Empath - My First Conscious Encounter with an Empath
I wrote an dedicate this page to all the incredible empaths I have met in my life. I don't think I could ever do justice with world my full appreciation and love for these people in my life, but the fact I have so many amazing friends with these qualities is evidence enough for me that I have a huge attraction towards people who feel deeply, and who enjoy the time to sit quietly and think about life, and their connection with the world. To go beyond the mundane or superficial relationships many people have, and into something more meaningful.
My First Conscious Encounter with an Empath
November 2015 I met one of the most magical girls I've ever met in my life. Her presence in the room was unmistakable... she glowed. I knew there was something different and unique about her, and I gathered the courage to talked to her and ask her out. Dating her was one of most special periods in my life. Her touch, her dance and her way with words I found electrical. They could send gentle shockwaves through my body. Although no longer dating, I openly regard her as someone I love as a human as she has become a best friend. During the first few months of dating she mentioned that she was an "empath" and I was instantly fascinated by this new beautiful new word in my vocabulary and wonderful new concept revolving around my mind. To try and understand I browsed various articles, but the real revelations occurred when I went and bought the book "The Highly Sensitive Person" by psychologist Elaine Aron. I wasn't a fan of the book's title - it sounds condescending almost - but I couldn't find anything on Amazon titled "empath". I'm glad I read this book! As far as I am concerned the expression "Highly Sensitive Person" (HSP) and empath are synonymous. The author of the book is a self-identified HSP and helped bring a huge amount of light to an issue few people discuss and fewer people understand. I think she wan't us to realize that to be called "highly sensitive" by another human being should never be given or received as criticism. It should be regarded as praise.
As someone with a strong background in science, it was fascinating to learn about the research and history of primate society that has brought us empaths as a way to maintain social order. Survival of a complex species says that not everyone should have the same traits. I say primate society, because even with monkeys, they have observed a subset of the population, they say ~15%, highly sensitive to the dynamics of the group, plus heightened senses to warn early of outside threats. To identify problems before they occur. My skepticism melted away as I read. Reading the book felt empowering. Even in the first few chapters I was able to look at Taylor and say: I understand why you insisted I buy blackout curtains now... as an empath you are especially sensitive to light. Her eyes lit up. It was a somewhat new revelation to her too. Empaths are not just sensitive to the emotions of others. They are often sensitive to everything! They are a conduit for the world around them... light, smell, taste, sound, touch and well... energy. Taylor would always jump at the sound of a abrupt noise, whereas I would not flinch. She could get unbearably uncomfortable in loud crowded rooms, unless the energy of the room was good. Her job requires her to read people, and she's darn good at it because doesn't just detect subtle changes in the body temperature and eye contact - she says she can feel what they are feeling. Everything in to book reigned true. I was dating a super empath. That was pretty cool, but hey - it wasn't without it's challenges! When I went through my own dramas at work, she felt all of that and it affected her. Empaths also need a huge amount of alone time for introspection, and regard their freedom as immensely important. Not everyone is compatible with that need. Yet there is a wonderful propensity for empaths to care deeply.
What it means to be an Empath
If you read this and feel like you might be an empath already.... you probably are! Know that although it may feel like a burden at times to feel so strongly, it is an incredible power you have. You are not worse or better than other people without your strong sense of connection with the world. You are different. You are probably already a highly introspective person, probably great at some form of art, likely to enjoy your own company, likely to enjoy research, and probably also more intelligent than the average bear. I would immediately suggest you read a few articles online, buy the book "The Highly Sensitive Person" and learn how to accept, embrace, harness and use that power in your life.
Do not fight how you feel. It would be like a gay person spending their life trying to convince themselves they are heterosexual. If you are born an empath, it is for life. You may have your own mechanisms to shut out the world, and some of those might be necessary in todays world, but don't try to deny that you can feel the world around you and care deeply when you see others hurt. It is your power to help others heal, while being smart enough to protect yourself whenever you feel your own energy drained. Surround yourself with people who understand and encourage your sensitive... and maybe even have a healthy sense of humor about it to keep you a little grounded as you learn. ;-)
One of the most interesting parts of the book was learning that in much of the eastern world, especially China and Japan, students who seem quite and "highly sensitive" are revered. Sensitive children are considered the best kind of friends to have, and parents will try to pair their children with shy kids, because they are more likely to be studious and considerate of others. In Mandarin, the word for "shy" means "good" and "sensitive" is a term of praise that can be translated as "having understanding". Contrast that against the western world, countries like Australian and the United States, where people who appear sensitive at a young age are simply told to toughen up. Especially in men, sensitivity is too often identified as a great weakness instead of a strength.
