An empath feels what you feel and can connect deeply with you without having much information. Research on this type of person is limited, making many people wonder if empaths are real.
Does everyone seem to come to you with their problems? Do you sense when others are upset, even before they do? If so, according to popular conceptions, you might be an empath.
But the line between a person with empathy and a full-on empath can be difficult to draw. In short, the first may be able to understand someone else’s situation compassionately, while the latter may feel the pain as their own.
To date, research on the concept of empaths is inconclusive at best.
It doesn’t mean empaths aren’t real — or that someone’s experience as an empath isn’t valid. It just means that there’s little to no scientific proof behind the concept, and experts may not yet fully understand this phenomenon empirically.
An empath is extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of people, animals, and elements in the environment, says Talia Bombola, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California.
“They often take great joy in being able to connect to others and understand them in a special way that no one else can,” she says.
The specific qualifiers of an “empath” are highly debated, and there’s a lot of overlap among the different schools of thought. Is an empath someone who’s good at the skill of empathy, or is it someone who has extraordinary skills and perceptions?
In general, when referring to an empath, researchers have identified two main qualities:
- Empathy: a skill you can develop to tune in to how others feel. It can be an adaptation arising from early trauma or an unpredictable environment. Some may hyper-attune to those around them to stay safe.
- Sensitivity: an innate personality trait related to sensory processing ability. Heightened sensitivity can change how you experience the world around you.
Dr. Judith Orloff’s work on empaths
The term “empath” was popularized by psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, author of the bestselling book, “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, Thriving as an Empath, and Emotional Freedom.”
According to Orloff’s work, some signs of someone being an empath may include:
- absorbing other people’s emotions or stress
- getting easily overwhelmed by stimuli and multi-tasking
- getting anxious or physically ill when people yell
- preference for small groups (or towns over cities)
- accurately picking up on subtle changes in tone, facial expression, or body language in other people
- requiring lots of alone time to replenish
The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain may be one biological explanation for this, says Bombola.
“Research shows mirror neurons may help us mimic or mirror the emotions of those we come in contact with,” she explains. “There are certain people who have either more, or more active, mirror neurons than others, which could be a case for empaths.”
In rare cases, being an empath may refer to intensely heightened perceptions. Roughly 1% to 2% of people can feel sensations on their skin while watching someone else be touched, a phenomenon linked to empathy and known as mirror-touch synesthesia.
Dr. Elaine Aron’s work on empaths
Research suggests that high sensitivity isn’t a trait exclusive to humans and may offer an evolutionary advantage for several species.
Some signs of an HSP may include:
- feeling emotions deeply
- strongly moved by art and music
- triggered by loud noises
- often called “sensitive” or “shy”
- overwhelmed by large crowds
- possessing a rich inner world
- sensitivity to lights, sounds, textures, caffeine, or medication
- staying away from violent media
“Overstimulation or overarousal of the nervous system are hallmark indicators of an HSP because their system is hypersensitive and responds to stimuli, including stimuli others may not detect or be able to tune out,” says Bombola.
Empath or highly sensitive person?
Semantics don’t necessarily matter, says Kaylee Friedman, a licensed counselor in Los Angeles.
“It’s perfectly beautiful if identifying yourself as an empath or a highly sensitive person makes you feel seen and self-accepting, and helps you care for yourself and work with yourself in a way that’s supportive. In that case, those labels are absolutely great,” she says.
“If we are using the labels of empath or highly sensitive person to not work on the things that cause us pain, then I don’t know that that’s so helpful,” she adds.
If you’re highly sensitive or consider yourself an empath, you may feel that being so deeply connected to the world around you has benefits and drawbacks.
Here are some that you may relate to:
- deep and strong relationships
- great intuition and lie detection
- heightened life experiences
- people regard you as a good listener
- compassion and regard for other people and living creatures
- difficulty setting emotional boundaries
- often feeling drained or exhausted, particularly after interactions
- leaning toward isolation (to recover)
- people may tend to trauma dump on you
It’s not uncommon for empaths to feel overwhelmed much of the time.
In her own experience, Freidman came to discover that much of what she labeled as being an empath was an anxious attachment style, trauma response, and signs of codependency, she explains. With some healing work, she now has a different way of connecting with others.
“I’m still empathic, but I don’t feel out of control or like I don’t have a choice in my own experience,” she explains. “I can stay in my own experience while being with someone who’s having a difficult time, without taking on their feelings and problems as my feelings and problems.”
Working with a therapist can help you cope with the drawbacks of being an empath.
Empaths vs. introverts
Empaths and introverts may enjoy alone time to recharge. Still, introverts may not be able to “feel” other people’s emotions as their own or may not be necessarily skillful when it comes to empathy.
Research suggests that a dark empath is a personality type that combines the skill of cognitive empathy with “dark triad” traits, including:
A dark empath may be able to “read” you but may use this skill to achieve a means to an end. For example, they could use cognitive empathy to study you and match your desires, then take advantage of your vulnerability for resources, money, or social connections.
There’s no scientific evidence that empaths are real. However, if you’re a highly sensitive person or feel you may easily tune into other people’s emotions, you may identify with the term.
There is still some debate about what the concept of an empath means, but it may involve a highly developed skill of empathy and the trait of sensitivity.
If being highly sensitive or deeply insightful overwhelms you at times, you may want to seek the support of a mental health professional.
“If you find […] unhelpful coping mechanisms, you may want support [to] work toward being in healthier balance with those parts of yourself, bringing your skills into balance so that they’re supportive rather than harmful to you,” Friedman explains.