Empathy can be learned, and it is the medicine the world needs right now, as having this trait can bring about greater success, both personally and professionally. Being empathetic can also lead to happiness, because when others feel what you’re feeling, that inspires a sense of inner contentment.
Those who are empathetic, otherwise known as “empaths,” are like sponges when it comes to human emotions. They feel everything that other beings do—whether humans or animals. They tend to get fatigued in crowds because they feel everyone’s energy, thoughts, and motivations. They are people who process all that is told to them, and in this way they almost always practice “effective and compassionate listening.” In fact, therapists and other medical professionals tend to get the best information from their clients and patients by implementing the beautiful art of listening. Hearing what others are conveying can reveal disharmony that can lead to both health and wellness. For those of you who want to brush up on your empathic skills, the best thing to do is to truly listen when others are speaking, and respond with verbal or visual cues to show that you are doing just that. Put down your cell phone when you’re having a conversation with someone, look the person in the eye, and really engage without distractions or interruptions.
In her book The Empath’s Survival Guide, Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist, notes that she is an empath herself, and in her practice has treated empaths for more than two decades. When describing empaths, she says, “We feel everything, often to an extreme, and have little guard up between others and ourselves. As a result, we are often overwhelmed by excessive stimulation and are prone to exhaustion and sensory overload” (p. 1).
In some individuals, empathy is genetic, but in others, it might relate to an environmental condition during childhood, such as emotional neglect; early trauma; or being raised by an alcoholic, depressed, or narcissistic parent. In fact, empaths like myself are targets for narcissists, and we need to be particularly mindful of people who are “emotional vampires.”
As an empath, I feel others’ emotions, physical symptoms, and energy. When I was a child, I was often viewed as being overly sensitive, and was advised to get a “thicker skin.” Energy fields were not discussed back then, but now I can see that my energy field was easily penetrated by others. Later in life, I was taught to create an invisible “egg” around my body when in the presence of emotional vampires who wanted to zap my energy.
To protect ourselves, we empaths sometimes get involved with drugs during adolescence as a form of self-protection. While I don’t advocate this practice, it’s a good idea to be aware of the effects of being an empath.
Dr. Orloff suggests that there are different types of empaths—physical empaths, who are attuned to the physical symptoms of others; emotional empaths, who soak up both the happy and sad feelings of others; and intuitive empaths, who have extraordinary perception in dreams, and so on.
Ever since my first cancer diagnosis, I intuitively wanted to remove emotional vampires from my life. I didn’t realize at the time that by surrounding myself with positive-thinking individuals, I was protecting myself as an empath. Learning how to cope with being an empath is crucial for survival.
In the end, I would rather be an empath than not be one, because the life journey is one filled with passion and joy, and it is a beautiful thing when one is tuned into all its many aspects. We empaths feel a strong sense of interconnectedness that others might not experience. However, I do realize that being an empath has its challenges. I’ve been known to have a large heart and instinctively know when others are in need. That is, I am the one who shows up when others don’t. Because we feel things more intensely, we empaths can be taken in by the aforementioned emotional vampires, and we are also susceptible to feeling lonely and isolated. Also, female empaths, in particular, need to set boundaries, because we easily fall into the caretaker role.
As Dr. Orloff says, “We are in the in the midst of an evolution of human consciousness, and empaths are the path forgers. A sacred responsibility comes with our sensitivities which demand more of us than simply retreating into isolation. It’s vital that we avoid feeling overwhelmed so that we can fully shine our power in the world” (pp. 26–27).
Here are some journaling prompts to honor your empathy:
Charon, R. (2008) Narrative Medicine. England: Oxford University Press.
Orloff, J. (2017). The Empath’s Survival Guide. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.