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A Review of the Biological, Psychological and Spiritual Basis of the Empath Experience by Elise Lebeau, Ph.D.

“Dissertation, written in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY IN METAPHYSICS”
COPYRIGHT POLICY: You can quote this page as long as you have a LIVE link to it.

ABSTRACT

The empath experience describes a situation where an individual feels the emotions of someone else as their own.  Initially born in fiction novels and movies, this concept has gained momentum as having a basis in reality, mostly through self-reports on internet web sites dedicated to empaths.  A discussion is presented on the potential biological processes involved in the empath experience, such as mirror neurons.  We also discuss the relationship between the psychological concept of empathy and the empath experience as well as the major challenges faced by empaths, such as mental illness, lack of widespread information and a fear of being ridiculed upon disclosure of their experience.  Finally, an in-depth exploration of the deeper purpose behind the emergence of this ability strengthens the possibility that the empath experience has transcended fiction to become part of our everyday life.

  1. Introduction
  2. What is an Empath?
  3. The Biological Basis
  4. Mirror Neurons
  5. Emotional Contagion
  6. The Highly Sensitive Empath
  7. The Psychological Basis
  8. Empathy
  9. Cognitive and Emotional Empathy
  10. From Empathy to Empath Experience
  11. The Spiritual Basis
  12. The Empath Awakening
  13. The Empath Challenge
  14. Quest for purpose
  15. The Balanced Empath
  16. Conclusion

Introduction

The term “empath” is used to describe a person who can experience the emotions of someone else as their own.  For example, one might start to feel angry because someone else around them is angry.   An expanding number of people report experiencing this in everyday life, often without being aware that the process is taking place.   Initially born in fiction novels and movies, this concept has gained momentum as potentially having a basis in reality.

What is an Empath?

The ability to directly feel other people’s emotions does sound like it came right out of a science fiction novel.  In fact, the word empath is mostly associated with a fictional context from shows like Star Trek, Charmed and the Ghost Whisperer.  And yet, a growing number of people report having weird emotional experiences that happen completely outside their control.  The internet seems to be a popular venue for people who are investigating these experiences, not knowing at first what to call it.  Although some hear the term from a friend or an alternative medicine practitioner, many just keep searching for an answer to their seemingly unexplainable emotional symptoms.

With enough time and patience, these people end up stumbling on the term “empath”.  Although online searches on this word used to produce only web pages that described a fictional ability  this trend has slowly evolved over the last 10 years to include real life experiences.  In 2012, the first 10 pages (out of 1.8 million sites) returned from Google.com when searching for “empaths” are specifically related to the reality based perspective.  A popular empath web site currently has 10 000 registered members (Lebeau, The Empath Community) and thousands of conversations about the process by which one can feel what other people feel.

Although some web sites are clearly intending to sell products and services to those who are looking to understand their situation, there is also a wealth of information provided by people who just want to share their experience and help others along the way.  If nothing else, reading about another person’s experience can be extremely validating for a novice empath who just realized that maybe they are not crazy and that others also feel the way they do.  There are also web sites that endeavor to provide tips and techniques to help alleviate the painful emotional symptoms usually related the empath experience (Lebeau, What is an Empath?).

A review of online posts by empaths reveals that it affects people from all kinds of backgrounds.  Nurses, engineers and real estate agents report having these experiences, even though they also wonder about their own sanity for even suggesting that they may be empaths.  There is a high self-reported prevalence of anxiety and depression in the empath community.  Empaths often admit that their situation has led to dire emotional and psychological suffering.  Not only from the actual process of being exposed to intense negative emotions from other people but also from the profound denial that often take place for years as they convince themselves that this is simply not possible, that something must be wrong with them or that they must be delusional.

Unfortunately, Empaths tend to have no idea what is happening to them.  They either assume that everyone feels the way they do or deny their own feelings.  And since this is not a topic that they’re likely to discuss with family and friends, the confusion can carry on for many years.  In fact, kids who tried to discuss their confusing emotional experiences report having been labeled as weird, too sensitive or having an overly active imagination.  And yet, for empaths, these experiences do not go away, no matter how hard they try to forget or discard them.  Eventually, the question comes back again:  “Am I crazy or can I really feel the emotions of other people?”

People who talk about feeling the emotions of others are not automatically delusional.  They are perfectly aware that this is considered impossible by our society’s current standards.  They spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to find a more conventional answer to their question before diving into a loaded word like “empath”.  Often times, they will report having tried therapy, medication, drugs or alcohol to alleviate their painful emotional symptoms.  However, there comes a point where avoidance feels empty.  That seems to be when the mind opens itself up to new possibilities.

