Some people have a natural ability to read others. They immediately tune into others’ emotions and know exactly how someone feels at a given time.
People with this gift are called empaths.
What is an Empath?
An empath is a person with the innate ability to feel the emotions of others. They pick up on subtle cues and energies which communicate feelings non-verbally.
Trisha Wolfe, LPCC and owner of CBUS Therapy, describes empaths as highly intuitive and connected to the feelings of others.
However, they can’t turn it off. Wolfe says, “True empaths take on the emotions of others. They don’t just put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they put themselves in those shoes and feel like they can’t take them off.”
What Does the Science Say?
According to Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP, and Clinical Director at Absolute Awakenings, there’s no scientific evidence to prove that empaths exist in real life. However, the idea that people have an innate ability to sense the emotions of others has only recently gained traction in scientific communities, and brain function is a complex field.
Researchers lack a complete understanding of how the brain works and its capabilities. Studies on neurology, brain function, and behavior may provide insight into whether empaths really exist.
A 2018 study discovered that there might be a genetic component to empathic behavior, while researchers in 2014 found that approximately 20% of the population experiences sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), described as an innate trait associated with increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli.
Not everyone with increased SPS is an empath. The increased sensory processing can also manifest in different ways, like becoming overwhelmed with too many lights or loud sounds.
An empath manifests sensory processing sensitivity by becoming attuned to the emotions of everyone around them, whether they like it or not.
What Does it Mean to be an Empath?
Have you ever walked into a room after an argument? The air feels stiff with tension, and the awkward energy lingers long after the fight has passed.
Although you weren’t present during the disagreement, you know something happened. You can feel it.
Mark Joseph, the founder of Parental Queries, is an empath and considers it a gift allowing him to connect more meaningfully with the people around him.
Joseph’s most memorable experience as an empath came when getting to know someone new.
“We were talking and getting to know each other, but there was something different about him – something beyond words. I sensed an immense sadness within him, a deep pain and sorrow that he struggled to conceal. Even though we’d just met, it felt like I could feel his emotions as if they were my own.
At first, I did not want to mention it because I thought he might think it was weird or intrusive, but when I finally conjured up the courage to talk about it, he confirmed my experience. He told me his story, how he had experienced a deep loss and was still grieving. That moment felt like a profound connection between us as we both sat in silence, not speaking but sharing this mutual understanding of what we were feeling.”
A Common Experience for Empaths
Empaths pick up on this type of energy all the time.
They can tell when someone is happy, sad, anxious, or disappointed and pick up on subtle interactions allowing them to sense how people feel about others.
Unfortunately, empaths usually can’t turn it off. They are constantly feeling the emotions of others, often not even aware that they are doing it.
What Are the Signs of an Empath?
Most people have at least one empath in their life. Some people have the ability and don’t even realize it. Here are some signs that you, or someone close to you, might be an empath.
1. You Experience Unexpected Emotions
Have you ever been out with your friends, engaging in wonderful conversation and having a great time, when suddenly you’re overcome with anxiety? The feeling comes as a shock. You were having a fantastic time and had no reason to be nervous.
You may have picked up on someone else’s anxiety.
Kotkin-De Carvalho describes empaths as people who can feel the emotions of those around them and absorb those feelings into their own psyche.
Dr. Carolina Estevez, Psy.D, Licensed Psychologist at Infinite Recovery, adds that empaths often struggle with discerning their own emotions from the emotions of others.
Empaths feel the emotions of others around them, whether they want to or not. They can even feel the emotions of strangers. So, the next time an unexpected feeling hits, look around to determine if someone around shares that emotion.
2. You Have a Strong Urge to Make Everyone Happy
Empaths are sad when others are sad and happy when others are happy. Therefore, they have an intense desire to make sure everyone around them is happy.
Attempting to make others happy can manifest in different ways. Some empaths become the life of the party and work to ensure everyone feels included in social events. Others say yes to things they don’t want and allow friends and family to walk over their boundaries to avoid negative feelings.
3. You Engage in Mirroring
Empaths often create a mirror effect, projecting someone’s emotions right back onto them. Research suggests that the mirror effect is an evolutionary response allowing us to understand other people. It happens because the mirror neurons in our brains fire the same way whether we experience an emotion ourselves or see someone else experiencing it.
Empaths may mirror more often than their less sensitive counterparts. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good thing. When empaths become a mirror, they force others to face the complicated feelings they desperately seek to avoid. The unexpected confrontation may lead to anger and frustration, which get misdirected toward the empath.
