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What is an Empath?

When people ask me what I do, I say that I’m a writer, researcher, and empath.  This last title often makes people ask “What?”

Photo of Kathryn Hays as Gem the Empath on Star Trek
Kathryn Hays as Gem the Empath on Star Trek

For my fellow trekkies, the word “empath” has a special meaning. Gem, in the 1968 episode “The Empath,” was able to take other peoples’ emotions and pain into her own body and heal it for them. Gem is magical and does not speak, but she has excellent eyelashes and a sparkly gown. When I do my empathic work, I usually wear sparkling gowns, but I have a hard time with the eyelashes. Kidding!

Though the sparkles are fetching, the skill of empathy isn’t magical or otherworldly. An empath is simply a person who knows that they read emotions and nonverbal information.

You’re an empath, too. You also read emotions – we all do, because empathy is our nonverbal and preverbal language. We all use our empathic skills when we socialize, listen to music, work with animals and babies, appreciate art, laugh at physical comedy, and read body language. We also use our empathic skills when we speak and when we decipher spoken language, because we actually can’t make sense of the world if we can’t use our emotions.  The logical, mathematical, and linguistic parts of our brains are extremely important, but without the emotions, they simply can’t work properly.  The emotions and the intellect are a boxed set.  Empaths know how to look inside and outside of the box!

I once thought that my empathic skills were mystical, because if you can read and understand emotions, you can look exactly like a psychic.  You can see the stuff people think they’re hiding, and you can become very skilled at working with people and getting down to the brass tacks of who they are. Through empathy, you can get to know people very deeply in a seemingly magical length of time.

However, empathy also makes you question yourself and your actions.  It’s almost impossible to be a scam artist and an empath at the same time, because you feel the pain of others,  so you don’t tend to hurt people if you can help it.  Empathy made me question my seemingly psychic skills very intently, and in 2003, I ended my career to return to college and study the heck out of the human condition!

I discovered that empathy is a natural human ability, but it looks magical because most of us are educated out of our empathic skills at a very early age.  We’re taught to ignore our emotions and focus on what people say rather than what they mean. We’re taught that the emotions are the opposite of rationality; therefore, our emotions go unheeded, dishonored, and unheard.

Because of our early training, our empathic and emotional skills tend to go underground.  But they’re never gone.  We all rely on them everyday, and we’re drawn to them in obvious and hidden ways.  For instance, if you look at most comedy, there is nearly always an empathic undercurrent.  Rude comedians often say true things we could never say and get away with it.  We laugh because the comedian is funny, but we also laugh because he or she is telling the emotional truth and not getting punished!

Of course, physical comedy also relies on our empathic skills, because there are no words and we have to decipher the situation by relying upon gesture, nuance, undercurrent, and emotion.  I have to say, though, that I can’t watch physical comedy like the show Jackass, where people continually hurt themselves in a desperate bid for laughs and attention.  Sorry, but that’s just too painful!  However, I laugh every time I see  the Monty Python fish slapping dance, so go figure.

Puns are also funny empathically, because our logical brains expect words and sentences to mean one thing — and then suddenly the words go careening off onto another tangent, and we laugh!

We’ll talk more about empaths and empathy, but since you are an empath, watch yourself closely.  When are  you aware that you’re reading gesture, nuance, undercurrent, and subtext?  When do you hear what isn’t spoken?  When do you detect an emotion that tells you something about another person — and do you work with it, or ignore it? Or is it totally situation-dependent?

How do you work with your own empathic skills?

15 Responses

  1. BA
    | Reply

    A brilliant woman educated out of her own core beliefs… Life is not so black and white. Sociology, psychology and intuitive senses can exist on the same plane.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Well, that’s precisely the point of becoming educated. Human brains and human emotions are amazingly fallible, and you absolutely have to question your core beliefs if you’re ever going to deserve the mantle of brilliance. Sociology, anthropology, neurology, and to a lesser extent psychology, can tell us so much more about human nature and human history, and in such a deeper way, than superstitious traditionalism can. And in each of these fields, intuition is not left out of the puzzle. When you can approach intuition without superstition, you can find out amazing things about it. Here’s a post on it.

      Four must-read books: On Being Certain, How We Decide, Why We Believe What We Believe, and Supersense: The Science of Superstition.

  2. Deb Johnson
    | Reply

    Well, anyone who loves the Fish Slapping Dance enough to post the video here is ok by me. The first time I saw it, I nearly wet myself laughing. Really enjoying finding more out about empathy through your writing Karla.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Deb, I think the Fish Slapping Dance may be the empath’s secret dance. We accept you, one of us!

  3. Kris
    | Reply

    Interesting and good article. I’ve seen many articles say that empaths will always be compassionate towards “everyone”. I must disagree. As humans, we will like some people and not like some people. Unfortunately we still feel the emotions of the people we don’t like. I don’t agree that we *always* want to fix these people. I do think that we use our skills to better manage these people or to set things right. I believe, as a human and an empath; that it is ok to not like certain people and ok to not want to fix them. We are human; so we deal with alot of dualities which help us see things clear. Of course, there’s alot of shades of grey in there too. But, just saying- an Empath isn’t always a nice person; it just depends on the individual.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kris! Absolutely; the idea that empath=nice is nonsense. I think people would like it to be that way, but if a person can read emotions and all of the other aspects of nonverbal language, he or she can often see things that people are trying to hide, or aren’t aware of, or are ashamed of. Often, my work as an empath is to ignore the clear signals people are sending so that they can feel comfortable — but in many cases, especially if people are close to me, I’ll speak about what I see. And let me tell you, that can be excruciating for everyone.

