Empaths are deeply sensitive individuals who are highly attuned to the emotions and energy of others. They can easily take on the emotions of others as their own. This can be a challenge when they have porous boundaries and end up absorbing the pain and stress of others. Empaths are sharply intuitive and are adept at reading people and situations beyond just surface-level impressions. Due to their giving nature as well as their keen insight into the human psyche, they tend to be natural healers.
What is an Empath?
You may have heard the term “empath” before. But what does it actually mean? Is there any scientific basis for the term “empath”? Or is it, as some skeptics assert, a glorified term used to describe highly sensitive and intuitive people?
Even the most hardcore skeptic cannot deny that there are people in this world that are much more highly intuitive to the needs and emotions of others; that can pick up on subtleties that others can’t, and seem to have a natural talent for healing others.
The idea of feeling what others feel isn’t exactly an unscientific one, either. Research indicates that “emotional contagion,” the tendency to “catch” the feelings of others, is more common than we think (Hatfield, 2009).
For centuries, researchers have studied the tendency for people to unconsciously and automatically mimic the emotional expressions of others, and in many cases actually feel the same feelings simply by exposure to emotions in social interactions. Studies have found that the mimicry of a frown or a smile or other kinds of emotional expression trigger reactions in our brains that cause us to interpret those expressions as our own feelings. Simply put, as a species, we are innately vulnerable to “catching” other people’s emotions. In the literature, this process in which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behaviour of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotions is referred to as emotional contagion (EC).
Sherrie Bourg Carter, Emotions Are Contagious, Choose Your Company Wisely-
Our mirror neurone system also enables us to instinctively “feel” what another person might be feeling when we see them performing an action. When we observe someone else doing something, the same regions in our brain which would’ve been involved in doing that activity become activated. “In other words, they make our brains act as if we ourselves were experiencing whatever that other person is experiencing. The connection to empathy seems pretty clear” (Marsh, 2012).
What’s even more alarming is that a very small part of the population also have mirror-touch synesthesia, a strange phenomenon in which visual and tactile senses get mixed up and they are able to literally “feel” their body being touched when observing someone else’s body is touched (Medina and DePasquale, 2017).
While most of us (aside from empathy-deficient individuals) have the ability to empathise, Dr. Elaine Aron (1991) discovered that highly sensitive individuals make up approximately 15-20% of the population. HSPs have an oversensitive nervous system and seem to have an enhanced skill set in the realm of empathy – perhaps, one could argue, an even better mirror neurone system. For the highly sensitive person, the parts of the brain that regulate emotions are simply more responsive than their less sensitive counterparts. There is great overlap between what it means to be a highly sensitive person and what society calls an “empath.”
Dr. Judith Orloff, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, knows to tap into intuition and the emotions of others all too well. She has spent over twenty years helping empaths and highly sensitive people access their natural abilities and reclaim their power.
In her book Second Sight, Orloff recalls how as a psychiatrist, she had learned to block out her natural gifts as an empath in order to “fit in” with the mainstream beliefs of the medical community. She received a rather startling wake-up call, when, in the midst of a seemingly joyful session with a client, she had an intuition that this same client (who appeared happier than she had in weeks) was about to take her own life. She ignored this flash of insight, and later received a call which notified her that this client had indeed attempted suicide (which she thankfully survived). This is only one of the hundreds of intuitive insights she’s had that later came true. It was only when she merged medicine with her intuition that Dr. Orloff was able to make full use of her power as an empath.
Whatever your spiritual beliefs may be on the matter, the accounts of empaths themselves are perhaps the most compelling ways to understand what it means to be an empath or a highly sensitive person (a distinct, but very similar predicament). There are incredible overlaps in the traits, capacities and experiences that empaths share that are undeniable.
We, as empaths or highly sensitive people, feel and experience the world a bit differently from most people – and while you may not believe everything you hear about the empath, there is certainly room to explore what it means to be a highly sensitive and intuitive individual navigating an increasingly empathy-deficient world.
The Origins of An Empath
So in many ways, what we call “empaths” do exist, but the way their abilities arise may shock you. While it’s true that some people are born naturally sensitive, many empaths can also gain their abilities of intuition from their early childhood experiences. When one has been traumatised as a child, for example, he or she learns strategies to adapt and survive in a way that many other children do not.
These survival mechanisms, some of which can be maladaptive in adulthood, can also be used to serve them and the world when employed from an empowered place. As adults, empaths have the unique predicament of navigating a world that shuns and invalidates their experiences, while at the same time relies on them for their wisdom.
Much of what is written on being an empath focuses on the positive aspects of what it’s like to be an empath, but there is a dark and powerful undercurrent to being an empath that is often not discussed.
Frankly, fully empowered empaths are badass emotional ninjas and powerful alchemists. They just have to learn how to tune into their power and trust their inner guidance in order to tap into the magic that is rightfully theirs. Empowered empaths learn to stop apologising for their desires and recognise the validity of owning them with full force. They learn to anticipate their own emotions and prepare themselves mentally for whatever is to come.
Most importantly of all, empaths must learn that they are allowed to own their shadows – the darkest parts of themselves lend great insight about how to powerfully integrate various aspects of themselves to become whole. This doesn’t mean giving into that darkness, but using it as fuel to create more light in the world rather than repressing it. Repression only leads to further depression – bringing these emotional ailments to the surface, however, gives them a greater chance to be exposed to medicine and heal.
For every empowered empath, there is a rebirth when they learn to be their authentic selves – especially when they arrive in the world again as beings who fully embody everything that makes them so powerful in the first place.
Empath Therapy & Coaching
I have a few spots left for my one to one session for empaths. If you need the tools on how to protect your energy, this session is for you. For more information on how you can empower and live a life where you are free from constraints, click onto this link.
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