Even while they are busy debating if they are crazy or not, empaths can’t help noticing that some things are different for them.  In the end, it’s usually through someone else’s description, often found on a webs site, that empaths finally exclaim: “That’s exactly how I feel!”  They recognize the most common “symptoms” such as feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders, disliking large crowds and feeling overwhelmed when other people talk to them about their emotionally charged problems.  Also, empaths spontaneously report that for them, emotions are a physical experience.  They often feel nausea, vertigo or a knot in their stomach even though there is no circumstance in their life that could explain these sensations.  Meaning there are not personally anxious or scared.  They just suddenly feel this emotion/sensation combination.

Eventually, coincidence is slowly eliminated and the relationship between their symptoms and the proximity of someone who is experiencing emotional turmoil becomes more obvious.  Empaths often report feeling nauseated when they go to the mall where so many people are feeling so many emotions.  They describe how deeply anxious they became as a friend was describing their financial struggle.  And there is usually a specific event that clearly links their emotions to someone else’s, such as feeling angry for no reason, only to find out that their husband was getting more and more frustrated while working on the computer in a different room of the house.

In her book “Molecules of Emotions”, Candace Pert describes some very interesting biological processes that are involved in our emotional experiences.  When we feel emotions, there’s a flurry of physical activity that comes along with them.  But it’s in the brain that we find the most interesting research on the potential biological basis for the empath experience.

The Biological Basis

Mirror Neurons

Things can looks like magic until we figure out how they work and understand the processes involved.  Unfortunately for empaths, this discovery is still underway.    However, research on mirror neurons is finally shedding some light on a potential explanation for the way empaths experience the emotions of others.

Mirror neurons are thought to be a neurophysiological mechanism involved in how we understand the actions of others and learn to imitate them (Rizzolatti and Craighero 169-192).  These neurons were first studied in the context of motor skills and were observed to fire up when a monkey was watching someone else perform an action.  This lead to the hypothesis that watching others do something triggers an internal response that can help us mimic and imitate what we see.  The very act of watching another experiencing something activates neurons in our own brain (Bastiaansen, Thioux and Keysers 2391-2404), even when we are not personally performing the action.

In his ground breaking book “Mirroring People”, Marco Iacoboni relates the evolution of this fascinating new field of research.  He introduces mirror neurons as the potential physiological basis for empathy and morality, since they seem to be involved in how we can perceive and interpret the experiences of other people (Iacoboni 4).  In its simplest form, a mirror neuron is triggered by the observation of a physical gesture in someone else which in turns fires the same physiological neurons in the observer.  What is striking about this process is that it happens consistently even though the observer does not move his muscles at all.  It’s only an internal representation of the action, not a physical imitation of it.

Taking the example of a baseball match, the neurons activated by the catcher as he grabs the ball also get fired in the audience as they watch him do it.  The same process is also at work when we watch someone experiencing physical pain or notice facial expression of anger or worry.  Our brain can interpret the meaning of all these situations by internally experiencing them through its own mirror neurons.  Not only that, but there is a plethora of ways to trigger the mirror neurons: watching a ball being kicked, hearing the sound of a ball being kicked or even just saying the word “kick”, can all fire up the mirror neurons involved in this activity.

There is also a very high level of sophistication in the mirror neuron firing pattern.  In fact, the pattern is specific to the context or meaning of the action being observed, such as raising your hand to grab a ball or raising your hand to ask a question.  These two actions involve the same muscle, but not the same intention, and they triggers different mirror neuron pathways.    In short, mirror neurons allow us to create a very specific, contextual internal representation of what others are experiencing by firing our own brain cells to bring meaning and understanding to the actions of others.

This leads Iacoboni to postulate that the firing pattern of mirror neurons is actually complex enough that it allows us to understand the intention of other people (i.e. “what they are thinking”) depending on the context of their action (Iacoboni 30).  The presence of this biological process is critical when you consider that being able to understand and relate to other people is critical in our ability to survive in human society.  This concept is also supported by an entirely different body of research on a process called emotional contagion.

Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion is described as a “process in which a person or group influences the behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotional states and behavioral attitudes” (Schoenewolf 49-61).  This process is deeply rooted in the human psyche.  Newborn infants have been shown to instinctively imitate the facial expression of others within minutes of being born (Meltzoff and Moore 702-709).

As adults, we also tend to imitate the demeanor of others, often unconsciously.  This sort of mimicry propagates emotions from one person to another and is quite influential in our social relationships.  In fact, we are more prone to like people who are imitating us (Chartrand 893-910).  It is postulated that mimicry allows us to feel more connected to other people and provides a positive emotional experience.  Emotional contagion develops from basic mimicry as we endeavor to feel close and loved by the people around us.  Considering that humans are fundamentally gregarious, the presence of inborn mechanisms that facilitate our ability to connect with others is critical to our survival.  Even from birth, we spontaneously register and attempt to reproduce the non-verbal language of emotional communication.

