How Do I Know If I’m An Empath?
Empathy is a double-edged sword.
The ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feel their feelings makes for an extraordinarily loving friend, family member, coworker, boss, or partner. One of the most basic human desires is the wish to be understood by others. So when we come across true empaths, we rejoice! Finally—someone who sees who we are, what we’re going through, and feels it on a deep level. We feel seen and loved.
But being an empath isn’t always so easy.
Being a true empath means feeling other people’s emotions and sharing their thoughts, whether you want to or not. When an empath is around someone sad, they become sad. If they watch someone fly into a rage, they get angry too. When a person in an empath’s orbit is in devastating pain, they feel the pain for themselves.
There is a bright side—sharing joy, laughter, smiles, excitement, and bliss is easy for empaths.
But sharing pain that is not your own can become exhausting to the point of debilitation. And there’s another dark side—some people take advantage of the good nature of empaths and use it against them in manipulative and toxic ways that can cause real trauma.
If you’re wondering—“Am I an empath?”—keep reading to find out the definition of empath, signs you are an empath, and how to protect yourself if you’re an empath.
What Is An Empath?
The easiest way to describe an empath is as an “emotional sponge.” This means that an empath literally soaks in the emotions of the people around them.
When you look up “definition of an empath” online, you may notice something strange—a definition that refers to science-fiction, and that describes an empath as someone with a paranormal ability to fathom the emotions and thoughts of others. As a matter of fact, one of Superwoman’s superpowers is her empathy!
But we know that empathy is not just for fighting supernatural evil in the galaxy, it’s also a fact of life for empaths, and can be linked to biological, scientific fact—namely, mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are still somewhat unexplored territory for neuroscientists, but what we do know easily shows why they are linked to empathy. Namely, mirror neurons are “fired” in one individual when they see another individual act, as if they are the ones doing the act. For example, if we see someone peeling a banana, our mirror neurons are the ones that fire that allow us to imagine that we are peeling the banana—we can “feel” the banana peel and “smell” the banana. Empaths have mirror neurons that work overtime.
There are three types of empathy that most people experience: (1) affective or emotional empathy, which is the ability to feel the emotions that another person is feeling, (2) cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, and (3) somatic empathy, which is the ability to feel the physical sensations that another person feels.
Signs You Are An Empath
By now you’re probably wondering—am I an empath? Most human beings have at least some empathy. That’s how our species has evolved to be able to communicate with each other effectively. But there are some signs that you can recognize in yourself of others to determine if you are a true empath. It’s important to identify yourself so you are better able to cope with whatever life throws your way. So without further ado, here are some traits that are characteristic of being an empath:
- Emotional Sponge: This means that not only do you recognize emotions in other people, a capability that many people have, but you actually feel their emotions. Seeing a person crying makes you want to cry, even if you don’t share the same cause for sadness.
- Crowds Can Be Overwhelming: Empaths can feel stranger’s emotions, even if the stranger is just passing by. For this reason, empaths can find crowds very overwhelming—they are being inundated with a wild range of emotions simply because they are surrounded by them.
- People Seek Your Advice: Because you are so understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions, they feel comfortable asking you for advice. They know you get it. On the same track…
- People Tell You Their Secrets: If anyone’s ever said to you “You’re the first person I’ve told this to,” or, “I’ve never told anyone this before,” chances are you are at least empathetic. If you have heard this many times, from many people, you are probably a true-blue empath. People feel comfortable telling you anything, because your empathy prevents you from being too judgmental.
- Fictional Tragedy Can Ruin Your Day (or week, or month…): For an empath, it’s not just personal relationships or interactions that can trigger your emotions—it can also be something so simple as a book, TV show, or movie. You find yourself caring about the characters as if you actually know them, and feel lingering fear, sadness, and anxiety about their trials and tribulations.
- Intimate Relationships Can Be Overwhelming: Empaths can make amazing partners in relationships because they are so understanding, but sometimes, intimacy in a relationship can magnify empathetic feelings, which can become exhausting to deal with. In intimate relationships, empaths can feel like they actually have two minds inside of them, with the mind of their partner becoming more important than their own.
- You Have Trouble Lying or Hiding Your Emotions: Empaths sometimes have trouble even with the smallest white lie, because they can be overwhelmed by the potential emotions of the person they’re lying to. For example, if an empath wants to tell someone they look great in that dress (but they don’t!), they can become choked up just by the thought of the other person’s sadness and embarrassment, even though it hasn’t happened yet!