4. You’re Easily Overwhelmed
If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by your own emotions, you can imagine how difficult it must be to feel the emotions of everyone around you all the time.
Taylor Remington, psychologist and founder of Impact Recovery Center, explains that empaths quickly become overwhelmed in crowded or chaotic situations. She says their natural sensitivity to emotions and energies around them can cause overstimulation, causing them to feel drained.
Even extroverted empaths can be easily overwhelmed by the sea of emotions pulsing through large crowds. Esther Ogbonda of Rewired Mind Counseling says many empaths get mistaken for introverts, even though most fall into both categories because they need alone time to deal with their own feelings and recharge.
5. You Have Excellent Intuition
A final clue that you might be an empath is if you have exceptional intuition.
Audrey Hope, award-winning certified addiction and trauma counselor, and spiritual expert, describes it as having an inner laser light on what’s happening around you. She says that empaths use language such as “I can just tell…” or “It doesn’t make sense, but I know this is happening” to describe their thoughts.
Ogbonda agrees, adding that empaths have faith in their intuition and frequently make snap judgments based on it. She says their heightened sensitivity to others’ emotions may help them pick up on subtle clues, aiding their subconscious in making quick decisions.
7 Common Traits of Empaths
Empaths aren’t monoliths, but many tend to share similar personality traits. When asking, “what is an empath,” it may be helpful to focus on qualities many empathetic people exhibit.
Remember, everyone is different. You can be an empath without having any of these traits or may exhibit all seven but lack the sensitivity required to be considered an empath.
What is an empath without empathy?
Dr. Estevez reminds us that a critical trait empaths share is increased empathy. She says that by recognizing the needs of others, empaths can remain attentive to signs of suffering and have the natural ability to ease the pain.
Being an empath isn’t the same as having empathy. Remington describes an empath as someone who has an innate ability to understand the emotions of someone around them. Empathy is a conscious effort to understand a person’s feelings.
Displaying empathy takes active effort, while empaths naturally feel what others feel.
The good news for those without natural ability is that people can learn empathy, a critical skill in social interactions and leadership. Wolfe says that learning active listening skills and practicing mindfulness can help most people become more empathic.
Sensitive to Environmental Stimuli
Ogbonda says that empaths may have heightened sensitivity to everything, not just emotions. She explains that as highly perceptive people, empaths can pick up on subtle nuances in their environment.
Empaths may have increased sensitivity to sounds, smells, tastes, and other environmental sensations.
Many empaths are emotionally sensitive. According to Dr. Estevez, they may get their feelings hurt more easily. Non-empaths may accuse them of being too sensitive or unable to let things go.
Dr. Estevez says, “An empath may want to talk about the issue at length and express their feelings about a conflict with a friend or romantic partner, which is a good thing but can be overwhelming for non-empaths.”
She added that empaths might remain hurt about a conflict for longer than someone without this increased sensitivity.
A lot of empaths are exceptionally compassionate people. Ogbonda explains, “Some empaths make it their mission to ensure that other people are provided with the resources they require to feel safe, secure, and happy.”
She adds that empaths may be driven toward this desire because they can relate to the struggles that others face.
Strong Social Skills
Even introverted empaths have strong social skills. Kotkin-De Carvalho says empaths tend to have high emotional intelligence, which they use to navigate interpersonal relationships.
Empathy is an essential social skill in that it allows us to connect with others on an emotional level. Because empathy comes naturally to empaths, they tend to have excellent interpersonal skills.
Because empaths intuitively understand how others are feeling, they make great listeners. Dr. Estevez explains that many empaths excel at listening without judgment. They provide a safe environment for friends and family to discuss their feelings while feeling accepted and respected.
A final defining trait of an empath is the tendency towards selflessness. According to Dr. Estevez, many empaths put their own needs aside for the sake of those around them.
Unfortunately, selflessness isn’t always positive. Too much selflessness may ultimately hurt the empath in the long run, as it’s not healthy to constantly elevate other people’s needs to the detriment of your own.
Too much selflessness is just one of the many struggles empaths face.
Top Struggles of Empaths
Being attuned to others’ emotions isn’t always a blessing. People with empathic abilities often struggle due to their gifts.
Here are some ways that being an empath can be a burden.
Sometimes People Don’t Like You
Most people love empaths. People are drawn to those who seem to understand them. However, some people are put off by an empath’s ability, feeling that it’s intentionally invasive.