Although science has not ventured this far, the empath experience also seems to indicate that there is a process by which humans can sense the emotion of other people innately, in a way that is not fully under their conscious control.  Empaths would gladly be able to stop this process so that they can feel only their own emotions.  However, the empath experience always begins unconsciously and uncontrollably.  Numerous empaths report feeling overwhelmed by the emotions of others without having ever intended to experience them.  Isn’t that odd?

Usually, when we want to expand a skill, such a throwing a ball, we first make a conscious decision to do so, followed by some sort of learning experience and practice program.  Some people are naturally better than others in certain areas so the practice necessary might be shorter but there is a progression from a decision made in consciousness (i.e. “I want to learn how to throw a ball”)  to a physical manifestation of this desire ( i.e. practicing throwing a ball).  But for empaths, the physical manifestation comes first.  They feel what other people feel, not even knowing what is going on.  It’s only after the fact that they reluctantly embark on a quest to understand what is happening to them.  And the first thing they are interested in discovering is usually: “How do I stop this”?

In fact, the empath experience does not present itself as a learned skill, something that a child could wish for and develop through practice.  The initial trigger seems to be physiological (i.e. the sensation of an emotion) which then leads to the emotional experience and, finally, the conscious awareness and cognitions.  Basically, empaths feel first and understand later.  Not only that but they report having no control over the entire process.    In other words, being an empath seems to be an innate ability.  And yet, not everyone is reporting feeling the emotions of others.  On the contrary, only a small proportion of the population even ponders this possibility.  Although we all seem to have the innate capacity to perceive other people’s emotions, empaths seem to have an unusual sensitivity to such emotional cues.

The Highly Sensitive Empath

That concept of sensitivity is central to the empath experience.  Empaths report feeling very stirred by what they watch or read, such as a sad movie.  They tend to avoid watching the news as the simple act of listening to someone else’s story of disaster triggers the very same perturbing emotions within them.  Empaths who listen to their friend talk about a distressing situation report still feeling negative emotions long after the conversation is over.  And since negative emotions are more salient and noticeable, most empaths report “feel the weight of the world” on their shoulders.

As such, empaths are often described to be “sensitive” people, through their own self-evaluation and the observation of their family and friends.  This is not surprising considering that empaths are constantly feeling some form of emotion, whether it is their own or not.  They are constantly emotionally activated which can make them look overly sensitive.  But that sensitivity might go further than just being especially vulnerable to tear jerker commercials.    They might also have a more sensitive nervous system.

Research shows that some people are naturally more sensitive than others.  Even young babies exhibit differences in the way they respond to unfamiliar events (Kagan 139-143) .  In a large study of 462 healthy subjects, Kagan found that about 20% of these children were more reactive and became more distressed when exposed to unfamiliar visual, auditory and tactile stimulations.  These sensitive children might grow up to become emotionally sensitive adults as well.

The term “highly sensitive person” has also been used to describe people who react strongly to life’s situations.  Dr. Elaine Aron has been a powerful advocate for the concept that being sensitive is a personality trait more complex than the introverted/extroverted Jungian concepts (Aron 6).  As described by Kagan, certain people have a natural sensitivity from birth which makes it more difficult for them to be comfortable.  Our bodies and mind naturally seek to find a happy medium between boredom and over stimulation.  Being highly sensitive can be challenging since the world itself quickly becomes overwhelming.  Bright lights, loud noises, strong colors or odors, all these stimuli can overrun a delicate nervous system until nothing feels good and there is no peace to be had.

Most importantly, Aron is adamant that being highly sensitive is a gift, a skill, a talent that should be praised and appreciated instead of criticized and ridiculed.  She hopes that once highly sensitive people understand why they react the way they do when they are over stimulated, things will make sense and they can finally understand themselves better and, hopefully, accept themselves as they are.  This is a major divergence from the “what’s wrong with you” mentality that surrounds most sensitive people since childhood.  Parents despair as their child cries endlessly, friends don’t understand sudden needs to withdraw to be alone and teachers are exasperated by what seems to be a deep lack of attention to the tasks at hand.  Yet, all these can be explained by an overwhelmed nervous system, along with relatively simple solutions to address the situation in order to bring balance into a frazzled mind and an overloaded body.

Just like some people have better hearing or vision, empaths might have a more acute sensitivity to emotional signals.  They could be a sort of “natural antenna” for this kind of information that somehow reads and interprets it while others would feel nothing at all.  The biological apparatus is there for everyone, but for empaths the signal is always on, always loud and usually disruptive. The concepts of mirror neurons and emotional contagion also support the view that humans might be biologically equipped to perceive the emotions of another person, but that empaths simply have a more sensitive receptivity for these signals.

