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Having Empathy and Being an Empath: What’s the Difference?

Just because you express empathy doesn't necessarily mean you're an empath.

We've all heard of empathy, and maybe consider ourselves to be empathetic individuals.

Empathy means being in tune to other people’s feelings and life circumstances. An empathetic person may be moved by a situation in a sort of heart-tugging, emotional manner that ultimately gives rise to kind, caring, and understanding words and actions. For example, it has to do with extending an appropriate response when someone loses a job, or expressing excitement when a friend announces her pregnancy—even if both are situations that may have never impacted you personally.

A New Yorker article states that “empathy” is “a rendering of the German Einfühlung” or a “feeling into” that involves the “moral implications of feeling our way into the lives of others.”

Then there’s being an empath, which refers to someone who takes empathy a significant step further. An empath is able to literally feel and take on other people’s feelings as if they are experiencing those feelings themselves.

So, can you conclude that having empathy automatically means you’re an empath? After all, many empathetic people feel deeply for other people’s setbacks and successes. Does this make them an empath?

The short answer: Yes and no.

Being an empath is about having empathy, but on a completely deeper level, explains Judith Orloff, M.D., author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. In short, Orloff explains, empaths feel on much stronger level than empathetic people. Take her quiz to see if you are indeed an empath.

The Difference Between Empathy and Being an Empath

She differentiates between “ordinary empathy” in which a person’s heart goes out to another, and being an empath, in which those feelings exist on a much higher spectrum. “Empaths not only feel for others, but absorb those feelings in their own system,” says Orloff, whose private practice is in Santa Monica, California.

Additionally, empaths are often able to pick up on unspoken feelings as well, drawing on subtle energy fields that emanate around other people’s bodies. Energy absorption occurs and a strong sensing experience begins. Depending on the type of energy—whether around a joyful, happy person or around a fearful, anxiety-ridden individual—an empath will feel deeply, often experiencing shifts in mood and energy levels.

Of course, this begs the question of how an empath can care for themselves. After all, in addition to experiencing their own emotions, they’re absorbing other people’s emotions. This can take a toll on them, especially in situations that leave them drained. Orloff explains that it’s not uncommon for empaths to experience a myriad of physical symptoms as they take on so many intense emotions, including stomach and headaches.

How Empaths Can Care for Themselves

1. Distinguish Between Your Emotions and Everyone Else’s

Orloff explains that it’s important for empaths to take a step back when interacting with others to determine whether what they’re feeling is stemming from their own emotions or that of others. “I always ask patients to ask themselves, ‘Is the emotion mine or that of another person?’” she says. It's necessary to get to know, and listen to, your body. Recognizing how you feel before and after interactions is key.

2. Enjoy Being an Empath

Sure, you’re absorbing a lot of emotion in addition to managing your own, but that’s often a good thing. “I wouldn’t give up being an empath for anything,” Orloff says.

She says that empaths are often filled with kindness and compassion, are gifted, feel a deep connection to animals and the earth, form deep friendships, enjoy nature, and value intimate conversations. Empaths, she adds, are nurturing people who enjoy helping others and want to see other people happy.

She also advises not paying attention to the many negative myths that often surround empaths such as people who say they're "being too sensitive" or need to develop a "thicker skin."

Embrace who you are and ignore negative words from other people who may not fully understand and appreciate the way you experience things so deeply.

3. … But Be Aware of Toxic Relationships and Other Issues

While empaths enjoy helping others, sometimes people-pleasing behaviors develop, or they become codependent, says Orloff.

One common relationship she sees form is between an empath and a narcissist. A narcissist, who struggles with empathy deficit disorder, gravitates towards those who nurture and provide attention. At the same time, an empath falls for the charm of a narcissist who eventually becomes cold and withholding. "Narcissists who are especially effective at winning the affection and praise of others may also leave a trail of broken relationships behind them once they’ve been found out," writes Suzanne Degges-White.

However, the caring nature of an empath makes them truly want to heal that cold, uncaring personality, creating an ongoing, unbalanced emotional cycle between the two.

4. Set Boundaries, Practice Self-Care

It’s common for empaths to be overly polite and want others to be so happy that they sacrifice their own well-being, Orolff says. “Set healthy boundaries and engage in time management techniques like not overbooking yourself” she suggests. “Try meditation practices every day to calm and center yourself, and be sure to get out in nature regularly too.” Nature provides empaths a connection with animals and the earth that is not superficial, she notes, which helps restore a sense of calm.

5. Connect with Other Empaths

Enjoy connecting with other empaths from the comfort of your own home. Join Orloff’s Facebook group, “Dr. Orloff Empath Support Community.” There, you’ll be able to read what some 13,000 (as of this writing) other empaths experience, ask questions, and participate in interesting conversations.

In short, empaths frequently absorb energy from other people, experiencing emotions on a level that transcends having empathy. While being an empath can be enjoyable, it's important to take the time to practice self-care, distinguish between your own emotions and that of others, and to connect with other empaths.

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