A lot of the dislike harkens back to the mirror effect. People don’t like it when they have to face their own, often unwanted, emotions. Other people may be turned off by an empath’s oversensitivity, propensity to ask probing questions, or ability to fit into any crowd easily.
Christina Bradley, Ms. Ed. DBT, REPT, and Senior Associate Therapist at Gateway to Solutions in New York, explains why some may be cautious of empaths. “While empaths often have others’ best interests at heart, it can be perceived as intrusive for an empath to “read” others who have not openly invited that level of emotional connection or vulnerability.”
Empaths Get Taken Advantage Of
Empathic people are naturally caring. They typically want to help people, but unfortunately, that desire to help can easily lead to being taken advantage of.
Remington says empaths get taken advantage of because they are always willing to help but often give too much of themselves. The unbalanced situation leaves empaths feeling drained from helping and frustrated when non-empaths don’t offer similar help.
Dr. Flora Sadri-Azarbaveiani, DO, MPH, FAAFP, FASAM, and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine at Psyclarity Health says that empaths get taken advantage of because they feel guilty when they can’t help someone as much as they like. Their guilt leads to them giving more and more of themselves, prioritizing everyone else’s needs above their own.
It’s Hard to Hold Boundaries
Empaths get taken advantage of because they struggle to set and hold boundaries. Dr. Sadri-Azarbaveiani adds that empaths have difficulty being assertive, and their guilt makes it hard for them to say no.
Dr. Ketan Parmar, MD at Clinic Spots, says some of the difficulty in setting boundaries comes from feeling responsible for the feelings of those around them. Their ability to connect deeply with others makes it difficult to determine who is accountable for what emotion.
Wolfe agrees, adding that a true empath may struggle to determine where they end and another person begins. The confusion as to which emotions are theirs versus another person’s leads to poor boundary setting, and many empaths end up in codependent relationships.
Others May Think You’re Manipulative
Not all empaths use their power for good. A 2021 study discovered “dark empaths,” empathic people who score high in dark triad traits. This specific type of empath engages in malicious humor and intentionally triggers feelings of guilt in others when it suits them.
Non-empathic people may find it difficult to distinguish between empaths who genuinely want to help and those who use their ability for manipulation. As Bradley mentioned above, non-empaths may find even the most well-intentioned empaths intrusive, and some may even consider an empath’s ability manipulative.
Ogbonda says empaths often struggle with emotional exhaustion. “It can be draining just to experience one’s own feelings,” she says. “As an empath, however, you are highly susceptible to taking on the emotions of those around you, and this can quickly become overwhelming.”
Steve Carleton, LCSW and Executive Clinical Director at Gallus Detox, agrees, adding that empaths find it difficult to detach from other people’s pains and struggles, leading to emotional exhaustion.
Both Carleton and Ogbonda recommend taking time for extensive self-care. As Carleton puts it “Taking time for self-care is essential for empaths to maintain balance and stay connected with themselves.”
Your Gift is Hard to Explain
How do you explain your ability to know things or understand how someone feels? It seems like something out of science fiction!
Some empaths don’t even realize they’re empathic, making their experiences harder to explain.
Hope says that she’s encountered numerous clients who don’t realize how sensitive they are. They constantly pick up others’ energies without even knowing it. They find themselves trying to heal and fix others without knowing why or understanding their motives.
These clients may even pursue help for things like anxiety and depression because they are overwhelmed from picking up the energies around them but don’t even realize it.
It’s Hard to Find Balance
It’s hard to balance your own emotions and needs with those of others. Kotkin-De Carvalho says that empaths often struggle to balance their needs when faced with other people’s emotions.
“This can be especially challenging in situations where they are taking on the pain or negative feelings of someone else, such as when they are affected by a friend’s breakup or a family member’s illness.” She says. “They may find it difficult to deal with the emotional intensity of the people and experiences in their lives.”
Kotkin-De Carvalho recommends that empaths take extra time away to recharge and disconnect from others to prevent this balancing act from toppling. She stresses that it’s not all negative, and with the right tools, empaths can learn to use their power in healthy ways to positively impact those around them.
Not All Empaths Want to Help
We can’t fully understand what an empath is without acknowledging dark empaths, who use their ability to recognize emotions to their advantage.
Dark empaths are keenly aware that knowing someone’s emotions gives them an upper hand. When you innately understand someone’s feelings and trepidations, you can manipulate them to your advantage.
When it comes to relationships, dark empaths seem invested. They display empathy at the surface level but use it to manipulate their partner and tend to engage in toxic behaviors such as love bombing, gas lighting, and jokes at their partner’s expense.
