My entire life, my family has known me as a sensitive person.
Not just that I cry at the drop of a hat, although sometimes I do. But more so that I am a deeply feeling person. Much like a sponge, I’ve always absorbed the moods of the people around me. Happy or sad, other people’s energy affects me. And all of this started at a fairly young age.
When I was in kindergarten, my friend, Jessi, fell on the playground and scraped her knee. There was blood, and that terrified her, so she cried. I remember trying to comfort her and panicking when I couldn’t take her pain away. I was overwhelmed by the fear in her eyes and my inability to help calm her down. Hugs didn’t help, words didn’t help, and my breath was quickening. I felt out of control.
I took my friend’s hand, lay down beside her on the playground, and started crying as well. When the teachers arrived, they assumed we had collided and took both of us to the school nurse to get Band-Aids and care. At the end of the day, the nurse informed my mother that there had been an “incident” on the playground. That I had seemed very upset, but didn’t have any visible injury.
My mom nodded her head and smiled. None of this surprised her. She thanked the nurse for her attention, and on the way home, stopped by McDonald’s for a little ice cream. She asked me how I felt when Jessi fell down and if I was feeling any better yet. She treated me as if the injury was my own because she knew that, in many ways, I felt like it was.
Whether or not she knew the terminology, my mother recognized that I was more than a highly sensitive person (or HSP). She knew that I was an empath.
And yes, there is a difference.
According to Judith Orloff, MD, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, it helps to think of human sensitivity as existing on a spectrum. On the far right end, you will find the empaths. Closer to center would be highly sensitive and empathetic people. Then, on the far left end of the spectrum, are the narcissists, sociopaths, and other people who have “empath-deficient disorders.”
In short, empaths are the most sensitive people on earth.
When I was a little girl on the playground, I didn’t understand why I felt so perturbed by my friend’s booboo. But now I know. Empaths have a capacity to absorb the energy around us, and this includes emotional and physical pain.
Oh, yep. We’re gonna talk about energy now.
Hang with me, because I know this may sound like some hippy-dippy juju, but it’s not. For centuries, Eastern healing traditions have acknowledged that there are subtle energies existing in the people around us. They were called shakti or prana.
Maybe you call them good and bad “vibes.”
The theory has always been that these energies were transferable, and wouldn’t you know it, modern studies have finally emerged which prove the existence of these “contagious emotions.”
But they are only explaining what so many of us have always known.
Empaths don’t just relate to other people’s emotions. We soak them up. And our experiences can be so strong that we often have a hard time distinguishing between someone else’s discomfort and our own.
Eastern healers would call this transfer of shakti.
I call it superhuman empathy.
Either way, it’s the telltale sign of a true empath.
While it’s nice to think of empathy as a superpower (let’s use that term liberally for a moment), it doesn’t come without some major struggles.
In this deeply broken world, empaths often feel depressed and exhausted. Whether from news stories or terrible images they have seen on social media, the world gets very heavy for an empath because it’s impossible for us to process this information and set it aside. We don’t compartmentalize well. We feel deeply connected to everyone we care about, and the thing is, we care about everyone.
Because of this, empaths are often accused of being too sensitive, too emotional, or dramatic. But I don’t think that’s true at all.
Writer Raven Fon describes our reality best:
“Empaths aren’t ‘too’ this or that. What others describe as ‘over-feeling’ is really just being in-touch with emotions — theirs and yours.”
Maybe you just spent the last five minutes rolling your eyes so hard you could see your brain. I get it. I’m the first to admit that empaths are kinda weird. Chances are, you fall right in the middle of that sensitivity spectrum. You belong to the empathy-normative majority.
But maybe you just spent the last five minutes shaking your head so hard that it hurts. Maybe you are the person who random people open up to? Maybe you know what it’s like to meet someone, and five minutes later, they are sharing their entire life story — wounds and all — because they just can’t seem to help themselves?
Hello, fellow empath. You know the superpower and the struggle. It’s hard to be a highly empathetic person in a broken world, but at least now you know that you aren’t alone.
There are more of us out there who are just like you.
And we feel your pain.