I’m almost 60 years old, but my awareness of being an empath is relatively recent. I’ve always known that I was different, or at least I suspected I was different from most around me.
I’ve always known that I was a sensitive sort of person, imbued with an over abundance of empathy for others, especially small, defenseless children or those actively suffering. I’ve always known some works of art, music, songs, poetry, and films possess the power to evoke emotional responses that might otherwise lay dormant.
So, yes, I’ve always known, but not fully enough to accurately identify it.
A framework sought
As a trained physician, I wanted to know with certainty that I wasn’t neurologically imbalanced. My mother has many active neurological diagnoses and my father died earlier this year with, among others, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Dementia. I was wary of having something terrible. What I preferred was a framework upon which I could hang the symptoms, feelings and fuzzy knowings; I wanted to find some syndrome or triad of symptoms (identifiable but not pathological) somewhere in the medical literature that had been named that I could point to and say,
“That! That’s what I am!”
My search revealed blog posts and articles about empaths, their stories, and finally a book by Judith Orloff, MD, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. If you identify as a highly-sensitive person (HSP) or as an empath, I highly recommend reading this book. As a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of the various social and emotional issues of empaths, she gave me the framework I sought.
I could finally understand, from the medical and psychiatric viewpoints, why I felt the way I did and how to begin the process of accepting my empathic nature as something to befriend and ultimately embrace. I can say with certainty that my empathic nature and I are friends, but that I’m still working on fully embracing it.
My specific empathic traits
There are two main types of empaths: physical and emotional. Physical empaths are sensitive to crowds, often experience unexplained physical symptoms, and are sometimes chronically fatigued. Emotional empaths mirror the emotional energies of those around them and this can manifest in an emotional hangover, deeply felt knowings or a heightened sense of intuition, and the need to help others, often to our own detriment.
I’m both a physical and emotional empath. Woohoo!, Lucky me! 🙄
The following are several of the ways my mind-body tells me I am an empath:
Overstimulation – I can become overstimulated by loud noises such as fireworks, being in a large crowd or social gathering, and even by someone touching me (though this is rare). I used to love going to the movies, especially alone, but over the past two years, my symptoms of restless legs and general anxiety have kept me from enjoying them. I think it’s because of the rapidly-changing camera shots and angles, combined with the high volume of the soundtrack, that creates a milieu of stimuli that I can’t adequately process like I used to. I also avoid attending conferences that otherwise I’d love to experience. I’ve long wanted to attend Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit (WDS) in Portland for each of the past three years, but my tendency to be overstimulated by crowds have kept me from doing so. I’ve been thinking about attending in 2018, but booking an AirBnB with my girlfriend and attending only selected workshops -kind of like taking small doses of a bad tasting medicine.
Social hangovers – As a result of the overstimulation from the movies, a full day of social contact, or even a stress-filled workday I often experience what HSP’s and empaths refer to as a social hangover (without the fun of earning it). 😉 When this happens, I awaken feeling like my brain is full of unprocessed thoughts, memories, and experiences and I can’t fully engage in my work nor with the world until I clear these from my head and my body. Often, a social hangover is accompanied by both mental and physical exhaustion. When this occurs, the only treatment is the hibernate like a bear on Winter for a day and very slowly process these energies.
Intense feelings – Empaths often feel emotions more intensely than non-empaths. Our feelings are on steroids; inside my head, they feel like the vein-popping biceps of bodybuilders. My wonderful girlfriend once said to me, “It must be exhausting to feel everything so intensely.” She’s spot-on with that because it is exhausting at times. I can’t turn them off because as a physical and emotional empath, I’m like a dry sponge that soaks up the physical and emotional energy of everyone nearby. Sometimes I realize that I’m feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated and it’s because of the emotional energy in the room or in my environment. I read the news daily, but I’m very selective about how much I watch on YouTube because the visual images in video reports can often affect me in a negative manner. I have refrained from watching video rescues in Houston area following Hurricane Harvey and video news reports of the same because I know I will soak up the sadness. Part of being responsible as an empath, in my view, is to limit my exposure to what I know triggers my reactions and take whatever actions are necessary to avoid certain stimuli.