When I first read the book, it was fascinating to hear the suggestion that an equal number of men and women appear to be empaths, it's just more likely to be identified in women. That made sense to me: with today's gender roles women may feel more comfortable expressing such sensitivity to friends, versus men, who are encouraged to be emotionally resilient. I was, however, much more skeptical about the idea that 15% of people were HSP. It just seemed like a high fraction, and this is clearly not a binary decision - you can fit anywhere on the empath spectrum. Then, however, I started paying attention. Where I work at Google, I feel like that are almost no empaths - it is very logical creatures that gravitate to programming - you don't witness a lot of emotions there. Maybe you'll witness an occasional "heated" (not really that heated, people at Google are all mostly nice) intellectual debate, but that type of passion is over trivial details of a computer system, versus life belief. I'm definitely one of the few people I know at work who dared talking about their personal lives outside of work to my own team and realized it wasn't a great venue for that discussion. There's a small precious few people at Google I connect with deeper than our regular conversations about food. Where I dance however (open floor dancing), oh gosh - the ratio way greater than 15% - closer to 50% probably. San Francisco is a magnet for empaths, free form dance events like contact improv are a magnet for empaths, art fairs, workshops on chakras, burning man and so on. That is where you find fellow empaths!
If you've read this far an you are fascinated, I highly encourage you to take the Empath tests on this site before you read my closing remarks.
Please don't believe there is any one mold for being an empath. There is no black and white ruling on empathy, it is a spectrum with multiple dimensions. If you went though the tests you might believe that empaths are usually introverted. That's probably a tendency, but the book explains that there are also a lot of extraverted empaths! Another of my best friends is an extroverted empath, who values her own time greatly, but also has an incredible ability to light up an entire group of people with her smile and her stories. The book might also claim empaths work best in a one-on-one and are scared of the pressure of public speaking, but that's not always true either. I could say that one of your deepest relationships is with the environment - that you relish a chance to walk into the wilderness, alone, to feel the presence of the trees and the feeling of freedom. None of this may be true, but you still might associate as an empath.
The only one truth for empaths, is that you feel deeply.
The best advice I have is to read the book I suggested, and the random meandering online articles of others who you might relate to. Could you imagine how beautiful it would be if you could come out of that shell, and discover that you are not alone as an empath - that you could go on a little camp with a group of other empaths. The stories I've collected are just a few - I've only talked at depth to about five empaths, and superficially to a dozen.... could you imagine the depth of a retreat. Maybe such workshops exist if you hunt for them online, or maybe you could start your own. The purpose of such a workshop wouldn't be just to listed to people's colorful stories, but what methods other HSPs have developed to find meaning, and to navigate their own relationships while still trying to ground themselves. Methods to manage uncomfortable social and work related situations. Methods to managing their relationships with family and others without losing their own sense of self and need for alone time.
Similarly, non-HSP who have HSP partners could have their own bonding experience talking to others about how to navigate the waters of dating someone highly sensitive. The highs and the lows. And, of course, lets not forget parents with children who are "sensitive". There are enough HSP people in the world that you might not need to go seeking a local group - if you talk to enough friends openly about your experiences and fears, you will find others in your condition. I feel it would make sense to surround yourself with people who understand and want to help you grow... that is an incredible pursuit for all of us.
No single definition for "empath" helps one understand the complexity and magic of what it means to be an empath or know an empath. You start with a collection of articles (there are some below) and then you invest a lifetime in learning.
You will never figure it out completely, but that's part of the beauty of life. Learning to embrace the weaknesses and strengths of your character. I hope this article inspires you to start or continue your journey.