      For me, being an empath means that I can feel all emotions at every level of intensity, and not abandon people because I’m afraid of emotion. It means having the skills to go into the depths and the dark places and come out whole, with new information. When it’s time to be nice, sure, I can do that. But niceness is a pretty lightweight thing in contrast to the actual work of a healthy and functioning empath.

  4. michael
    | Reply

    Well done, Karla; and I’m so glad you’ve gone further with education. I was unaware that “empaths” had a dialogue and presence on the web. When I was a teenager, I saw the Star Trek episode, and was astounded. It fit me completely! And still does now at age 65. I hesitate to talk with folks about the topic since they are too skeptical, but quite frankly I read most people like a book within seconds, and every facial expression, movement, vocal tone, and who knows what else is like some kind of amazing dance that tells who they are. But sometimes it gets to be too much and have to be away from everyone. I retired from my career as an anthropologist recently, and miss it. People are just so interesting, and most of them truly wonderful. Take care.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Michael, and welcome to the clan! Isn’t anthropology a wonderful place for an empath to land? Especially micro ethnography! I’m a micro sociology geek, but I’m studying linguistic anthropology this semester as I work to create better forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for my often hyper-empathic friends on the autism spectrum. Linguistic anthropology is so much fun, especially since so much of the paralinguistic signalling that you and I focus on is actually explained and even quantified. I’m in a geekish heaven, though I’m reading so many studies that I often feel like a person who started a pie-eating contest with great excitement, and now might never want to eat pie ever again. One… more… study… gah.

      Welcome welcome; I’m glad you’re here!

  5. Christopher
    | Reply

    Thank you for your article Karla. I tend to gravitate toward people who especially are developed or possess a deep sense of empathy because I understand how incredible, deep, and attractive such that this attribute is. This (“The Empath”) was one of the more unusual (and spectacular) of Star Trek episodes.

  6. Nichoe
    | Reply

    The terms most used to describe me all of my life are “nurturer”, “calming presence”, “innate ability to read people”, and “how do you KNOW that?”. I don’t go into pet stores, zoos, or near anything with caged animals if at all possible. I cry instantly and insatiably.

    I can walk into a room and almost literally point out who is feeling/thinking what; who to interact with and who not to; and how to interact with each individual.

    Grocery shopping or running any errands in public always includes conversations with strangers. I don’t mean “the weather is…” type of conversations, I mean instantly personal (from the side of the stranger).

    I have always been a “touchy feely” type in regards to showing comfort or showing the individual that I am truly present and listening. I do get comments on those who normally don’t welcome having a hand gently placed on their forearm or shoulder that it was just what they needed. With that, I always seem to know who to keep my hands away from.

    Although most of these traits I haven’t begun to describe to their fullest, nor have I confessed all of them, reading this article (among MANY others) has helped ME feel understood for the first time. As a former massage therapist, and soon to be nurse, it’s no wonder I find such pleasure in helping people discover and become healthy, on top of feeling it is my calling in life. Thank you for being a step in this part of discovering and better understanding myself. I feel I can finally breathe clearer, fuller, and without hesitation.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome! Thank you for bringing more emotional awareness and empathy into a waiting world!

  7. Gabrielle
    | Reply

    Hello Karla and everyone!

    I just came to the concept of being an empath. I’ve always felt pretty different and felt things much more deeply than everyone I know, but lately, it’s been overwhelming. It’s been some time since I started feeling really strong sensations that I can’t explain, but that the world is going through something big and things are really tough to handle, although sometimes euphorically amazing. I read a lot about that but still feel that there’s something else I can’t explain. I feel the urge to be around really light people, and also have been more and more willing to alone in a quiet place around nature and animals.

    Have you ever felt, as an empath that didn’t know about being one, that you could be bipolar or borderline? Have you been also feeling this weird thing about the world? How are you dealing with it?

    I am sorry for such a big text and so many questions, it’s just that there’s so much going through my mind for so long right now, that I need to see if there’s someone else out there, lol.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Gabrielle! Hyper-empathy can make you very sensitive to everything around you — and especially emotions. One of the most important things for very sensitive people to do is to develop emotion regulation skills so that they can remain grounded and focused. Otherwise, it can be very easy to get pulled in many directions at once.

      This piece on learning to channel emotions might be interesting. Also, this practice for anxiety, and this piece on multiple emotions.

      A lot of people are feeling that the world is in a tough place. I think for many of us, the question now is how do we want to live — what’s important to us, and how do we want to spend our time?

  8. Jackson
    | Reply

    Dear Karla,

    Thank you for your articles; I discovered your work via your article, Understanding and Befriending Anger. My question for you is: do you see a direct connection between being an empath and certain Jungian/MBTI types? I would assume that the connection would center more on whether the feeling function is extraverted or introverted, rather than whether the feeling function is dominant or not. For example, I would guess that people with Extraverted Feeling would be more empathic. I for one am ENTP, so Feeling is not dominant in me by any means, but I would consider myself highly empathic. Since I have Extraverted Feeling as my Tertiary Function, I would assume that would have a core connection. Oddly enough, if I were ENFP, then my Feeling Function would be Introverted and therefore I might be so empathic. What are your thoughts on the matter? Thank you for your attention.

    Love and Light,

    Jackson Holiday Wheeler

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Jackson, and thank you for your comment.

      I don’t use the MBTI, though I know that many people find it to be valuable.

      In research, there is talk of “trait empathy,” such that some people are naturally more empathic than others. However, it doesn’t seem to correlate to the idea of introversion or extraversion. Also, since empathy can be developed at any stage in the life span (barring neurological disease or the presence of alexythymia or other emotion-dampening conditions), the connection to specific cognitive styles is also not correlated.

      The good news is that no matter where people start, they can become more comfortable and skilled with their empathy!

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