However, there is an aspect of the empath experience is goes beyond what has been explored so far by researchers.  Empaths report being able to perceive other people’s emotions even when they are not in their physical presence, often across very large distances.  This means that the emotional stimuli is not visual (seeing someone’s facial expression), auditory (hearing a baby cry) or tactile (feeling the bodily spasms of sobbing).  Empaths report being affected by the emotions of their family and friends who live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

However unbelievable, the process involved in such a feat could be relatively simple.  If specific emotions trigger very specialized neuronal pathways, the magnetic field generated by this electrical activity might be picked up by someone else’s mirror neurons, triggering emotional contagion.  If we think of person A as being the emitter and person B as being the receiver, both parties possess the biological equipment necessary to “send” and “receive” emotional signals.  Person A is automatically transmitting a magnetic field that reflects the electrical activity associated with their emotional activation, much like the images of an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) reflects the internal activities of the brain.  Meanwhile, person B could receive and interpret this magnetic activity through their mirror neurons, providing them with a personal experience of person A’s emotional state.

This mechanism could explain why empaths can feel the emotions of people who are not in their physical presence.  Contrary to electrical current which need a conductive substance in order to travel, magnetic waves can go through solids and keep traveling great distances with minimal (or theoretically inexistent) loss.  An MRI can digitalize pictures of soft tissue located inside of the skull because of this property.  As such, the magnetic field emitted by a person, albeit extremely faint and complex, can travel unaltered indefinitely.  Electro-sensitivity (i.e. the ability to feel electro-magnetic fields) is highly controversial and often deemed inexistent, but its presence has been postulated as theoretical.

What would it take for this process to work?  First, person A would have to experience an emotions that is strong and specific enough to emit a signal that can be read and interpreted by person.  This is highly consistent with the empath experience, where people report being overwhelmed primarily by strong negative emotions such as anger and depression.  They also say that the emotions they pick up from others stay with them longer when the emotion is very strong.

Second, person B would have to be sensitive enough to be able to perceive this faint magnetic field and isolate it form every other bit of magnetic information that constantly surround us.  Indeed, this is where empaths seem to be different from people who do not have empath experiences: they are always described as “overly sensitive”.  In everyday life, that usually means people who constantly experience emotions more frequently and deeply than others.  In our scenario, person B would have to be not only sensitive enough to differentiate this emotional signal from that from a microwave for example,  but also be versed enough in emotional content to contextually identify which emotion is being perceived (like anger).  That seems like a lot of very complex, specialized information which is unlikely to be processed consciously.  On the contrary, empaths report having these emotional experience without meaning to do so, thus indicating that the process is more likely to be biological instead of cognitive.

If we go back to the hypothesis that mirror neurons could be the physiological process by which we can feel what other people feel, this process could be happening unconsciously where similar mirror neurons would be triggered within person B, thus offering very specific contextual information as to what emotion person A is experiencing.  The experience of anger in person A could fire mirror neurons in person B, assuming that person is an empath.  This process corresponds exactly to how empaths describe their experience (feel first, think later) as well as being in line with Iacoboni suggestion (Iacoboni 12) that mirror neurons could be heavily involved in the psychological process of empathy.  This is interestingly different from more traditional psychological perspectives where the processing of emotions is considered to be mostly cognitive.  And yet, there are some fundamental commonality between the empath experience and the more cognitive term of “empathy” which has been extensively studied in psychology.

The Psychological Basis

Empathy is a concept widely used in psychology to define the ability to imagine what another person is feeling, colloquially known as “walking in someone else’s shoes”.  It plays a crucial role in our social interactions.  Feeling empathy towards someone else may alter how we act towards them.  For example, empathy might lead us to hug someone who is crying from emotional distress.  It’s an intricate part of the glue that holds human beings together as a society.

Empathy

Theodore Lipps is considered the father of the term empathy (Montag, Gallinat and Heinz 1261).  He used it to describe how we perceive the mental state of others by a process of inner imitation.  This internal process involves several areas of the brain, such as the cortex, the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and endocrine system (J. Decety 92-108).

Although people who suffer from some psychopathologies, such sociopaths, can exhibit a lack of empathy, this ability has a strong biological basis.  Babies can recognize different emotions very early in life and toddlers develop their sense for empathy as they mature.  Young children are not only able to identify the emotions of others but they can also interpret them appropriately.  For example, a child who sees another child get hurt and cry might walk over to offer his blanket as comfort.

Carl Rogers defined empathy as the ability to “perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ conditions” (Rogers 210-211).  By this, he means that empathy is an imaginary process by which we hypothesize about the emotions of others “as if” it was happening to us.

Cognitive and Emotional Empathy

Recent evidence describes two different system involved in the process of psychological empathy: an emotion based contagion system, meaning “I feel what you feel” and a more cognitive perspective-taking system, meaning “I understand what you feel” (Shamay-Tsoory, Aharon-Peretz and Perry 617-627).  The emotional empathy process seems to activate the inferior frontal gyrus while the cognitive empathy process is more closely tied to the motor mirror neuron system.  The model of empath that was described by Rogers seems to be more related to cognitive empathy than emotional empathy.

Since the empath experience involves mostly emotions, it seems more related to emotional empathy.  However, the empath experience might be unique in the sense that even the most basic form of psychological empathy is always deemed to involve cognitive aspects (Shamay-Tsoory, Aharon-Peretz and Perry 617-627).  But for empaths, what they feel is first and foremost.  Thus, there are several critical aspects involved in the psychological understanding of empathy which are fundamentally different from the empath experience.

From Empathy to Empath Experience

First, in order to “perceive the internal frame of reference of another” as Rogers describes, one must have a mental experience of the other person.  Most psychological experiments that study empathy use observation as a means to trigger empathy, where children or adults are made to watch someone who is put in a situation meant to elicit strong emotions.  Such situations could involve being mistreated (for negative emotions) or receiving a gift (for positive emotions).  Empathy might also be triggered by hearing sounds (such as a baby crying) or interacting with someone as they relate an emotionally charged personal experience.  The common thread being that all these situations require a direct contact with the target in order to trigger empathy.

This is drastically different from the empath experience.  Empaths often report feeling the emotions of people who are not in their physical presence and with whom they’ve had no contact (Jude) (Lebeau, What is an Empath?).  For example, they might experience a strong emotion just as they are about to enter a room where someone is crying; as they pick up a phone call from a loved one who is distressed by bad news; as they walk through a hospital where patient are in physical pain.  The empath experience does not rely on visual or auditory cues, nor does it require a mental representation of the person whose emotions are being perceived.   On the contrary, it is a direct emotional connection to their internal emotional state that is not triggered by a mental representation.

Second, Rogers emphasizes that empathy involves an “as if” condition.  One might experience empathy when they can imagine what the other person feels like as if it were happening to them.  This is very different for the empath experience.  Empaths feel other people’s emotions as their own, not as being imagined or coming from an external source.  As they pick up the phone for call from someone who is distressed with bad news, they might experience a profound sense of dread or sadness, without knowing why.  The empath experience goes deeper than just a mental representation of another’s emotional experience.    It’s a personal direct experience, often both physical and emotional.

Most fundamentally, empathy and the empath experience differ in the following way: the trigger to empathy is an external cue, such as a negative facial expression, while the trigger to the empath experience is an internal cue, such as a change in one’s own emotional state.  Empathy involves thinking first, then feeling.  The empath experience involves feeling first, then thinking.  Unfortunately, many empaths do not know how to process this external emotional experience which can lead to a confusing situation where both types of emotions become entangled and thus extremely difficult to differentiate.

In fact, most empaths experience mild to severe emotional distress from their experiences.  It is often called the “empath curse” (Brallier), describing the emotional trauma that comes from experiencing all the negative emotions of everyone around you, without being able to identify which ones are yours and which ones belong to other people.  This can lead to great emotional distress and mental strain.

The problem is compounded by the fact that most empaths do not realize what is happening to them.  The aberrant changes in their emotional state are often attributed to depression or other mental health issues, since they cannot be directly related to their immediate life circumstances.  For example, if their neighbor is grieving for the death of his wife, an empath might experience an intense sense of depression and loss which has nothing to do with their own situation.  This can lead to complicated issues where an empath is being treated for someone else problem.

Finally, empathy and the empath experience also differ in how they are subjectively perceived.  While empathy is seen as being a positive quality that parents aspire to teach their children, the empath experience is often perceived as chaotic and painful.  This situation is mostly attributable to the fact that little is known about the empath experience and most people go through it unconsciously.  They do not realize what is happening to them nor do they know how to control the influx of external emotions that is flooding their consciousness.

Unlike people who are experiencing empathy, empaths are unable to differentiate the feelings of others from their own.  In their early years, empath children report experiencing all kinds of emotions, usually negative in nature, that they interpret feel as being their own, even when there are no immediate circumstances that could explain these feelings.  For example, they might swing from feeling completely depressed to violently angry with no obvious reason.  Even as adults, empaths often experience years of incomprehensible emotional turmoil before finally considering the impossible: that somehow they can pick up emotions that are not theirs.

This is where the concept of emotional transmission through mirror neurons comes in to fill the gap.  If we consider that the trigger for an empath experience might be a physical event where the magnetic field emitted by someone else’s emotion triggers an empath’s mirror neurons, it starts to make sense.  The empaths would feel first, and then try to understand what they are feeling.  The trigger being both internal and yet caused by external event would likely cause great confusion as to what is happening.  It could easily lead to a profound desire to shut it down and remain in denial out of sheer frustration.  Indeed, this is the process described by so many empaths.

And yet, we understand so very little about what lies beneath the empath experience.  Why does it happen?  Is there a meaning, a purpose that could help make sense of all the suffering it causes for empaths?  These questions demand a better explanation than mental illness, delusion or a mere reduction to the psychological concept of empathy.  The empath experience is greater than this.  In an attempt to better understand it, let’s explore the personal experience of empaths as it unfolds through their spiritual journey.

