What it Means To be An Empath.

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 10
Shares 10
Hearts 1.0
Comments 5.7
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
1 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.


A few weeks ago I wrote an article called A Narcissist and an Empath Walk into a Bar about my marriage to an abusive man.

For me, it was an important step forward in understanding how I let the cycle of abuse evolve and remain in place for so long.

I already knew that my ex was a narcissist who had sociopathic tendencies, but it was seeing myself as an empath for the first time that allowed me to begin to answer some troubling questions.

Of course, any time we think we’ve answered one question, 10 more pop up. In my article, I was using the word empath to describe myself as highly sensitive and responsive to other people’s emotional states. I later discovered, however, that being a true empath means quite a bit more than that.

To be empathetic is to have the ability to imagine other people’s feelings. To be an empath means you actually feel them as if they are your own.

The theory goes that everything is made of energy, including emotions. Empaths energetically internalize the feelings of others and often have trouble distinguishing whether they are experiencing their own, or someone else’s emotions.

If that is true (and it is a hotly debated topic, to be sure) then the question becomes, how do we know if we are simply empathetic (otherwise known as a “highly sensitive person” or H.S.P.) or a capital E empath? And perhaps more importantly, why does it matter?

Initially, I thought the difference between being empathetic and being an empath was simply a matter of degree. In other words, I believed an empath was just a really empathetic person. That is not true. A real empath feels things differently than someone who is just empathetic. Their nervous systems are designed to co-opt the emotional—and sometimes physical—energy of those around them. They don’t just understand what other people feel, they experience it themselves.

I found several questionnaires intended to help clarify the issue. Here is the best one (in my opinion) adapted from The Happy Sensitive.

Signs (not proof!) of being an empath:

  • People tell you that they feel better after talking to you about their physical and/or emotional pains, but you tend to feel worse after such conversations.
  • You’ve experienced having aches and pains, or intense emotions out of nowhere, only to find out later that someone you love is going through exactly that.
  • When you’re in a room with many people, your emotions and/or the physical sensations in your body often change extremely from one moment to the next. You’re worried that you may be crazy somehow. Yet, when you’re by yourself, things tend to calm down.
  • You have trouble concentrating when other people are around, but you’re able to concentrate just fine when you’re by yourself.
  • Some people get extremely uncomfortable around you, because they feel that you see right through them. You might have noticed that people avoid you when they want to hide what they are going through somehow.
  • You know a lot about other people, without knowing how. You used to think that everyone knew this much about everyone, but are coming to the realization that this is—strangely—not the case.
  • You feel extremely responsible for the well-being of the people around you. People have told you to let go, or not take things so seriously, but you just can’t.
  • When you’re around certain people, you suddenly find yourself feeling, thinking and/or acting out of character. Without those people there, you revert back to your usual self. Depending on how you feel influenced, this can either be interesting and liberating, or a little scary and worrisome.
  • You have trouble knowing what you want and need. To figure that out, you usually need to be by yourself for a stretch of time, and even then it may be much easier to voice what others want from you, than to say what you want for yourself.
  • You struggle with setting boundaries because the disappointment, anger and grief (and other emotions) of other people impacts you deeply. It seems that, no matter what you do, it’s always lose-lose for you. Either you stand up for yourself, and get overwhelmed by the negative reactions of others, or you do what they want and don’t feel good about yourself.
  • Your body often feels icky, murky, dark and unpleasant, even if you have no medical condition to attribute those feelings to. For that reason, you like to do things which take your attention away from being physically aware of how your body feels.
  • You can feel and act drunk, simply by being around other drunk people, without having had a drop of alcohol yourself.
  • You notice that you’re more directly impacted by other people’s energy when looking someone directly in the eye, being in close proximity to someone or having a strong personal bond with someone (that can influence you over long distances).
  • People tend to tell you things that “they’ve never told anyone before” even if they hardly know you.
  • Crowds tend to be overwhelming and draining for you, unless they’re an exceptionally feel-good bunch.

