We’re all empaths
An empath tends to be seen as some kind of magical psychic, and that’s nonsense. Empathy is a human trait and skill, but it’s also a trait in many animal species, so there’s nothing magical about it. We’re all empaths, because we’re all members of a highly social and empathic species.
Some people have higher levels of trait empathy, and I now identify them as hyper-empaths. Usually, if they don’t have any training, hyper-empaths have a hard time setting boundaries, they pick up too much information, they’re hyper-sensitive, and they feel overwhelmed by emotion contagion.
But with training, hyper-empaths can learn how to manage and work with their empathy so that they don’t have to suffer. They can learn how to work with emotions so they won’t be thrown off balance by the presence of emotions (in themselves or others). And they can learn how to set clear and loving boundaries.
We’re all empaths, and no matter where we start — whether we’re hyper-empathic and hypersensitive, or whether we’re hypo-empathic and somewhat insensitive — we can develop or calm down our empathy at any stage of our lives.
I write about this process in my book The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill. I also wrote about the dead-wrong idea that autistic people are unempathic. Autistic people tend to be hyper-empathic, and many of the behaviors you see in autism can only be understood through the lens of hyper-empathy and hyper-sensitivity. (See my post Empaths on the Autism Spectrum).
It’s a tragedy that people have been so painfully and dangerously wrong about autism and empathy (and about the other supposedly unempathic conditions). It’s unempathic to exile people from empathy. We’re all empaths.
But it’s all a part of our severe lack of understanding of empathy and empathic people.
The fantastic history of the empath
A few years ago, I realized that I didn’t know where the term empath came from, so I researched it. Wow. It’s a fascinating story.
For my fellow trekkies, the word empath has a special meaning. Gem, in the 1968 Star Trek 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 sparkling gown. When I do my empathic work, I usually wear sparkling gowns, but I have a hard time with the eyelashes.
Another empath, Counselor Deanna Troi, followed Gem in the Star Trek universe, but these two women weren’t the first empaths.
The word and concept first appeared in a 1956 science fiction novel called The Empath by Scottish author JT McIntosh. He was making a play on the word telepath. His empath was a person who could read emotions in the way fictional telepaths could read thoughts.
Gem appeared as another empath in 1968, and X-Men had a character called The Empath in the 1980s. After that, empath Deanna Troi appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987.
So the entire concept came from science fiction, and then moved into the New Age community, where I picked it up in the 1970s. Interestingly, empaths at that time were considered to be the lowest form of trash-garbage psychics (because they worked with emotions, which were mostly despised in the New Age), so I focused on how to bring empaths and emotions out of the trash.
I did that, but then realized with a sense of horror that empathy was not a psychic skill. It only looks that way because our emotional education is so terrible.
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, if you’re lucky, empathy also makes you question yourself and your actions. Empathy made me question my seemingly psychic skills very intently, and in 2003, I ended my career because I couldn’t ethically support the idea of empathy as a psychic skill. In fact, I realized that it was a terrible idea to treat empathy as special or otherworldly.
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.
Anyone who makes it through our terrible emotional training and can read emotions seems to be magical and psychic, but they’re not. Sorry!
The natural, nonfiction skill of empathy
Though idea of magical psychic powers is exciting, the skill of empathy isn’t magical or otherworldly. An empath is simply a person who reads emotions and nonverbal information. If a person is a hyper-empath, they are usually hypersensitive to emotions and social cues (and the social atmosphere around them). Hyper-empathic people are usually hypersensitive in other ways as well.
In The Art of Empathy, I teach hyper-empathic people how to build a life that supports them so that their hyper-empathy can be a skill and not a problem.
But you don’t have to be a hyper-empath to be a member of the empath community. You’re an empath because you 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 rely on our empathy when we do art, when we move and dance, and when we commune with nature.
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 rely on our emotions … we’re all empaths.
However, because of our early training, our empathic and emotional skills tend to go underground. But they’re never gone.
We all rely on our empathy everyday, and we’re drawn to empathy 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!
We use our empathy throughout each day, and in all of our relationships. Some people have higher trait empathy than others, but we’re all empaths.
If you’d like to measure where you are on the empathic continuum, this questionnaire can help you understand more about yourself.
We’re all empaths, and empathy is not a magical skill.
Thank goodness it’s not, because we need more healthy empathic people in our struggling world.
Here’s to making your empathy a comfortable, knowable, and manageable skill.
(And if you want to wear a sparkling gown to support your empathy, I celebrate you.)