The Spiritual Basis

The Empath Awakening

Empaths often go through their childhood and teenage years unaware that they are having empath experiences.  They think that everyone feels the way they do.  It’s only in their later years that they report realizing that not everyone feels this way.  They look for answers, often for years, without being able to explain what is happening to them.  There is often a sigh of relief as they stumble upon term “empath”, usually by accident.  One empath relates that she was looking for a personal trainer on craiglist.com when she ran across a post describing the empath experience and a support web site.  She immediately resonated with the description offered and recognized the same situations in her own life.  Another one says that a fortune teller asked her if she was an empath, thus discovering a name for her “affliction”.  Sometimes it comes from an open minded friend or family member who has been through a similar experience and recognizes the “symptoms”.

No matter how it happens, self-awareness is a difficult process for empaths because we know so little about it.  Beyond some basic commonalities, different people experience it differently, making it even harder to pin point a good description to help identify empaths.  And even when someone is aware that they are an empath, then comes the delicate transition of talking about it.  Considering that even the term empath is widely associated with fantasy novels and TV shows, it’s extremely uncomfortable for people to hint that they may be feeling the emotions of others.  Even when an empath recognizes someone else who might be in the same boat, both parties most commonly remain silent for fear of being ridiculed or referred to a mental hospital.

Some empaths relate that a certain event triggered the awakening of their abilities, such as a car accident, a sudden illness or even pregnancy.  Although some of these events were traumatic, others were not.  But they all seem to be a turning point where the unusual nature of their experience could not be denied anymore: it forced itself to consciousness and demanded to be examined.  This trigger might be accompanied with an extensive phase of denial, where they think they know what is happening and yet they still reject the idea.

On the other hand, other empaths remember being aware of their empath skills since childhood.  The main difference is often an open minded parent or relative that mentioned the possibility of being able to feel other people’s emotions.  Having such a person in their lives seems to dramatically improve an empath’s ability to accept themselves more readily and develop their own techniques to be less permeable to the emotions of others.  They tend to have a more positive view of their situation and feel that this is just another part of their personality.  Maybe the presence of a positive role model makes it easier to transition into the empath experience without drama and trauma.

But no matter how it revealed itself, empaths usually don’t feel they had a choice.  On the contrary, whether they had a traumatic awakening or a smooth transition, the majority of them feel that this experience was forced upon them, an inevitable and often undesirable part of their spiritual growth.  Empaths don’t choose to be this way.  It just happens to them.  It’s not a skill that they tried to develop, like being good at sports.  Most of them would probably compare it more to getting a terrible disease.

The Empath Challenge

There is such pain and suffering currently associated with the empath experience that it’s hard to see any value or purpose in it.  It easily gets drowned out by the chaos and emotional distressed that these people experience on a daily basis.  In fact, most of the web sites dedicated to empaths have an overwhelmingly large number of posts relating a person’s despair and request for help, even when they don’t know what could possibly help them.

This despair is understandable.  Empaths suffer tremendous amounts of emotional distress by experiencing the emotions of everyone around them, especially the strong negative ones.  They report this phenomenon as “feeling the weight of the world”.  Not only that, but these emotions are not tied to their own life experience.  They are meaningless outside of the context of someone else’s life.  This can lead to a sense of emotional dismemberment, so to speak, where one is pulled in all directions by powerful emotions to the point where it’s impossible to make sense of it all.  No wonder so many empaths assume that they’re either already crazy or on the express lane in that direction.

Which raises another difficult question in the exploration of the empath experience: how much of it is real?  Is it just delusion or mental illness?  By far, this is the most common concern related by empaths.  And for some, it’s a valid one.  Empaths, like everyone else, can find themselves struggling with mental problems.  Although depression is the most common one, for obvious reasons, there are people who suffer from schizophrenia or other pathologies that lead to delusions who also report being empaths.  Sometimes it’s not even as dramatic as psychosis but just a need to find someone to blame for one’s emotional misery.  Being an empath can feel like an easy way to explain away why one is unhappy by assigning blame to other people.   In these cases, it’s difficult to tell if they are having real empath experiences or if this is just an expression of a mental problem that requires medication and professional counseling.

But even if some cases of mental illness are mistakenly perceived as an empath experience, it still leaves a portion of self-reported empaths who are also in good mental health.  They might experience emotional discomfort from their experiences but they are not depressed, psychotic or delusional.  However, they are keenly aware that it would sound crazy to anyone else than another empath.  This is why they tend to be very quiet about it.  Being an empath is not thanksgiving dinner conversation material.  It is usually done anonymously, in hushed tones.  It might come with a sense of shame, acquired from being ridiculed if the subject was ever broached with family or friends.  And yet, even with all the difficulties that come up along the way, people who have these experiences bravely keep talking about them, trying to sort things out, trying to find clarity.

