 30 minutes with a distraction.
You can go to work, help someone else, go for a walk, take a break from the trigger, read, or watch a movie. Once the time is up, make a pros and cons list as to whether your reaction is worth doing. Usually you will decide not to react the original way you had planned. For instance, slashing your boyfriend’s tires out because he lied to you probably won’t seem like such a good idea once some of the anger has passed.
- Become aware of your physical and emotional vulnerabilities
Sometimes our emotions can get the best of us when we are not feeling well. Become aware of your triggers. Ask yourself if you have any physical or emotional vulnerabilities that are getting in the way of managing your emotions. Some of these vulnerabilities are: hunger, lack of sleep, injury, illness, stress, lack of support, crisis, past trauma, negative core beliefs, etc. If you notice that the current problem is escalated due to one or more of these factors you may want to try to take care of the vulnerability first in order to prevent and manage the escalation of your emotion.
Embrace Your Emotions
My wish for us all is to start viewing negative emotion as an opportunity to practice these new skills rather than allowing the emotion to be a threat to our self-concept or survival. We do not have to fight and we do not need to flee (run or avoid). I hope that one or more of these resonates with you, and the next time you are in the emotion, you can remember to pull this list out of your wallet. Remember that it will pass, it is ok to have the emotion, and above all else you don’ t necessarily need to do anything. Let go and let it pass through you, because it will!
If you would like to learn more please visit or contact me at Good Therapy San Diego.
This article was inspired by The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer