If you’ve been told that you’re highly sensitive, a really good listener, and someone who can always see where others are coming from, you might consider yourself to be an “empath.”
Most empaths will agree that there are both pros and cons to having this personality style.
On one hand, these people tend to be great friends and partners, excellent listeners generous, and reliable. On the other hand, empaths are often described as “emotional sponges” and people who “take on the pain of others at their own expense,” meaning they can easily become upset or overwhelmed by their emotions and environments.
While being very attuned to others and your environment can be beneficial in many ways, it’s also important for empaths to protect themselves from burn out and self-criticism. Below we’ll look at characteristics that empathic people tend to have in common, triggers that can wind up causing empaths distress, as well as helpful coping strategies.
What Is An Empath?
What does it mean to be an empath exactly? Empaths are people who experience a great deal of empathy. This term was coined by psychologists to describe “highly sensitive individuals” who can easily sense and feel what others are thinking.
What does empathy mean exactly? Empathy is viewed as both a trait and a skill. It’s essentially the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and to understand their viewpoint.
Empathy is an important part of therapeutic work in “client-centered therapies” including humanistic therapy. With these types of therapy approaches, a therapist/counselor uses empathy to understand the perspectives of their patient/client. This helps to form a trusted relationship between the therapist and patient, which is the foundation for making positive changes.
Are empaths a real thing? And are empaths rare?
Overall, it’s hard to say how common this personality type really is because it’s not a personality disorder that is studied, but rather it’s a self-imposed term that’s used to describe people with common, empathetic traits.
Certain studies suggest that “true empaths” (who are sensitive to emotions, touch, noises, etc.) do seem to be rare, with about one to two percent of the population qualifying as true empaths. Between 10 and 15 percent of the population is thought to be on the highly sensitive side, although there isn’t an easy way to measure this.
This is far less than the percentage of people who would classify themselves as introverts, shy, socially anxious or codependent in relationships.
Like with other personality traits, empathy falls along a spectrum, so it’s possible for someone to be barely, partially, moderately or highly empathetic. While it seems that being very empathetic is a trait that people are probably born with, it can also be amplified or reduced depending on someone’s upbringing and experiences.
Wondering, “how do I know if I’m an empath?” Here are some common characteristics of empaths:
- Great listeners. Also good at sensing how others are feeling and if someone is/is not telling the truth.
- Tend to be introverts, meaning they benefit from spending time alone regularly to recharge and prefer smaller gatherings to larger ones.
- Usually emotionally intelligent and intuitive, meaning they have strong “gut feelings.” But can have a hard time intellectualizing their feelings rather than becoming too absorbed in them.
- Can easily feel drained when spending too much time with other people, especially those that need a lot of attention and support.
- Often considered great friends since they show up in times of need, have “big hearts” and are naturally supportive.
- Commonly take on the problems of others as their own. May be unable to differentiate between their own feelings and someone else’s.
Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, is one of the leading experts of empathetic personality types. Below is a test/quiz she created that helps people to determine if they are likely an empath.
If you answer yes to more than three of the questions below, chances are you a highly emotional person (which isn’t a bad thing!) who is more empathetic than most:
- Have I been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive?
- If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it, too?
- Are my feelings easily hurt?
- Am I emotionally drained by crowds and require time alone to revive?
- Do my nerves get frayed by noise, smells or excessive talk?
- Do I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please?
- Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
- Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?
Other things to ask yourself include:
- Do I feel refreshed after being alone?
- Do I notice little changes in people that others miss?
- Do I get freaked out by too much intimacy, and fear rejection and ending relationships?
- Do I sometimes take on the physical sensations of others, such as sicknesses and pain, in addition to their emotions?
Because empaths are so in tune with how other people are feeling, this can sometimes cause a transfer of negative emotions from others to empaths including feeling anxious, depressed or exhausted.
What is an empath triggered by? Below are some common triggers for empaths that can wind up causing them emotional distress:
- Feeling like a failure or someone who lets others down when their problems cannot be solved. It’s often difficult for empaths to extend the same compassion to themselves that they do to others.
- Having a hard time saying no or setting boundaries.
- Feeling highly sensitive to other people, noises and hectic environments.
- Easily becoming overwhelmed by negative experiences and emotions, including anxiety or anger.
- Can have a hard time with too much physical contact, including hugging others, and may find it difficult to be in close romantic relationships.
- Hard time with conflict, speaking up and moving on from relationships.
Empathic people seem to be especially prone to being hurt by narcissists, “drama queens” and people who have a helpless, victim mentality.
According to a Psychology Today article, “When overwhelmed with the impact of stressful emotions, empaths may experience panic attacks, depression, chronic fatigue, food, sex, and drug binges, or exhibit many other physical symptoms that defy traditional diagnosis.”
Many empaths are also introverts, and some deal with a level of social anxiety that makes large groups of people and intimacy difficult to handle.
Tips for Empaths
What can an empath do to keep themselves from becoming drained and down?
Here are some suggestions from experts in mental health and emotional well-being:
1. Set boundaries and stick to them
Learn to say no and become comfortable with not solving others’ problems for them. Create a schedule for yourself that works to keep yourself happy and your energy up and stick to it.
2. Practice mindfulness/self-awareness
Make a separation between thoughts/feelings and reality. Also practice “non-identification” with others so you can better see yourself and your emotions as separate from anyone else’s.
Try asking yourself, “Is this symptom or emotion mine or someone else’s?” When you become emotionally uncomfortable, focus on your breath, move around and pay attention to your senses.
3. Carve out enough alone time to recharge
Empaths are highly sensitive to the people and environments around them. This is why making time to unwind, ideally alone and in nature, is a great strategy for restoring your energy and relaxing.
The most restorative environments for empaths tend to be those with few people and no noise, bright lights, phone calls, texts, emails, internet, television or conversations. When an environment feels hectic and overwhelming, it’s best to step away from it for at least a few minutes to clear your thoughts before returning.
4. Practice self-compassion
Many empaths are vulnerable to self-critical thoughts and beliefs, which means it’s important to replace destructive thoughts with more positive, affirming ones. The more that an empath can work out their own issues, such as low self-esteem, the better they are at handling other’s emotions.
- What is an empath? It’s someone who is highly sensitive to other’s emotions and to their environment.
- What are the signs of an empath? Signs and characteristics can include being: a good listener, intuitive and having strong gut feelings about other people, compassionate, helpful, reliable, understanding and generous.
- Being highly empathetic usually makes people good friends and effective communicators, but the downside is that it can become overwhelming and draining when taking on others’ emotions.
- Many empaths are introverts and need time alone to recharge. Some are also prone to anxiety, depression, panic attacks and substance abuse, which is why self-care, time in nature, boundaries and self-awareness are important.