12 out of 15 of these statements strongly applied to me. So am I some kind of clairvoyant? Or am I just someone who feels a deep connection to others all the time?

After several days of chewing on this I am no closer to an answer, but one very interesting shift has taken place—I see that I need to make my own feelings much more of a priority.

The problem with being extremely empathetic or empathic is that other people’s emotions carry a lot more weight than our own. If someone around me, either friend, family member, co-worker, student or even a pet, is in distress, I become overwhelmed with their energy. I feel nauseous and panicked and will do anything I can to help alleviate their discomfort so that I can feel better as well.

Is this selfish? Of course it is. But by the same token, over time I have learned—not just the relief I feel in helping others—but the joy I experience when they are no longer in pain. So, not only have I been highly motivated by my personal discomfort to table my own emotions in order to help others, I’ve gotten a lot of positive reinforcement for doing so.

The problem is, during this process, my own needs and feelings become sublimated. If I’m always trying to determine and provide what everyone else needs/wants, how can I ever be in touch with what I need/want?

As someone who has allowed myself to become inextricably entwined with pretty much every soul I come into contact with, I literally have no autonomy. I have never allowed myself to be fully me, but merely an adjunct of others.

At 44 years old, I’m ready to change. This is the crossroads that most empathetic or empathic people must come to sooner or later. If we spend out entire lives stuffing down our own energy to transform the energy of others, we become depleted, depressed, resentful and in the end, a mere shadow of the vibrant soul we once were.

The only way to change this behavior is to be able to maintain what I’ll call a “compassionate distance.” This is a state of mind in which we (lovingly) acknowledge the feelings of others and the affect it has on us, while trying to maintain the distinction between those feelings and our own. We must become much more observers and much less reactors, at least at the beginning.

I am only just starting to work this out for myself. It will be a long time before I can tolerate the discomfort of the people around me without the overwhelming need to rush in and “fix it.” But with enough practice, I believe it is possible.

The principles of yoga and mindfulness are the key. I must cultivate the ability to watch my emotions come and go without judgement. Sitting in daily meditation, trying to feel and release the physical sensations of anxiety: the clenched stomach, the sleeplessness, the clamped jaw, the racing heart etc., and remembering that I can’t truly heal anyone until I learn how to honor myself will all help.

Being an HSP, an Empath or simply a deeply empathetic person is a complicated gift. If we learn to navigate it wisely, there is no limit to what we can offer ourselves and the world.



6 Relationship Tips for Empaths.

Bonus: The Introvert-Extrovert Myth, & How to Deal with being an Empath.


Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Free Parking 😐

The Elephant Ecosystem

Every time you read, share, comment or heart you help an article improve its Rating—which helps Readers see important issues & writers win $$$ from Elephant. Learn more.

Views 10
Shares 10
Hearts 1.0
Comments 5.7
Editor's Pick 0.0
Total Ecosystem Rating 0.0
1 Do you love this article? Show the author your support by hearting.

Read The Best Articles of January
You voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares.

Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed mental health clinician, certified yoga instructor, and mother to six heathens who masquerade as innocent children. If she occasionally finds herself with a fried egg on her plate or dancing until dawn, she asks that you not judge her. Life is short, she knows the chicken that laid the egg, and we can never dance too much. Connect with Erica on Facebook and Twitter. And visit her website.

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

anonymous Dec 31, 2015 9:30am

Fabulous article. I am in my forties as well and am learning how to manage around my gift. Thank you for the part about it being proximity based unless there is a strong emotional bond. I've never read that before but it is sooooo true for me.

anonymous Jun 1, 2015 8:27am

This is an excellent article, but all 15 are me… I have known for many years that I am an Empath it took a friend in my teenage years to point out to me that I wasn’t crazy. I am a retired Police Officer, while on the job I almost literally lived on Pepto as I tend to develop stomach issues when upset. It was always very draining being at work, no one calls the cops because you’re having a good day. I’ve been in an emotionally draining marriage for the last 4 years and at one point I was trying to eat and smoke myself to death as it was my only escape from the feelings I got from my partner. It’s gotten slightly better but she doesn’t realize I feel everything.