Finding clarity can also be a daunting task.  Especially when discussions related to the empath experience are inter-mixed with other concepts such a psychic vampires or ghosts.  Although one’s spiritual journey is bound to raise all kinds of explorations to find answers, extending the empath experience to include these other concepts can be extremely confusing for the novice empath.  For example, some online posts ask if other people can psychically attack empaths or make them do their bidding, which has nothing to do at all with the empath experience.  This is where the simple nature of the empath experience can turn into the subject of sensationalist horror movies.  Separating fact from fiction can be a confusing process but is, ultimately, part of each empaths personal journey.

An empath’s situation can also be made worse by those who find, either consciously or not, that it makes them feel better when they vent to someone who totally understands how they feel.  It’s a sort of emotional transmutation where one person is relieved when someone else takes up their painful feelings.  However, for an empath, the burden doesn’t fall away when the conversation ends.  Being sensitive often comes with an extreme level of caring for other people.  As such, empaths tend to keep carrying the burden of others long after its author has moved on.  Even when it doesn’t make rational sense anymore, they carry it still.

And yet when faced with someone else’s suffering, an overwhelming number of empaths still report that they instinctively want to “take it away” and make it better.  But how can they?  Emotions are a personal experience that accompanies our life’s journey.  It’s not something that one person can take from another.    However, much like the endless labor of Sisyphus who was condemned to push a rock up a hill that inevitably rolled back down, toppling under its own weight, the empath tries to help by taking on other people’s emotional burden, only to be crushed under its heaviness.  It’s even worse for empaths who are not aware of their situation, since they do this over and over again without realizing how self-destructive it is.  Even conscious empaths, who understand what is happening and know that it’s not good for them, end up attempting to do this on a regular basis.  It’s almost like a reflex.

Why is that?  What would compel someone to put themselves through such emotional distress, even when it’s clearly self-damaging?  Is there a deeper purpose of the empath experience?

Quest for purpose

The most common question that comes up when someone realizes that they have been having empath experiences is: “Why is this happening to me?”  Although everyone gets a different answer to that question, there is a common thread underlying the empath experience that makes it spiritually meaningful: its direct connection to human consciousness.

From a very young age, human beings seek connections to other people.   We’re not a solitary race.  From parents to friends, we spend a huge amount of energy trying to develop meaningful relationships with the people around us.  And yet establishing these connections can be very challenging.  A quick glance at the number of books published on the topic of relationships will easily convey how difficult it can be to communicate authentically with other people.

This is especially true in our western culture where so many social conventions actively discourage people from being authentic.  For example, lying about not liking someone “to be polite” or concealing feelings of anger because it’s “not feminine”.  There’s a plethora of reasons why people hide their feelings, which has led us to a very emotionally challenging situation where we want to relate to other people but we can’t because we don’t know how they really feel.  Authenticity has been weeded out of us.  There’s something profoundly unnatural with this desire to disconnect from our feelings; something that is quietly screaming in agony, as those emotions are suppressed as well.  All we’re left with are tenuous social contracts, often based on obligation or self-interest, which push us farther and farther way from each other.  The very fabric of our society is getting undone through our inability to connect emotionally to one another.

All things considered, it might not be that surprising that empaths would surface in our society.  They bring an invaluable ability to be empathically accurate (Mast, Ickes and Farrow 408-427), meaning that they can tell what another person is feeling, even when it is not perceivable through verbal or nonverbal cues.  They can connect to other people’s true feelings.  Even though most humans don’t consider themselves part of nature anymore, nature still affect us and, most importantly, tries to keep us in balance.  Life is fundamentally a balancing act between all the contrasting aspects of itself.  An empath experience is a drastic push in the opposite direction of emotional distanciation.  It’s like blowing up the dam on a powerful river that had been diverted in an unnatural direction.  Unfortunately, the empath is the explosive.

The empath reflex to take away the emotional pain of others is not a conscious decision.  On the contrary, every fiber of their being wants to run away screaming.  But they also get an innate sense that there is a reason for this; that somehow their experience is opening up something that is blocked; that this can be healing; that it can have a purpose.  Even when they can’t explain it in words, empaths have an inner sense that they are some sort healer of emotions.   Of course, being aware of another person’s feeling does not mean we can fix the situation.  But it does offer a unique opportunity to open a sensitive dialogue about what is really going on.

The Balanced Empath

Although there seems be a purpose to the empath experience, it’s obviously a painful transition right now.  Empaths who are answering a deeper call to balance the emotional distanciation that is pervasive in our society are left with very little information or support on “how” this is to be done.  They have a tool but they don’t know how to use it effectively.

