Seven or eight years ago, I was on shaky ground and didn’t read much in the way of mindful essays or pop psychology.
One night, laying in bed with my new girlfriend—staring at the ceiling in the dark— she explained how she intuitively felt the emotions of everyone around her and this meant she was an empath. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard.
I thought, perhaps, I might be one too.
I can pick up on things. After all, I usually know who’s having an awful time at a party. Later, in the cold light of reason, I realized that a better definition for my personality type might be “neurotic” and she—well that’s something else entirely.
After we had our first child, we went over a year without sex. Yup. An entire year. And there were plenty of times when I would think to myself, “If she’s an empath then she’s also a masochist.”
That was the only way I could explain how she could possibly allow me to walk around like that and not address the issue. “If she knows exactly what sort of emotions I am feeling when we are in the same room,” I thought, “then I have made the fatal mistake of procreating with Lady Macbeth.”
Don’t get me wrong—I loved her. I actually still do. In fact, I think it’s more reasonable to just go ahead and say she is not an empath. Or, maybe she was, and then stopped being one after she had a child. I’m not sure how it works, but I had the feeling it couldn’t be something that comes and goes.
Then I did a little research and found out that a spectrum for this sort of thing actually exists. What a relief!
Humans love to put things on spectrums. It helps us imagine that there is some order to the chaotic madness in the world around us.
On one end of the spectrum we have—yes, you guessed it—narcissists. These are the people whose existence on the planet is for not much more than to vex the highly sensitive and empathic. This is done by luring the unsuspecting victim into sexual and intimate relationships. Of course, they are not initially seen as narcissistic when these trysts begin. They are seen as “Mr. Right.” When things blow up, which they invariably do, the man (or woman) generally assumes their true definition.
Next, we have psychic vampires, which are also known as energy vampires. The most glaring difference between these people and your run-of-the-mill narcissist is that there is a dubious theory that these people are not intending any malice. They just can’t help walking in a room and making you tired just from having to listen to them for five minutes. They are an accidental drain on your mood and your energy.
While it may be true that they kill the vibe inadvertently everywhere they show up, this shouldn’t be any reason to see them as benign. Intentions, one way or the other, only buy you one grade on the spectrum.
Further down, we have what is known as indifferent people. I’m ambivalent when it comes to these sorts.
In the 1980s when HIV/AIDS was scaring everybody, people used to wear pins that stated “silence=death.” With the current state of affairs in our country, this takes on a whole new meaning.
If one is able to whistle through one’s day without caring one way or the other about the downtrodden and disadvantaged—if you don’t care that women’s bodies are being legislated by men, or the amount of stress many African-Americans incur on any given day just to navigate through life—no one’s going to fault you. We are, however, going to stick you next to the psychic vampires for the sake of karma.
As we close in on the far end of the spectrum where your basic empath resides, we need to stop at the penultimate class known as “Highly Sensitive People.” HSPs—and, yes, they’ve earned their own acronym—are people who are extremely sensitive to sensory stimulation, are typically introverted, and just not at all the sort of person you’ll want to blow $2,000 on to take to Firefly, or see Eminem, and Lil’ Wayne.
According to the psychologists who study these personality types, an empath and an HSP do not have to be mutually exclusive, but you’re more likely to see HSPs with a degree in Library Science than you are to see empaths with the same.
And speaking of empaths, that brings us neatly to the last stop on our spectrum. The typical empath, according to the very well-read The Empath’s Survival Guide by Judith Orloff, has trouble setting boundaries, seems to be a favorite target of the sociopathic personality types on the opposite end of the spectrum, and just generally seems to thrive best in the woods or in sensory deprivation tanks. The long and short of it is that it is not an easy gig and I do not envy anyone who leans in that direction.
Fortunately, I think people have a tendency to slide around the empath spectrum at various times and this may account for changes that took place with my ex-girlfriend after our child was born. No matter how I tried to arrange the puzzle pieces, this was the only theory that seemed to work.
If you think about the animal rights activists who assaulted people who wore fur with red paint, or the people who endured police brutality at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, they obviously felt enormous empathy without shying away from extroverted behavior or a barrage on their senses by the elements each of these activities invited.
This is why I have such contempt for the need to take the chaos of human existence and make it fit neatly on a scale or a spectrum. It has its benefits, of course, but it can be misleading and it’s an over-simplification.
I, for one, find it much more comforting to see humanity as the mess it actually is.