- The News Can Be Overwhelming: Whether it’s the tragedy of war in a faraway country or the heart-wrenching story of a local dog who lost its leg, an empath will have trouble removing themselves from the situation emotionally.
- You Feel Scared or Anxious for “No Reason”: If you’ve ever been in a situation that suddenly feels wrong in your gut, to the point where you need to get out, you’re probably an empath. Empaths pick up on emotions and energies that people around them are unconsciously broadcasting, so even if someone has a friendly face on, an empath just feels that there’s something off about them. Along with this…
- You’re An Excellent Judge of Character: We’ve all heard the phrase “people tell you who they are,” but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Empath, however, don’t need anyone to tell them, they can feel it. Whether it’s a secret anger festering underneath a family member’s façade, or a feeling that a coworker is lying all the time, empaths know much more about people than they tell anyone.
What To Watch Out For As An Empath
Do those signs resonate with you? Then odds are, you are an empath. Like we said at the beginning, being an empath can be a double-edged sword. Here are some things that empaths need to beware, in order to keep themselves happy and healthy.
Becoming An Emotional Dumping Ground
We’ve already established how and why empaths make amazing friends, family members, and partners, by sharing a true understanding with someone. While this is instinctive and automatic for empaths, that doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting! Some people will take advantage of empathy by exorcising their demons and dumping their emotions on an empath, without reciprocal care, and empaths are often too selfless to notice, or conflict-avoidant to remedy the situation.
How To Cope
All good relationships require reciprocal understanding. That doesn’t mean that empaths can only be in relationships with other empaths. Rather, it means that empaths need to beware of relationships where the other person is taking energy and emotions without trying to give any in return. If you are worried that this is happening to you, try writing about it. Write the person’s name, and write down what each of you bring to your relationship. Take your time—no rush to judgment in a journal—and be honest! When it feels complete, take stock: is the other person providing you the emotional support that you’re providing them? If not, consider resetting your boundaries with that person by limiting your interactions or being more demanding about your needs. It’s hard work, but it’s well worth it to protect yourself from getting burned out on the relationship altogether.
Having Trouble Saying No
It’s hard to reject someone or something when you will feel the emotional repercussions of that rejection yourself. For that reason, many empaths have trouble saying “no” to people, which leads to finding themselves in all sorts of relationships and situations that they would rather not be in, which leads to feeling anxious, resentful, and angry of the person they were unable to say no to.
How To Cope
Once again, as hard as it can be, every empath needs to practice setting boundaries. And this really doesn’t come naturally to the empathic person who wants to make everyone around them happy, so that they themselves can be happy. So start small! When someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do, try asking them if you can give them an answer later. When you are able to, spend some time writing about the request, and why you don’t want to do it. Sometimes it’s a lot easier for an empath to express themselves via writing, because they don’t have the anxiety of a face-to-face emotional impact of rejection. Plus, seeing it in black and white can help you see how reasonable you are to deny a request, and how saying no will not be the end of the world. When you’re ready, get back to the person who made the request, and tell them no. With practice, it will become much easier, I promise!
A magnet for Narcissists/Sociopaths/Manipulators
Unfortunately, empaths are a target for abusive, narcissistic, and manipulative people for the above reasons. A person who lacks empathy finds an empath extremely attractive, because they will have no problem treating the empath as an emotional dumping ground and manipulating them into doing things they don’t want to do. Sometimes, these people are referred to as “psychic vampires,” because they drain an empath of their abundance of emotions and energy, before moving on to a new victim without a second glance backward.
How To Cope
These most dangerous types of people are exactly why it’s so important for empaths to practice setting boundaries early and often! Sharpen your intuitive skills by keeping track of how you feel about people. If your first impression of someone is that they are “off” in some way you can’t exactly articulate, write it down! Narcissists and sociopaths are notoriously good at charming people and changing their minds, so it will be helpful to have something to look back to, a kind of “temperature check” on the people you allow in your life. If someone mistreats you or crosses a boundary, think long and hard about whether you want that to happen to you again, and once again, write it down. A charming sociopath is an expert at making you feel that everything is your fault, and as an empath, it is all too easy for you to inhabit that narrative if you don’t have your own back.
True empathy can be the greatest gift a person could possess. Empaths are well-known to be creative, loving, extraordinary people. Yes, as an empath, you will have to learn to protect yourself and your precious energy. But by treating yourself with the love and care you lavish on the world around you, your life will remain bright and beautiful!
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