What is an Empath?

We’re all empaths

In my earlier career, I identified as an empath, but I stopped doing so because the term got to be really troubling.

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

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

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.

Kidding!

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.

Karla’s Magical Empathy Quiz

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.)

 

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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