Subtle Empathic Manipulation
It’s not only dark empaths who can be manipulative, though they are likely doing it on purpose and to the detriment of others. Many people are masters of empathetic manipulation but often don’t even realize they are doing it.
Imagine a charismatic salesperson. They can quickly pinpoint your pain points, identify your Fear of Missing Out (FOMO!) factor, and offer solutions designed to appeal to your emotions. Although some salespeople learn these skills through practice, it comes naturally to empaths.
How to Avoid Empathic Manipulation?
Empathic salespeople will try their hardest to push a sale and dark empaths will do what they can to take advantage of unsuspecting victims. Still, there are ways to avoid their manipulation tactics and ensure you’re getting what you want.
Here’s how to avoid both conscious and unconscious manipulation by empaths.
Know it Happens
The first key to avoiding falling under an empath’s spell is knowing it happens and understanding it isn’t always intentional.
Watch for signs you’re in the presence of an empath, such as mirroring. They will copy your movements and mannerisms to make you feel like you’re on the same page.
When pursuing a relationship, be cautious of love bombing. It’s hard to break a dark empath’s spell, as they will do everything they can to convince you they are genuine. If it feels too good to be true, it probably is.
Encountering empathic salespeople is more manageable, as fewer emotions are involved. Be aware that it’s their job to convince you that you need something. Don’t let them change what you want by appealing to your emotions.
Arm Yourself with Knowledge
If you need to deal with an empathetic salesperson or an empath trying to convince you of anything, arm yourself with knowledge.
Know which vehicles are lemons before heading out to the sales lot, and research all the timeshare rules before sitting down for a presentation. Have your facts memorized before engaging in an emotional debate with an empath.
It’s essential to understand the signs of a dark empath while dating. Be on the lookout for common traits of dark empaths.
Some of the empaths in our lives are well-intentioned meddlers attempting to rekindle relationships we have no interest in. Others are narcissistic empaths, trying to manipulate us into doing what they want all the time.
Set boundaries with these folks and rigorously defend them. Don’t give an inch because they will see it as an opportunity to weasel in.
Stick to Your List
When making a big-ticket purchase, don’t let an empathic salesperson convince you that you need something you don’t. Make a list of must-haves, and stick to it.
You likely don’t need a house with a jacuzzi, a high-tech curved television screen, or aromatherapy in your new car.
Practice Your Poker Face
Some of us wear our hearts on our sleeves, making perfect targets for empathic manipulation. While accepting and celebrating your emotions is positive, be aware that others can sense them too and use them to their advantage.
Practice stoicism when interacting with empaths. Hold your emotions in check, so they don’t have anything to read.
Empaths and Energies
Empaths’ abilities may go beyond sensitivity to human emotion and veer towards the supernatural. Some empaths claim they can pick up energies that may not be related to the people surrounding them.
These abilities include feeling something off about a specific place only to find out later that a horrible crime was committed or just knowing something about someone far away. When asking “what is an empath,” it’s essential to consider those who can pick up on all types of energies, not just emotional energy.
Here are some examples where self-proclaimed empaths had a gut feeling about something that turned out to be true.
Sometimes, the ability to pick up energies in our environment manifests in physical discomfort. Nicolle Morock is a paranormal investigator and energy healer who uses her empathic gifts to help others through paranormal investigations.
Morock commonly picks up on spiritual energies during her work. One of the most striking examples was during an investigation at a popular old plantation house.
“During one of many investigations I’ve done at a popular old plantation house, I started feeling intense pain in my upper abdomen as if I’d eaten something that didn’t agree, but I was sure nothing I’d had that day was bad. It got so bad that I finally said something to the group because I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
“One of our members reminded me that we were in the bedroom of a woman who had died after eating poisonous mushrooms she’d picked and mistaken for edible ones. As soon as I acknowledged that fact, the pain stopped and didn’t return.”
When Energies Linger
Karan Tiwari, content manager at Lonely Axe, is an empath who can pick up on the emotions and energies of those around him. However, he can also pick up on lingering energies. He had an inexplicable experience visiting a friend at a newly purchased home.
“As soon as I walked through the door, I felt intense sadness and grief. It was so overwhelming that I had to leave the house and take a few minutes to compose myself before returning.”
“After discussing the experience with my friend, they confided in me that the previous owner of the house had experienced a tragic loss and that the energy of their grief still lingered in the space. It was a powerful reminder of the impact our emotions can have on our spaces and the importance of taking care to release and heal from negative energy.”
