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Do you often feel deeply tuned in to the feelings of people around you? Do crowds make you uncomfortable? Would you (or the people closest to you) describe yourself as a sensitive person?
If so, you may be an empath.
Dr. Judith Orloff, a pioneer in the field, describes empaths as those who absorb the world’s joys and stresses like “emotional sponges.”
In her book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” she suggests empaths lack the filters most people use to protect themselves from excessive stimulation and can’t help but take in surrounding emotions and energies, whether they’re good, bad, or something in between.
Kim Egel, a San Diego-based therapist, expands this further: “Empaths have a higher sensitivity to outside stimuli such as sounds, big personalities, and hectic environments. They bring a lot of heart and care to the world and feel things very deeply.”
Sounds familiar? Here are 15 other signs you might be an empath.
The term empath comes from empathy, which is the ability to understand the experiences and feelings of others outside of your own perspective.
Say your friend just lost their dog of 15 years. Empathy is what allows you to understand the level of pain she’s going through, even if you’ve never lost a beloved pet.
But as an empath, you take things a step further. You actually sense and feel emotions as if they’re part of your own experience. In other words, someone else’s pain and happiness become your pain and happiness.
Empaths often find frequent close contact difficult, which can make romantic relationships challenging.
You want to connect and develop a lasting partnership. But spending too much time with someone leads to stress, overwhelm, or worries about losing yourself in the relationship.
You might also notice sensory overload or a “frayed nerves” feeling from too much talking or touching. But when you try to express your need for time alone, you absorb your partner’s hurt feelings and feel even more distressed.
But setting healthy, clear boundaries can help reduce distress, Egel suggests. “You must know how to preserve yourself so you don’t get your energy and emotional reserves swallowed up,” she says.
Ever felt like you have a strong gut reaction to things that feel a bit off? Maybe you pick up on dishonesty easily or just know when something seems like a good (or bad) idea.
This may be your empath trait at work.
Empaths tend to be able to pick up on subtle cues that provide insight on the thoughts of others, suggests Barrie Sueskind, a therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in relationships. “An empath’s intuition often tells them whether someone is being truthful or not,” she says.
As an empath, you might put a lot of faith in your instincts when making decisions. Although others might consider you impulsive, you’re actually trusting your intuition to guide you to the choice that feels right for you.
Anyone can benefit from spending time in natural settings. But empaths may feel even more drawn to nature and remote areas, since natural environments provide a calming space to rest from overwhelming sensations, sounds, and emotions.
You might feel completely at peace when hiking alone in a sunlit forest or watching waves crash against the shore. Even a quiet walk through a garden or an hour sitting under trees may lift your spirits, soothe overstimulation, and help you relax.
According to Sueskind, empaths can absorb positive and negative energy just by being in someone’s presence. In crowded or busy places, this sensitivity may seem magnified to the point of being almost unbearable.
Egel agrees, adding that “empaths can be easily overwhelmed by feeling everything more intensely.” If you can easily sense how others feel, you’ll likely have a hard time handling the emotional “noise” from a crowd, or even a smaller group of people, for an extended period of time.
When you’re picking up on negative emotions, energy, or even physical distress from people around you, you might become overwhelmed or physically unwell. As a result, you may feel most comfortable on your own or in the company of just a few people at a time.
An empath doesn’t just feel for someone — they feel with someone.
Taking in others’ emotions so deeply can make you want to do something about them. “Empaths want to help,” Sueskind says. “But this isn’t always possible, which can disappoint an empath.”
You may find it difficult to watch someone struggle and act on your natural inclination to help ease their distress, even if that means absorbing it yourself.
Caring about the suffering of others isn’t a bad thing, but your concern for another’s difficulties can overshadow your care for yourself. This can factor into compassion fatigue and burnout, so it’s essential to save some energy for yourself.
Sensitive, empathic people tend to be fantastic listeners. Your loved ones may feel comforted by your support and reach out to you first whenever they experience difficulty.