Difficulty in relationships – In past relationships, I’ve been unhappy and unfulfilled. I’ve been the victim of emotional and physical abuse as well as just bad fits in terms of partner choices. There is fault enough to go around and this isn’t about blame (except in the case of the physical abuse as I didn’t deserve that). Because I didn’t fully understand my own emotional and physical sensitivities, my partners were hostage to my moods and reactions. I’ve never been volatile or violent, but for some, the emotional withdrawal from the world at times during and following overstimulation was definitely misunderstood. I was labeled emotionally unavailable, arrogant, socially awkward, and weird. However, I am grateful that I now enjoy what is truly the best relationship of my life with a lovely woman who is understanding of and willing to accommodate my unique needs. She is appreciative of my need to communicate my feelings and talk about where we are in our relationship. To most guys reading this I probably sound like a misfit, but empathic men get it as do most women whether or not they experience the world as an empath.
Intuitively knowing things – This isn’t to say that I’m clairvoyant or psychic, but there are times when I will absolutely know what another person is feeling or is going to do. To date, I’ve been hesitant to embrace this aspect of my personality for fear of misreading it, but it has always served me well. It’s like a protective mechanism, a radar of sorts that accompanies my empathic nature and it allows me at times to perceive what’s in my immediate surroundings. I can recall these deep knowings, as I prefer to call them, as early as age eight or nine and how they served me in elementary school. At that age, I was often bullied by larger, taller boys who saw me as a smaller and vulnerable target. I endured most of my public education in this manner, often having to take alternate routes to class or home to avoid bullies who just like pushing smaller kids around. Sensitive boys are automatic targets it seems.
Driven to create – Most empaths, because of our solitary and internal focus, are creative beings. We paint, write, draw, sculpt, or engage in other artistic pursuits largely because we can’t stop ourselves. Because we take in so much energy from our surroundings, we have to develop expression outlets through which we transform this energy into some form of product or process. I write blog posts, write in my Zen-Journal, and publish books. Some make videos, paint portraits or photograph nature. I once referred to my creative pursuits as the work I can’t-not-do. I am compelled to publish and driven to create and push out the work into physical or virtual form.
Narcissists are toxic – Narcissists are my energy vampires, sucking the very lifeblood from my veins. When I’m around someone who is self-absorbed like a narcissist, my skin crawls. Their need to be the center of attention can border on the absurd. I once worked with someone I considered to be a narcissist. She turned every conversation and agenda item in meetings into an opportunity to talk about how it affected her. She was the embodiment of the comical description of someone finishing a diatribe about themselves with, “OK, enough about me. How do you feel about me?” Narcissistics target empaths to a degree because they know that we often won’t defend ourselves and will allow them to trample on us, choosing to absorb the psychic body blows rather than return them. Empaths are non-violent by nature and usually pacifists.
I had a wonderful, giving, and loving parent (my dad) who gave me unconditional love every day of my life and sadly, he died this year at age 85. My mother has always been -and remains today- a narcissistic. Here is how Dr. Roberta Cone describes what it’s like for an empath to be raised by a narcissistic parent:
In a home affected with an abusive narcissistic parent emotions are repressed and become twisted. Rules are built on shame, guilt, or fear. Feelings are often not shared and when they are expressed, it is done in a judgmental manner placing blame on one another. The narcissistic parent is self-involved and feels no empathy for their children. They are incapable of mirroring real love and try to get their children to fulfill their unmet dependency needs. The narcissistic parent’s unresolved drives for attention and caretaking takes center stage as the child’s early developmental needs are ignored and denied. The self-involved parent shames the child for having desires and makes them feel guilty. All of the family attention and energy is focused on the demands of the narcissist.
A special relationship with plants – Yes, that sounds a bit woo-woo. I’m not a green-thumbed gardener by any means. In fact, my brother and I once mocked a Native People’s ritual and engaged in an impromptu and rather uncoordinated rain dance when my dad assigned us some yard work. (Our dance was unsuccessful.) Moving on…. My wonderful girlfriend that I mentioned above gave my mother a lovely plant last month on her 84th birthday. It’s a Bromeliad and is a member of the Bromeliaceae family of flowering plants with approximately 3,200 species that are mostly native to tropical America. Just today I was at my mother’s house and was looking intently into the lush red and green leaves. It held my gaze as if it were its intent. It seemed to me that we were communicating, this lovely plant and me. Hey…I warned you, woo woo city, right? It had to be that our energy fields merged and each of us found it pleasant. It was a new experience, for sure, yet a very positive one.
These are the ways my mind and body tell me that I am an empath. It’s not an easy path to walk and it definitely presents some challenges. But I’m learning to embrace it.