anonymous May 1, 2015 7:57pm

I've recently discovered that by wearing black onxy I can mute the aches, pains and feelings of others that I've lived with for most of my life – to the point of developing agoraphobia. The difference is phenomenal. As an example I was recently performing (yes, from agoraphobic to teaching and performing bellydance in public!) and my onxy didn't blend with my dance costume so I took it off. My friends noticed the difference very quickly as I became agitated and anxious. I put the necklace back on (stuff the costume look) and within a few minutes I was starting to calm down!

anonymous Apr 28, 2015 12:37pm

I can relate to many points in this article. I physically feel other people's illnesses. I have for years but I always thought it sounded kooky saying it out loud. I definitely have trouble setting boundaries and deciding what I want vs. what other people want of me. Unlike you, though, I am not a people pleaser! The only people I try to "fix" are the people I have a romantic relationship with (who the last one for sure is a narcissist!) I tend to run away, push people away, distance myself…maybe because it's all too much? I also know there are no quick fixes and that I actually won't be able to solve someone else's problems for them, and I can't stick around in the meantime because I absorb all the negative feelings. I HATE when I can feel myself behaving out of character around certain people. It's almost like an out of body experience where I'm super aware of how awkward I'm being but I can't stop it. I thought I was just a weirdo, introverted and a little anti-social! I also have a VERY hard time understanding people who lack empathy. This article has shed some light and makes me feel less weird and alone. Thank you!

anonymous Apr 28, 2015 6:57am

So wait, not everyone feels this way?!?! (thank you for writing this)

anonymous Apr 24, 2015 7:34am

It is a very important time right now for so many people. They are awakening this part of themselves and for people who have no idea what this feels like it is catastrophic. the good news is that our world has produced the methods that greatly aid HSP. Yoga, meditation, the arts. I’m very thankful for your description of HSP.

anonymous Apr 23, 2015 4:22pm

Thank you so much for this article. I have so many balls in the air at the moment I am actually neglecting someone who is on a very fragile part of her journey right now. I have on my list of things to do a chat about being empathic. This was very timely. I have sent a link to this article to her and hope that it serves her well. LoveAndLight!! @reddustwarrior

anonymous Apr 23, 2015 9:39am

I'm an empath. I figured it out a while back with some help, but I also found out how to deal with it. One psychic told me, "You're doing it all wrong. Stop being a sponge. You're absorbing everybody's pain when you're supposed to be grounding it. Visualize yourself as a lightning rod. Let the emotions of others just go through you right to the earth. The other people will feel better, you'll feel better, and the earth can deal with it. " Boy, what a life changer. It works. It really, REALLY works. Crowds don't bother me anymore, I'm not a weenie in personal relationships because I just want to make people happy all the time anymore, I'm more assertive and confident in public, and I can help people going through an emotional crisis much faster. Be an empath, but don't be a sponge. Be a lightning rod, and be happy.

    anonymous Apr 23, 2015 3:27pm

    Great insight!!

    anonymous Apr 28, 2015 1:21pm

    Awesome! I will definitely be trying that!

    anonymous Jun 1, 2015 8:11am

    This was so helpful to me. Thank you for sharing.

anonymous Apr 22, 2015 11:56pm

I never really paid attention to it, but I always think "I don't know why that person told me that much", people usually tell me things before I ask anything and they tell me their secrets so casually sometimes I am speechless, try to be kind.. so interesting this text!