Caring deeply can make it hard to tell people when you approach the point of overwhelm. But it’s important to find a balance. Without boundaries, unchecked kindness and sensitivity can pave the way for “emotion dumps” that may be too much for you to handle at once.
You may have a deeper understanding of the pain fueling their behavior and want to offer support. But it’s important to remember you can’t do much for someone who isn’t ready to change.
An empath’s increased sensitivity doesn’t just relate to emotions. There’s a lot of overlap between empaths and people who are highly sensitive, and you might find that you’re also more sensitive to the world around you.
This could mean:
- Fragrances and odors affect you more strongly.
- Jarring sounds and physical sensations may affect you more strongly.
- You prefer to listen to media at low volumes or get information by reading.
- Certain sounds may trigger an emotional response.
“Heightened sensitivity to other people’s pain can be draining, so empaths may find themselves easily fatigued,” Sueskind says.
Even an overload of positive feelings might exhaust you, so it’s important to take the time you need to reset.
If you can’t escape overwhelming emotions and rest your senses, you’re more likely to experience burnout, which can have a negative impact on well-being.
Extroverted empaths may need to take extra care to strike the right balance between spending time with others and restoring their emotional reserves.
If you’re an empath, you likely dread or actively avoid conflict.
Higher sensitivity can make it easier for someone to hurt your feelings. Even offhand remarks might cut more deeply, and you may take criticism more personally.
Arguments and fights can also cause more distress, since you’re not only dealing with your own feelings and reactions. You’re also absorbing the emotions of the others involved. When you want to address everyone’s hurt but don’t know how, even minor disagreements can become harder to cope with.
Despite being highly attuned to the feelings of others, many empaths find it difficult to relate to others.
Others might not understand why you become exhausted and stressed so quickly. You might struggle to understand the emotions and feelings you absorb or feel like you aren’t “normal.” This may lead you to become more private. You might avoid talking about your sensitivities and sharing your intuitions so you feel less out of place.
It’s never easy to feel like you don’t belong, but try to see your ability to deeply empathize with others as something special. It may not be common, but it’s an important part of who you are.
Isolation can help empaths recover from overwhelm, so completely shutting out the world may seem healing. But prolonged isolation can take a toll on mental health.
There are different types of isolation, and some may offer more restorative benefits than others. Try taking your time alone outdoors when possible and meditate in a quiet park, walk in the rain, take a scenic drive, or garden.
If people drain you easily, consider adding a pet to your life. Empaths may connect to animals more intensely and draw deep comfort from this bond.
Boundaries are important in all relationships.
If you’re an empath, you may struggle to turn off the ability to feel and find it impossible to stop giving, even when you have no energy left. You might believe boundaries suggest you don’t care about your loved ones when the exact opposite is true.
Because the experiences of others have such an intense impact on empaths, boundaries become even more essential. They help you set limits around words or actions that may affect you negatively, allowing you to get your own needs met.
When you start to feel unable to decipher your emotions from those of others, it may be time to explore healthy boundary setting with a therapist.
Deeper emotional understanding can drive your intuition, and you likely pick up on things other people miss or make connection that aren’t clear to anyone else.
But this increased connection to the world can also have drawbacks. Environments that don’t provide much space for emotional expression can dampen your creativity and sensitivity, Egel says, leaving you disinterested, disengaged, and struggling to thrive.
It can be difficult for empaths to protect themselves from taking on other people’s emotions, Sueskind says.
Good self-care practices and healthy boundaries can help insulate you, particularly from negative emotions and energy. But the emotional “noise” of the world can cause significant distress when you lack the tools to manage it.
If you’re struggling to manage overstimulation on your own, and it affects your quality of life or keeps you from relationships and other personal goals, a therapist can help you learn to develop boundaries and identify helpful self-care approaches.
Remember, your needs and emotions are just as important as the ones you pick up in everyone around you.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.