And yet, through this sea of emotional chaos, fear and doubt, there are some empaths who talk positively about their experience and affirm that their skills help them be a better parent, psychologist or manager.  There are empath artists and novelists who can deeply touch their audience because they are authentically connected to them.  These people, who are definitely a minority right now, seem to have found a deeper meaning in their experience; a meaning that brings personal growth and a deep sense of satisfaction in their interactions with others.  Oftentimes, they seem to be like candles in a stormy night: hard to see in the tumult and so minuscule against the immensity of the darkness that surrounds them.  And yet they continue their own journey on a path that slowly starts to make sense of their experience.

These people tend to have to have accepted their sensitivity in a way that allows them to be more at peace with it.  Instead of a curse, it becomes a blessing.    Part of that process seems to be intimately tied to self-acceptance, a long journey to love themselves, even in a society that feels they are “too sensitive for their own good”.  This is a journey that they share with the Highly Sensitive persons we discussed earlier.  Although not all Highly Sensitive people are empaths, most empaths are Highly Sensitive.  It seems to be an extension of that personality trait that specifically relates to emotions.  Instead of being sensitive to light, they are sensitive to other people’s emotions.

Much like the distress experience by Highly Sensitive people, empath suffer from a lack of understanding about what they need in order to feel better.  This can be very frustrating, both for the empath and for the people are around them who are trying to help.  An empath’s agony can often lead to drug and alcohol abuse which can only be resolved when they learn to silence the clamoring voices of other people’s emotions.

Fortunately, the internet has provided a small but growing channel through which more experienced empaths can guide the novice who has just realized what is happening.  Although the term empath is still so obscure that being able to stumble upon it is, in itself, a major accomplishment, it is gaining momentum both online and in printed books, thus providing hope that more and more people can be reached and helped.

The term “balanced empath” is often used to describe someone who has mastered their innate empath skills and is able to channel their emotional sensitivity to good use (Lebeau, What is an Empath?).  Although the specifics of how they express their emotional sensitivity varies greatly, balanced empaths seem to have found a way to participate in the process of “emotional healing” in a way that makes them feel happy and fulfilled.  Empaths have a unique opportunity to relate to other people in a way that offers a deep, meaningful and authentic emotional connection.  So often, people who are hurting emotionally feel alone and stuck.  They might also feel that no one can understand them.  Or be reluctant to verbalize some of their darker feelings.  In this situation, an empath perspective can bring forth the powerful sense of comfort that comes from feeling understood.  It’s also a lot easier for an empath to verbalize about emotions that they perceive in someone else since they don’t have the emotional baggage or cognitive mental filters that would make those feelings “bad”.

A balanced empath has figured out, either on their own or with help, how to detangle their personal feelings from the emotions of others, which is a crucial step in the evolution of the empath experience.  The ability to turn down or turn off their empath skills is often rejected by novice empaths.  It feels “wrong” to them to stop doing what they naturally do.  And yet, in order to help others empaths must learn to control their sensitivity to ensure it does not drain them.  Emotional burn out is a clear and present danger for all empaths.  By the time they are overwhelmed by others, empaths become dysfunctional and cannot help anyone at all.  As such, the very first step is the healing journey of empaths is often to take a break and learn to modulate their emotional intensity.  Brining peace and quiet to their own mind prepares them to become like a blank canvas for the helpful insights that can facilitate emotional healing.

Once they can sort out their emotional state, empaths can step into the deep spiritual experience that awaits them.  Instead of being a helpless spectator in the suffering of others, they become inspired to express what they feel in a way that empowers and heals.  This can mean manifest in an infinite number of ways, through art work, emotionally authentic psychotherapy or the integration of the empath experience in their everyday life.  A parent who can feel the emotion of their distressed teenager can gently open the door to a difficult conversation.  A teacher who feels their student’s emotional turmoil can help them verbalize their troubles so they can seek help.    Being able to connect through emotions is a direct line between two people’s inner being.  It had the potential to bring authenticity and spiritual depth to everyday life.

Ultimately, the meaning of the empath experience is not an external pursuit.  There is no need to write books or change profession.  In fact, balanced empaths report using their skill in their existing life, no matter what they do for a living.  Answering the call of the empath experience only requires emotional authenticity, something that comes very naturally to empaths.  From there, every interaction becomes charged with spiritual meaning, just in the very act of connecting to others authentically.  They can feel empowered by their contribution to every life they touch, through every emotion they express.

Conclusion

Although it was first born out of fictional characters, the idea that someone can directly experience the emotion of another person as their own has been gaining momentum as having a basis in reality.  Not only from the growing number of people who report having this experienced, but also from biological and psychological research that provide interesting  processes that could explain how the empath experience is actually possible.  Mirror neurons offer a biological explanation of how other people’s emotions could trigger physiological reactions on in our own body.  Emotional contagion and empathy offer a psychological basis for the transmission of feelings from one person to another.  Although there is much left to be learned about the empath experience, there is mounting evidence that we could be witnessing the beginning of a brand new way for humans to relate to each other more authentically through direct emotional communication.

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