anonymous Apr 22, 2015 12:24pm

Thanks for writing this, I am learning this same lesson, I got 14 out 15, not surprising though, my Grandmother was a gifted empath I was just hoping it would skip my generation, I'm learning how to Be with this gift and your words have helped, Namaste Punkie

anonymous Apr 22, 2015 11:57am

I have always known myself to be an Empath for 20yrs, when I first became a healer and before I even knew the word and most people didn’t believe in such things. However in that time I’ve taken a massive journey around into the total opposite thinking we have to own everything we feel in our bodies, back round to (having once again clearing my bodymindenergy field) knowing when something is mine, picked up or triggered even deeper ancestral or deep karmic patterns. It is not so cut and dried and I do believe even if we are “picking up” something from someone else and it helps to get great karmic information from them, it is also telling us something about ourselves, and how we are responding or reacting just being in relation with the other. Many Empaths are quite in denial of how much “stuff” they are also carrying. And project it all onto the other. x

    anonymous Apr 22, 2015 8:51pm

    "Many Empaths are quite in denial of how much "stuff" they are also carrying. And project it all onto the other." So true! I'm 8-9 things on the list, but some of them could apply to a lot of people. I do know I project a lot and trying to sit in my wise mind to know when I'm doing it has been helpful, so I'm still guilty of it frequently.

anonymous Apr 22, 2015 10:57am

This was a very good article… There is a song by Blue Rodeo that speaks of this confusing emotion? (If thats what it is, connection?) Till I am myself again. I believe it is called. I wrote an article on my blog two days ago about a similar subject, but mine was about how sensationalizing violence in the news media is depleting people of their natural born empathy because they learn to tune it out as something they can’t help with. Can I leave a link to my article here in comments and post a link to your article on my blog as another sourse to read about the same subject? I’m kind of new to blogging so not sure if this is the proper way to share? Thanks, Rena

    anonymous Apr 22, 2015 9:11pm

    yes of course! Link anything you think is relevant. Thank you for reading <3

anonymous Apr 22, 2015 4:57am

I struggle with the same thing. I absorbe other people's emotions and that's really difficult since I work as a psychotherapist, a profession that came natural to me. Even after so many years I haven't learned/been able to distance myself from the distress of my patients. Changing profession seems like the healthiest option for me, but I have no idea what to do instead? All my life I've been helping and caring for others, and I have no idea of what I'd vocationally would want just for ME.

    anonymous May 4, 2015 11:07am

    This is one of the best articles I have seen in describing what it is like to empathetic. The answer to her lingering question of how to cope with being who she is is to try and stay grounded. Learn to meditate. You must let emotions pass though you and resist the urge to act on every one of them. To be mindful of where the come from and the root cause why and where. You have to become proficient in stepping outside yourself and evaluate what you are feeling and resist living in the moment. A whole lot easier said than done to be sure but with practice this is possible. I was in my late 30’s before ever being able to do this with any proficiency.

anonymous Apr 21, 2015 11:35pm

Yep, sounds like me.

Linda Lewis Jun 28, 2016 11:43am

Meditation and the practice of tonglen might be a better solution than a "compassionate distance". By seeing that there is no solid self in oneself and in others, one can be with others post-meditation more like an air conditioner, taking in negativity and giving out health, good cheer, insight--whatever is needed--without the negativity sticking to the nonexistent self. It's just the free flow of energy and is not exhausting. The belief that negative energy is solid empowers it to be so. Seeing that everything is not solid is liberating and energizing--even if you understandablly might want to focus on your 6 children!

ChaCha Murdock Apr 15, 2016 5:26pm

After reading that I feel like you plugged directly into my brain and explained everything that has been troubling me. I've had sudden excruciating pain in my leg for no apparent reason, just to find out later that day that my great grandfather near cut his leg off with a chain saw; if I ride the bus, complete stangers are drawn to me (inspite of my headphones and book...) wanting to tell me their troubles; I've had many friends, co-workers and even people I've only just met tell me they were gay, but hadn't "come out" yet, but felt that I was a safe person to talk to about it first. I used to laugh a little when I'd hear people talk about energy vampires, but I truly get now. Certain people will leave me feeling SO drained that it takes me days recover. I love and care for peop le, but can hardly stand to be in other people's company. I am overwhelmed by the desire to help people and run away at the same time. Thank you. This has given me much food for thought.