Tiwari says he uses his empathic abilities to support others, but it’s challenging to explain these experiences to people who don’t have the same sensitivity.
Sensing Things from Afar
Diana Raab is a writer and speaker holding a Ph.D. in psychology. She’s had a strong intuition from an early age and has had many seemingly mystical experiences related to her gift.
Dr. Raab shares the most personal example of how her intuitive abilities warned her of a dear relative’s departure.
Dr. Raab’s Story
“My father died in 1991, and I sensed that was the year he was going to die. Other than being a smoker, he was otherwise in good health.
“At the time, I was living in Florida, and he was living in New York. I visited a few times a year, often spontaneously, with my three kids and husband, but for some reason, I felt a pull to make a scheduled visit.
“The day before our flight, my mother phoned to say that my father was admitted to the hospital and wasn’t doing well. He had congestive heart failure and was on oxygen. I told her that I’d planned a surprise visit for the following day.
“When we got to the hospital, my father was coughing up lots of sputum and rolling his head on his hospital pillow, saying, ‘Take me one way or another. I cannot live like this.’ He asked me to walk him to the bathroom with his IV pole in tow.
“He looked in the mirror and said, ‘oh my gosh, I look like I did when I came out of the camps (Dachau’s concentration camp). I’m so emaciated. I can’t live like this,’ he repeated again. I hugged him and walked him back to his bed, tucked him in, rubbed his head, gave him a kiss, and again told him I loved him.
“Then, I went outside to the hall bathroom when I heard an announcement on the speaker, ‘Code in room 949.’ That was my father’s room! His heart stopped moments after I walked away from his bed. He had DNR (do not resuscitate) on his chart. Before I knew it, there were teams of people around his bed. I was the last person to touch him and talk to him before he transitioned, and what a blessing that was.”
When You Just Know Things
Some empaths just know things. Your empathic friend will inexplicably call you the day after you had a bad breakup or got into a car accident.
Walter G. Meyer is a speaker and writer with this innate ability. He just knows things. Meyer says that he often knows that a family member has passed, even if he was far away from them at the time.
“I’ve had this strange ability from the time I was young. When I was in second grade and my favorite uncle died, I was playing a game with my older sister and said to her, ‘Uncle Elmer just died.’ She thought it was a horrible thing to say and chastised me for even thinking that. The phone rang a few minutes later, and we heard my mother scream.
“At some point, my family stopped questioning my ability to know things. In 2019, a friend and I were vacationing in Barcelona. When he woke, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, apparently looking troubled. He asked what was wrong. Without even having thought of it before he asked, I answered, ‘My Aunt Mary just died.’ I didn’t know what had woken me up, but as soon as he asked, the words came out of my mouth without my having made the conscious choice to answer.”
Walter’s ability to know things isn’t limited to family passing. He describes a time he had an inexplicable feeling about a woman he went on a couple of dates with while taking classes.
“In the 1980s, I took an acting class at Santa Monica College and had gone on a few dates with one of the young ladies in the class. The relationship didn’t outlast the class ending.
“About a month later, I had a very strong feeling about her. I wasn’t sure why. But I had the urge to call her.
“I thought it would be weird to call her after this much time had passed, so I fought the urge. The feeling and urge persisted and grew stronger over the next few days, even waking me up a few times at night.
“Finally, I broke down and called her. After I said hello, she said, ‘It was so nice of you to call! How did you hear about the accident?’ She went on to tell me that she was working her catering job (like so many actors do in L.A.), and she was lighting a can of Sterno when something went wrong, and it exploded in her face.
“She had been burned over her face and chest and arms. The accident happened the evening I first had the thought about her. She said she had just gotten out of the hospital and arrived home a few minutes before I called. She was so pleased I had called and was understandably so preoccupied with telling me her story that she never returned to her question of how I knew. It would have seemed weird to tell her that I just had a feeling.”
Like many empaths, Meyer treads cautiously. Many people think he’s lying or crazy when he shares his experiences.
The Jury is Out on Empathic Ability
Though many experience inexplicable events such as these, there’s no proof that anyone can pick up on supernatural energies.
However, the same is true for traditional empaths. We’ve only begun to understand people’s ability to pick up on energies and emotions present in their surroundings. One day, researchers may discover the secret behind the knowledge, and we’ll have a more throughout understanding of all types of empathic abilities. At that time, we may fully be able to answer the question, “What is an empath?”
Until then, we should keep an open mind.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.