The term Empath is most often used to describe someone with a paranormal level of emotional sensitivity that makes it painful to live in the world. Just Google: “Signs you’re an empath” and you’ll get 905,000 results with “listicles” ranging from three to 50 items describing 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 where you’re positioned along a continuum of three different aspects. These aspects are:
1. Nervous System Sensitivity
Your degree of nervous system sensitivity can vary from extreme sensitivity (such as in the case of a hard-core introvert) to quite robust (such as in the case of a bona fide extrovert).
For an introvert, a quiet library may provide just the right amount of pleasurable stimulation, whereas an extrovert 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, whereas this environment is likely to overwhelm the introvert.
Both introversion and extraversion have their advantages and disadvantages, with some introverts being so sensitive they can sense non-physical phenomena just as tangibly as physical phenomena (sometimes even more so), which provides incredible richness to their inner world in a way not available to the extrovert.
In contrast, the extrovert, being gregarious, social and optimistic may have access to worldly opportunities in terms of connections and career advancements that introverts often miss out on.
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; as well as have more opportunities for career advancement generally as part of the individualistic, optimistic and enterprising culture of the US.
In extreme cases, being super-sensitive in a family of origin environment that’s both neglectful and abusive is likely to compound the experience of trauma whereas a more robust extrovert may not be impacted to quite the same degree.
Thus super-sensitive individuals may be more likely to acquire mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression or even Borderline Personality Disorder, which coexists with a heightened ability to be exquisitely attuned to the nonverbal signals of others, especially ones that convey disinterest, disapproval or rejection.
2. Environmental Nurturing And Enrichment
A loving and nurturing family environment provides the optimal opportunity for developing empathy. Conversely, failures in early nurturance can set the stage for varying degrees of psychopathology.
For example, someone who was routinely punished and humiliated for the expression of normal childish behaviour but rewarded and praised for their looks or 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, which is our innate ability to connect with and care for others, develop a conscience and feel remorse if we transgress and 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), reflecting 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, to be picked up by another’s limbic system, even in the absence of a person’s physical presence.
Thus it’s possible to walk into a place you’ve never been before and receive a distinct emotional impression based upon the imprint of its previous 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 almost exclusively in their heads (including overly intellectual people) are more likely to experience anxiety, rigidity and a limited world-view – like living in a perpetual Groundhog day. For these people, life is restricted by their beliefs, formed by making meaning of past events which they project into a hypothetical future.
The growth into conscious awareness is a journey all of us must take in this lifetime (though some choose not to) and when we do, we’re amply rewarded in the quality of our relationships, new possibilities and awareness as well as an increase in happiness.
The present moment is a portal into all things throughout all space and time and the deeper you go into the mystery of the present, the more able you are to discern 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 that 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 who unfortunately is also most likely to be targeted by workplace bullies who feel threatened by the person’s competence and popularity.
Therefore, if you ever have any self-doubts as a result of being bullied, don’t. It’s likely that you’re one of the very best employees, 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 and 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 At Work” Facebook group where you’ll receive the care and support of your fellow Empaths, also treading the difficult path of 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.