Do you find yourself taking on the emotions of those around you, even if these feelings aren't your own? If so, you may be an empath, or "Someone who feels things viscerally in their own body," explains empath and New York Times bestselling author of Sensitive is the New Strong: The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh World, Anita Moorjani. Being an empath is more than just being sensitive, though. To better understand what is an empath and help you discern common signs of this personality type, Woman's Day spoke with authors and physicians who are also empaths themselves.
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If you can often imagine yourself in someone else's shoes and feel the same emotions they are feeling in your own body, you may experience empathy on a deeper level than the average person. But this isn't to say being an empath is a "yes" or "no" personality type, as everyone can be empathetic and exhibit empathy.
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What is empathy?
Empathy is the "ability to read and respond to the emotions, social signals, thoughts, and intentions of others," explains Karla McLaren, M.Ed., author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You. Being an empath is a nuanced trait, but if you want to gain deeper insight into whether or not this personality fits your characteristics and mannerisms, read on to learn more about this trait.
What is an empath?
May Rosenlund, who writes under the pen name Josie Barrett and is the author of What Is an Empath? A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Empaths, explains that "an empath is someone who not only feels what another person is feeling, but experiences it as if it is their own experience. It is common for the unaware empath to mistakenly think what they are feeling is their own emotion."
And McLaren adds that, "when people talk about empaths, they're usually talking about hyper-empathic people who tend to be hyper-sensitive." She also differentiates between an empath and a "hyper-empath," someone who reads emotions on an even deeper level.
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While this might sound desirable on the surface, Moorjani explains that empaths pick up on other people's energies, which in turns disrupts their own. This disruption can lead to built-up exhaustion over time. That said, it's important to know if you are an empath and be aware of your tendency to take on other people's emotions. "If people have no support or skills, and don't know how to work with their empathy and turn it up and down at will, being hyper-empathic can be pretty uncomfortable," explains McLaren. The first step, of course, is recognizing whether or not you are an empath.
How to Know If You're an Empath
Moorjani and Rosenlund offer common signs of being an empath, with Moorjani noting that these are the traits of someone who is unaware that they are an empath. When you recognize these signs and acknowledge you are an empath, you will feel relief, she says.
Signs You're an Empath
- You have a tendency to always want to help other people.
- People often open up to you.
- You were described as a "sensitive" child and/or have been told you are "too sensitive."
- You want to make others feel good.
- You can read the energy of a room upon entering said space, and in turn feel responsible for uplifting the overall energy.
- When you are in a crowded space, you feel overwhelmed by emotions.
- After going out in public, you feel drained and may need a few days to recover.
- You are a people pleaser.
- You attract narcissistic relationships, whether it's a friend or partner.
- You struggle with taking care yourself.
- It's difficult for you to receive love.
McLaren also offers a 41 question empath quiz on her website to give you a more thorough review of your empathetic tendencies, from the more positive abilities to the ones that can drain an unaware empath.
What are the pros and cons of being an empath?
Being an empath can be seen as something negative and is not totally accepted by society, according to Moorjani. While there are cons to being an unaware empath, it is not a trait to be ashamed of. Instead, being an empath "makes [you] an amazing and intuitive person," she stresses. Let's delve deeper into some of those amazing attributes.
Benefits of Being an Empath
As an empath, you have natural intuitive abilities and attract meaningful relationships as well as being super compassionate, driven, and creative, explains Rosenlund. "They have the ability to produce original or unusual ideas in many different areas of life." That said, "it is extremely important for an empath to do what brings them joy," adds Moorjani. "When they follow their heart, they uplift the planet in a better way."
In fact, "Empaths are powerful healers simply by allowing a safe healing space for others. By the empath sharing in the experience, the other person heals, much like a therapist setting," says Rosenlund. However, this openness can put great strain on the empath's own well-being.
Downsides to Being an Empath
While empaths can feel the happier, lighter emotions of others, they can also harbor the heavier, darker feelings, too. And a flurry of difficult emotions all at once can feel overwhelming for empaths. They "may get confused about their life purpose or path often. This is due to all of the information coming in," points out Rosenlund. It is the same overwhelming flow of information that can make empaths prone to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and burnout. As Moorjani previously mentioned, empaths struggle to take care of themselves as they may feel selfish for carrying out self-care practices.
It's also hard for an empath to say "no" as they don't like to disappoint others. "They can feel the other person's response. Therefore, setting boundaries is difficult," says Rosenlund. She recommends empaths practice setting boundaries and sticking to them.
How to Protect Yourself as an Empath
If you are an empath, here are some more ways to manage this trait so you don't reach the point of burnout.
It's an absolute necessity that empaths incorporate self-care practices into their daily routine. Moorjani recommends writing out a list of everything you do in a typical day and categorizing which activities drain your "battery" and which refuel your battery. Start implementing more things that charge your battery rather than drain it.
"It's been vital for me to understand where to be hyper-empathic and hyper-sensitive, and where I need to be more guarded and even unavailable. Learning to turn my empathy and sensitivity on and off has been a game changer," explains McLaren. Rosenlund agrees and emphasizes the importance of observing your feelings, recognizing when the emotions are your own, and understanding your emotional triggers. "Ask yourself, 'Is what I'm feeling mine or someone else's?' If you don't understand where that emotion came from, it's probably not yours. Release it."
Since an empath feels the energies of others, it's important that you are aware of your own energy, too. "The unaware empath has an open energy field. Setting your intentions at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of a task is an important part of controlling your own energy," says Rosenlund. Another way to control and discharge energy is to spend time in nature, as nature is the ultimate energy neutralizer.
The Bottom Line
Of course, incorporating these tips into your routine is easier said than done. But when you take care of your emotions, extending this special part of your personality won't become draining. It will just feel good. Well, most of the time.
Elizabeth Berry (she/her) is the digital Editorial Assistant for Woman’s Day where she writes and updates articles covering seasonal recipes, holiday gift ideas, and other lifestyle topics. She finds excitement in optimizing content and sharing trends with readers. You can catch her reading the latest best selling romance novels or photographing dairy-free cakes and dinners. Follow her on Instagram @healthy_eclair.