Empathy involves being able to understand and relate to the emotional states of others. When you’re highly attuned to this form of perception, you may be what’s referred to as an empath.

Being able to understand why someone feels the way they feel, and to know what it’s like to feel that way yourself, is what it means to have empathy.

Empaths are people who are highly sensitive to the affective, or emotional, states of others.

“They often intuitively understand the feelings of others, sometimes even before the person has communicated them,” explains Hannah Mayderry, a licensed mental health counselor from Jacksonville, Florida. “This sensitivity allows empaths to connect deeply with people, but it can also be overwhelming at times.”

An empath isn’t a formal designation. It’s a term used to describe a collective experience of heightened emotional sensitivity.

Although there’s no clinical set of guidelines that determines if you’re an empath, people with high empathy may:

  • feel drained when exposed to intense emotions
  • avoid emotionally-impactful media
  • naturally be the person everyone confides in
  • be compelled to practice compassion in everyday life
  • have strong, often correct, intuition
  • dislike crowds
  • regularly feel burned out
  • experience emotions without knowing why
  • express deep emotion, like tears, in response to someone else’s story

Empaths are attuned to moods and emotions, but being an empath may also coincide with other forms of elevated perception.

Living with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), for example, means you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) who experiences an array of heightened perception toward environmental and social stimuli, which includes emotions.

In this way, an HSP can be an empath, but not all empaths are HSPs.

Am I an empath?

If you’re curious to know about your level of empathy, this empath test can provide insight about where you rank across several different empathy categories.

If you score high in empathy overall, you may be an empath. Scoring low in one or more categories can indicate areas of empathy to further develop.

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Empathy is inherently a positive thing. It allows you to interact with others in meaningful ways, form bonds, and sustain relationships.

But being hyper-attuned to every emotion from everyone, can take a toll. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and burned out.

Managing empathy can help protect your mental well-being, but that doesn’t mean you should eliminate your empathy. Instead, “managing” means creating an environment that helps safeguard your heightened sensitivity.

Creating boundaries

Boundaries are there to let others know how you expect to be treated and what behaviors won’t be tolerated.

Dr. Maya Weir, a licensed clinical psychologist from Napa, California, says, “Oftentimes, empaths will need to work harder to feel justified in their boundaries but doing so will create the freedom they need to experience increased well-being.”

An example would be making your availability clear — and sticking to it — for that coworker who always wants to grab a coffee after hours to vent.

Evaluating relationships

Weir also recommends taking a close look at the relationships in your life to see which are reciprocal and which aren’t.

High empathy can be draining, especially if you’re the one always listening and never receiving equal consideration. In this scenario, your emotional battery is being depleted and never recharged.

“As much as possible, it’s important for empaths to work on establishing relationships where both people are caring for the other rather than a more common dynamic where the empath is taking care of the other person,” Weir says.

Making self-care non-negotiable

When you’re feeling overwhelmed from emotional stimuli, time to decompress is essential.

Mayderry recommends cultivating habits of self-care that recharge you, like meditation, spending time in nature, or participating in the hobbies that bring you joy.

You don’t have to figure it out alone. “Seeking therapy can also be beneficial for developing strategies to manage empathy without becoming overwhelmed,” she indicates.

Empathy is considered a positive trait, but like many things, it can have pros and cons — and it depends on how you use it.

Being sensitive to the emotional states of others can help you practice compassion, but it can also allow you to use people’s emotions against them.

Dark empaths are people who use empathy for personal gain or manipulation.

“Unlike empaths, who are generally compassionate and understanding, dark empaths can wield emotional insight in a malicious way, combining empathy with darker traits like narcissism,” Mayderry explains.

Benefits of being an empath

According to Weir and Mayderry, benefits of being an empath include:

  • strong intuition
  • excellent social awareness
  • ability to create deep, meaningful relationships with others
  • being well-suited for a career in a caregiving field
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Challenges of being an empath

The life of an empath can come with its fair share of challenges, as well. You may notice you’re more likely to:

  • have trouble setting boundaries or saying “no”
  • feel regularly overwhelmed and emotionally drained
  • ignore your own needs to focus on the needs of others

Mayderry points out many empaths also find it challenging to separate their personal feelings from those being channeled by the people around them.

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If you’re an empath, you have a significantly heightened sensitivity to the emotional states of others.

You might know what people are feeling before they tell you, for example, feel overwhelmed or drained in crowds, or find you naturally avoid emotionally-charged experiences.

Empathy is almost always a positive trait, but when your heightened empathy isn’t protected, it can compromise your mental health.

Setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and focusing on reciprocal relationships are ways you can maintain empathy without sacrificing your well being.