This is, in no complete terms, the journey of an empath. If you fill in any number of empath diagnosis questionnaires, you will find out again and again that yes, you have this unique identity. You begin to practice shielding techniques from the internet, imagining a force field of light around you with emotions of others bouncing off. You become stronger, moving through the world in your bubble. You learn about energy vampires, lingering at every turn to prey on your vulnerability. You quit your job because going in and sitting near sociopaths and narcissists makes you feel physically toxic—each day spent there harming you. You cut ties with the “friends” that fit those categories. You eventually move out of the city to avoid the energies of others.
But most of all, you have to find other empaths in order to survive. You’ll be very lonely without them.
When the idea for our new empath documentary was floated in the office, I reminded what I already knew about them. I’d long heard the word “empath” in spiritual circles. At a friend’s 18 birthday, her boyfriend’s healer mother grabbed me, beaming, and whispered that I was one. My vegan friend considers herself an animal empath—able to feel the pain of creatures—and has to change channels if noises of animal cruelty are played in a news segment. I once had an American empath roommate who communicated with angels and ate a lot of organic gluten-free corn chips because they provided good energy. As more people—women in particular—turn to spirituality via the internet, eventually, you’ll meet one too.
A simple definition: Empaths feel others’ “stuff” as if it’s their own. Imagine someone with a thin emotional membrane through which energy—others emotions, pain, energy—will like a virus travel into the host’s sensitive body. Without training, they’ll be unable to distinguish what is theirs and what has come from the outside. These people are affected greatly by TV, news, violence, and suffering of other beings. These people need to communicate and talk issues through, and are a magnet for people looking for help or to offload and “just know” things beyond a gut feeling. They can clock every time someone is not being honest and cannot bear those who don’t consider the opinions and feelings of others.
I thought I knew who empaths were before filming. I believed in them. The producer, Grant, was more cynical. As, unsurprisingly, were many VICE readers. But the more we met, the more confused I became. When I tried to ask inoffensive, but probing questions in the empath Facebook groups and forums in order to understand more, my posts would be deleted, ignored, or removed by admins. It rapidly transpired that getting to the heart of what an empath truly was would be complicated.
Since they embody your feelings, every empath—we couldn’t feature them all in the doc—had the ability to tell me I was angry and had anxiety over a core of depression or deep sadness. The first time it happened, I was astonished that someone could read me. It became a joke before each reading: How miserable were they going to say I was today? But how else can you read an anxious teeth-grinder with a black and red wardrobe, who swears a lot? I thought again about how many women in their 20s I know who aren’t pissed off, anxious, or have been depressed at least once. The empaths also all said I was likely an empath. The plot thickened.
Our understanding was complicated by the fact that some reported having other gifts like telepathy or mediumship. Ryan Cropper, who features in the doc, genuinely managed to pull one of my thoughts from my brain and left me screaming on the sofa I interviewed him on. He even claimed to have engaged in out-of-body sex with creatures that sounded a lot like the aliens in Avatar, a leap of faith for anyone who hasn’t spent a weekend in LA chugging ayahuasca. Some said they were technically empaths but identified as other things—starseeds, indigo children, lightworkers— and through demonstrations of power, we suspected that charlatans were everywhere and empath “strength” was, like everything else—a sliding scale.
Before you write this off entirely, it’s important to know that psychologists don’t. They’re starting to research “Highly Sensitive People” (HSPs) in earnest—a less sexy research prospect than their evil cousin the narcissist. “With people who are very sensitive, they can’t not feel empathy,” Dr. Michael Pluess at Queen Mary University told us in the doc. “If they are surrounded by people, they will pick up on their moods.” Empaths believe that all of them are HSPs but not all HSPs are empaths—empaths are HSPs in turbo mode.
It was in this confusion that a gender imbalance arose. The vast majority of those identifying as empaths or HSPs are women. Yet, many of the successful YouTubers and spirit guides charging big money are men. Almost everyone, regardless of gender, charges for their empath services. Since rent and bills exist, some would rather use their skills as their source of income than get a nine-to-five. But to me, high prices do morally muddy the work when unhappy people and spirituality are involved.
When we met David Sauvage, the New York-based empath, it was in the knowledge that he was charging clients $200 an hour to enter their emotional field. He has bought empath as a domain name and during our second day, he gave me an “EMPATH” t-shirt, notably in the same font as his site. On that site he’d announced a series of four hour-long group video seminars titled “How to Thrive as an empath.” The content mirrored information already on YouTube, blogs, or cheap books on Amazon, but for the price of $129. When empathy itself becomes a brand, it says as much about the power of capitalism as the existence of higher gifts or desire to spread truth.