The term Empath usually describes someone with a paranormal level of emotional sensitivity. This makes it painful to live in the world. Google: “Signs you’re an empath” and you’ll get 905,000 results with “listicles” ranging from three to 50 items. They describe traits such as: “feeling others’ feelings,” “being overwhelmed by others’ negativity,” “pain intolerance,” “intense intuition,” and “precognitive dreams,” amongst others.
But what if Empath is just another way of describing a normal human being? This is what David Gillespie suggests in his book, Taming Toxic People: The Science of Identifying And Dealing With Psychopaths At Work And At Home. He says:
“I regard the world as being divided into two types of people: empaths and psychopaths. Empath is a word from the paranormal world. It means someone who has a paranormal ability to perceive the emotional state of another person. Compared to psychopaths, I reckon we’re all empaths. From now on, I’ll use it to describe us normal folk. It sounds so much less clinical than the more politically correct ‘neurotypical’. An empath sounds like someone you’d like to be around; a neurotypical, not so much.”
Human beings are social animals with a built-in capacity to form collaborative relationships with each other. Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a hardwired aspect of the human experience.
In fact, it’s impossible not to feel empathy unless there’s an abnormality of brain functioning. For example the brains of psychopaths show reduced activity in the orbital cortex, thought to play a role in regulating our emotions, impulses, aggression and ability to make moral decisions.
As a result of this difference, psychopaths have an unusual ability to remain cool under pressure, not experience anxiety and feel the thrill of an adrenaline rush four times more pleasurably than empathic people, according to a recent article by Eric Barker.
Further evidence that this difference is hard-wired is revealed by the fact treatment cannot cure a lack of empathy. In fact, violent psychopaths given counselling were 20% more likely to re-offend. Barker says treatment makes them worse because teaching them empathy doesn’t make them more empathic, it just makes them fake it better. They see treatment as “finishing school.”
For our purposes here though, we’re discussing Empaths – I’ve written more about how to spot a psychopath here. The way I see it, the kind of Empath you are depends on these three aspects:
Your degree of nervous system sensitivity can vary from extreme sensitivity if you’re an introvert to quite robust if you’re an extrovert.
For an introvert, a quiet library may provide just the right amount of pleasurable stimulation. If you’re an extrovert, you may find it so dull as to fall asleep.
Conversely, a nightclub on Ibiza with hundreds of party-goers getting down to the beat may give the extrovert just the buzz s/he needs. An introvert is likely to find this environment overwhelming.
Both introversion and extraversion have their advantages and disadvantages. Some introverts are so sensitive they can sense non-physical phenomena just as tangibly as physical phenomena. These experiences provide incredible richness to their inner world in a way not available to extroverts.
In contrast, the extrovert, being gregarious, social and optimistic may have access to more worldly opportunities. Introverts often miss out on their connections and career advancement opportunities.
In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain explains how extroverts are far more likely to be favoured for entry into prestigious Ivy League business degree courses than introverts. They’re more likely to have opportunities for career advancement as part of the individualistic, optimistic and enterprising US culture.
In extreme cases, being super-sensitive in a neglectful or abusive family of origin environment is likely to compound the experience of trauma. An extrovert is likely more robust and therefore may suffer less impact.
Thus super-sensitive individuals may go on to develop mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression or even Borderline Personality Disorder. They will have a heightened ability to be attuned to others’ nonverbal signals, especially ones conveying disinterest, disapproval or rejection.
A loving and nurturing family environment provides a perfect opportunity to develop empathy. Conversely, failures in early nurturing can set the stage for psychopathology.
For example, someone who was punished and humiliated for normal child behaviour but rewarded and praised for their special abilities may go on to develop narcissistic personality disorder. In contrast to psychopathy, narcissism is a product of inadequate early nurturing (although the two can certainly co-exist).
With the right nurturing we can develop into our full potential as human beings. We have an innate ability to connect with and care for others, develop a conscience and feel remorse if we cause others’ harm.
The size and evolution of our brains reflects our ability to sustain complex relationships. In particular, all mammals possess a limbic system, which is larger in higher order mammals (such as apes) than lower order mammals (such as rodents). This reflects the evolution of progressively more sophisticated relationships within each group.
One of the amazing and little-understood aspects of our limbic system is its ability to transmit emotional information much like a radio transmitter. Another person’s limbic system can pick up on signals, even in the absence of a physical presence.
Thus it’s possible to walk into a place you’ve never been before and receive distinct emotional impressions based upon the imprint of its inhabitants.
I tend to receive very powerful impressions when walking into hospitals or home opens where I can feel what’s going on, almost as vividly as if it were happening before my very eyes. What about you?
While human beings are hardwired to be empathic, the degree of awareness we have in any given moment is largely a matter of free will.
You can only be empathic towards others when you’re in the present moment, noticing how they’re feeling. Some people are so disengaged that they’re oblivious to those around them.
Those who live in their heads (e.g., overly intellectual people) are more likely to experience anxiety, rigidity and a limited world-view. It’s like living in a perpetual Groundhog day. These people find their rigid beliefs restrict their lives because they make past events mean something about a hypothetical future.
The growth into conscious awareness is a journey all of us must take in this lifetime, though some choose not to. When we do, we’re amply rewarded in the quality of our relationships, new possibilities and an increase in happiness.
The present moment is a portal into all things throughout all space and time. The deeper you go into the mystery of the present moment, the more able you are to perceive ever more subtle levels of reality.
Yes, that includes paranormal phenomena such as being able to sense the emotional state of another thousands of miles away. Or even sensing the presence of a loved one no longer living in a physical body.
Developing our awareness also allows us to shed limiting beliefs and habitual, defensive ways of responding to the world. Limiting beliefs sabotage our wellbeing and cause suffering.
There are many ways to develop awareness, including psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, self-development workshops, walking in nature or anything that induces a calm, relaxed state of mind. The more awareness you create, the more empathy you develop.
Highly developed empathy and awareness is the sign of an emotionally mature individual. Such a person may also experience workplace bullying from those likely to feel threatened by their competence and popularity.
Therefore, if you ever have any self-doubts because someone bullied you, don’t. It’s likely that you’re one of the very best employees. You’re conscientious, caring and full of integrity. So in a perverse way, it’s a compliment.
In conclusion, you’re an Empath if have a conscience and care about others. The more sensitive, aware and loved you were as a child, the more empathic you’re likely to be. Even without a favourable early environment you can grow in awareness, sensitivity and empathy. You can give yourself the nurturing you didn’t receive in childhood.
To help you deal with the downsides of being an Empath, I invite you to join my “Empaths Online” Facebook group where you’ll receive the support of your fellow Empaths, also looking for an escape from workplace incivility.
P.S. It’s a condition of entry to answer 3 short questions. Thanks in advance for understanding, it helps keep the quality interactions in high and creates safety in the group.
As an Empath Entrepreneur, I’m especially interested in helping professional women who want to take their amazing skills into a new online business with the aim of building a location independent income. I’ve had over 10 years’ experience in creating a compelling online presence. In fact, if you Google: “Dr Sophie Henshaw,” you’ll get over 201,000 hits with all the posts, articles and media appearances I’ve made over the years. I’ve appeared on Channel 10, 6PR, Fremantle Herald and WA Today. I’ve had articles published in PsychCentral, Women’s Agenda, NineMSN Health, Rebelle Society and Huffington Post. I’m currently a Thought Catalog contributor. P.S. I also practice as a clinical psychologist in my "offline" life!
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