Letter to the editor: Empaths are worth getting to know
The first thing to understand is that Empaths are real — just uncommon. But, it’s probably best to forget anything you may have heard, if that information didn’t directly come from an Empath. There are widely accepted scientific reasons and explanations behind the formation and reality of Empaths, and there are far more commonalities between Empaths and Non-Empaths than there are differences.
Clarification — Empathy is a temporary mood/feeling, when you access the ability to feel for someone.
A Highly Empathic Person (HEP) experiences a notably strong emotional reaction to external and immediately identifiable and known triggers. For example, feeling intense emotional involvement while watching a movie, or feeling peaceful while out in nature.
A Highly Sensitive Person is exactly as described, but HSP’s experience of their sensitivity is independent, and disconnected from the experiences of others — whereas Empaths are more symbiotic. (Though, I speculate that HSPs could possibly become Empaths, if they work hard enough at developing their emotional intelligence…but who can say.)
Empaths are not so much defined by sensitivity as they are by receptivity. The two often go hand in hand, but the quality is characterized more by an involuntary, constant state of heightened openness and connection to others — not by an acute experience of internal or external stimuli. An elevated capacity for empathy is more of a side-effect, but this version can exist independent of compassion, rendering it as literal empathy — feeling exactly what another feels, as they are feeling it. Empaths can also experience shifts in their emotional state in reaction to the emotional state of others. Although compassion is a very strong and natural tendency for Empaths by default, as with anyone else, it can become too guarded or buried to make a full appearance, as it tends to be the most commonly weaponized trait: used against those who extend it, by those less capable of it (along with its other functions like kindness and forgiveness).
• Scientific explanation: Empaths either have more, and/or just hyperactive, mirror neurons.
• New-age explanation: The energetic barriers between Empaths and the outside world never fully developed.
• Psychological explanation: The main theory is that it’s a survival mechanism. Extensive trauma (abuse/neglect, serious illness, and/or life-threatening incidents) in early life is believed to create it, but there could also be an inborn predisposition, which typically appears in second-borns (though, not always).
Sensitivity/receptivity can take many forms and many intensities. For some, it’s focused and easily controlled, but it tends to be generalized and fairly chaotic for most. Those who’ve been encouraged, or at least allowed, to embrace their experience of the world are apt to be able to tolerate it, and work with it to their advantage. But those who’ve been made to believe they’re defective, likely never learned those skills (but still can later in life).
Why some who go through hell still stayed good: They likely received empathy/compassion during a critical and formative time — if not from parents, then usually from teachers, mentors, guidance counselors, etc.
It seems quite clear that a source of compassion (AKA, “empathy in action”) is critical in determining whether what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, or make you wish it had — regardless of age or circumstances.
Signs that you’re an Empath:
• You not only feel like you don’t belong on this planet, but have been told as much and treated as such for most, or all, of your life
• Wild (and healthy!) animals, even those known for being skittish, don’t seem to mind you as much and/or as often as other people, if they even mind you at all
• Babies are usually fascinated by you, and children tend to be drawn to you (whether you like it or not!!)
• You typically become more like a therapist instead of a friend to others
• Strangers frequently tell you their life stories, painful secrets, about their bad day, struggles, etc., without any prompting on your part
• You’re more frequently targeted by toxic, detrimental, and dangerous people, and to greater degree, than most people
• You not only prefer to be alone, but NEED to be, and quite a lot
• You’re naturally and notably talented at anything that relies on mimicry (e.g., martial arts, dance, acting)
• You’re intuition is a force of nature
• You’re a human lie detector (though often too forgiving or kind to say anything)
• You’ve mastered one or several skills that most people don’t even believe are possible
• You experience life much more intensely and deeply than most people
• Non-physical pain and stress quickly take a physical form in you
• You require higher-than-average doses of painkillers
• You often feel what others feel almost/equally as strongly as they’re feeling it, whether or not it’s being outwardly expressed (and have likely learned how to turn numb when that happens)
• Toxic people are literally, physically toxic
The more that applies, the more likely it is that your receptivity/sensitivity is elevated enough to be counted among Empaths. There are many other indicators, but because internal phenomena exist on a spectrum and can apply to anyone, I mostly listed the common indicators that can be observed externally.
Given the symbiotic nature of these signs, it seems that nearly everyone is naturally capable of this connection, but not everyone experiences it on a consciously emotional (“heart”) level. In fact, it seems clear that the active destruction of sensitivity and empathic connectedness is one of the primary focuses in American culture and societal values.
Regardless, the world at large tends to be especially cold and cruel toward anyone who’s “different” in the eyes of the majority, but it’s always profoundly vivid and recurring for those who are more sensitive/receptive. As a result, HEPs, HSPs, and Empaths are prime candidates for developing all kinds of conditions relating to, and directly resulting from, extensive “invisible” injuries, and deeply-rooted internalized self-hatred and self-abuse.
When life becomes all about survival+injury+isolation — whether that person is an Empath or not — everyone loses. With Empaths, especially, the most profound and common loss is the death, destruction, and corruption of the natural capacity for virtually unlimited and unconditional kindness and compassion.
Understanding the following is more a service to yourself than it is to any of us. (But many thanks if you already do.)
It needs to be recognized that some of the most powerful sources of empathy and others-centered sensitivity are going to be “different” from those who are devoid or less capable of it. They’re also likely to embody the polar opposite of American culture and values. And, as a result, they’re likely to be seen as inferior or defective, and assigned to the polar opposite connotations of their true nature by anyone who has deeply internalized, and never truly questioned, the American way.
For example: Those you perceive as being “weak” or “fragile” are actually very likely to have seen and survived more levels of hell than the average person, and for longer periods of time.
And, those you see as “freaks,” “rejects,” or “losers,” are actually very likely to be among those most qualified to provide what you keep saying is “what the world needs more of,” and more deeply aligned with the essence of Nature — but that’s only if they can survive (and heal from) yours.
So, if you truly value empathy and compassion, and others-centered sensitivity, and want more of it in your life and the world… Try to develop an awareness of how you, personally, might take heightened empathy/sensitivity and all its functions as an invitation to attack, abuse, exploit, shame, devalue, dismiss and reject those who demonstrate it. Ask yourself more questions, like why it is that inclination exists in you, in what ways does it benefit you/others, whether or not it does more harm than good, where did it come from, and what exactly causes it. (Hint: ego) Or, at the very least, you can try to understand, accept, respect, protect/defend, appreciate, and encourage any sensitivity/empathy-based qualities you see in others and within yourself. If you want to change the world for the better, it has to start with you.
Mark A. Nelson of Bristol
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