Definition of empathy*
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner;
I feel a lot of things, and I feel them a lot. This gross oversimplification of the way my brain processes my own emotions and experiences as well as other people’s is what I usually say when I just want to convey that I am a very sensitive person. Not necessarily or exclusively in the “you hurt my feelings” kind of way, but specifically in the “I have a hyper-aware mind and highly perceptive senses, which means I often feel other people’s emotions in my own skin and that can sometimes be overwhelming and hard to digest” kind of way.
Putting it in a very explicit, maybe not quite so elegant manner, it essentially means the following:
I can easily – and without having much control over it – feel other people’s feelings and emotions as if I were in their place. No, it does not mean I know what it’s like. No, it does not mean I can speak for that person’s feelings as if my perception was more valid than theirs.
It just means that I feel them, in the most instinctive and primal way I can conceive of. It means my brain internalizes someone else’s pain, grief, happiness, or excitement, and makes it my own, gives it a meaning inside of myself as if somehow, somewhere, maybe in a parallel universe, it has actually happened to me.
I should probably also make a note that sympathy is not the same as empathy. The first is the equivalent of caring and understanding – you acknowledge and validate someone else’s feelings, you care for them and take an interest:
Definition of sympathy**
In addition to that, there is also the fact that “sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.”***
Empathy, on the other hand (as seen in the definition at the top of this article), refers to actively experiencing those feelings and emotions. It’s almost as an internal process of alchemy, in which your mind takes someone else’s reality and weaves it into the fabrics of your own memories and experiences, sometimes to the point where you could almost swear it has happened to you.
Not only that, but it usually also relates to being able to have “an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive”, sometimes even before people themselves understand or acknowledge what they are feeling.
The blog The Mind Unleashed has a very interesting article on this topic with a first paragraph that seems to put it in even a more nuanced way:
“Being an empath is when you are affected by other people’s energies, and have an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive others. Your life is unconsciously influenced by others’ desires, wishes, thoughts, and moods. Being an empath is much more than being highly sensitive and it’s not just limited to emotions. Empaths can perceive physical sensitivities and spiritual urges, as well as just knowing the motivations and intentions of other people. You either are an empath or you aren’t. It’s not a trait that is learned. You are always open, so to speak, to process other people’s feelings and energy, which means that you really feel, and in many cases take on the emotions of others. Many empaths experience things like chronic fatigue, environmental sensitivities, or unexplained aches and pains daily. These are all things that are more likely to be contributed to outside influences and not so much yourself at all. Essentially you are walking around in this world with all of the accumulated karma, emotions, and energy from others.”
While I have become very wary of automatically attributing certain characteristics to someone as a consequence of one specific characteristic they have (in this case, that of being an empath), because that can cause harmful generalizations, and also of black and white statements such as “You either are an empath or you aren’t”, given that empathy isn’t a fixed singularity with no fluctuations, it’s a characteristic that many people share in varying degrees, I did enjoy this article and saw a LOT of myself in their list and descriptions. I mean, seriously. A lot. It’s even strange sometimes, how much of msyelf I see in some sentences. But regardless of whether you see yourself in it or not, I would definitely recommend you give it a read, if anything just to understand the mind of many empaths a little bit better.
Broadly speaking, I do now always try to read this type articles and take their content with a grain of salt, because humans are just too complex, layered and multifaceted to be put into a single category of behavior and traits just because they share a specific common feature. As with many other subjective subjects such as this, every case is its own case, it differs form person to person, and only the person itself can speak for their personal experience and traits (although I also acknowledge I very often fit into a lot of what is extrapolated from things like empathy, introversion/ambiversion and hyper-awareness, for example).
[small sidenote: their article slightly reminded me of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® personality inventory , which I adore and have used to grow and understand myself better – being an INFJ myself, empathy is a strong feature within me and the article reminded me of reading analysis on my personality type; I would definitely recommend you take the test and explore the subject, while obviously still leaving room for variation and acknowledgement of the endless variations within each personality group and the fact that people continuously change throughout their life and may evolve from one personality type to another as they grow.]
But back to the matter at hand: it’s hard explaining the concept of being an empath without sounding a tiny bit pedantic or attention-seeking, because it somehow always seems that you’re trying to make yourself more special than other people, or more important than the actual person whose feeling generated that empathy.
Being a highly empathic person can sometimes be associated with a certain arrogance or feeling of “holier-than-thou”, which – albeit true in some cases, I’m sure – couldn’t normally be furthest from the truth.
What might be looked upon as an attempt to get attention or steal the “spotlight”, I would say is just the overly empathetic person trying to make sense and give context to their empathetic feelings. When I am hearing someone’s story of struggle or misfortune, and it moves me to the point of feeling their pain deep in the pit of my stomach, feeling their loss in the fibers of my heart, and feeling their despair corroding the insides of my brain, I am not trying to gather sympathy. I am not trying to divert attention from their story. I am simply trying to manage my own raw primal reaction to it and the effect it has on me.
The sentence in itself sounds selfish, but therein lies the nature of empathy – you feel someone else’s story so so much, that you almost cannot remove yourself from it. Not by choice, not by selfishness; by the simple truth of your nature.
The reason why I speak of pain, of why I used the word in the title of this article, is because, as wondrous of an experience as it may be, being highly empathic also causes a considerable amount of distress and suffering to those who feel it.
Not only because of feeling others’ pain and suffering as our own, but also because of how much of it there is in the world. I have days where I put on hands on my head and would like to rip out of my shoulders just to not have to feel so much of so many at the same time. It’s hard to explain; it’s not that I feel everyone’s pain specifically and individually; obviously that’s not even possible since I only come in contact and know the stories of a very small percentage of the world’s population.
It’s the awareness of it. It’s the awareness of the world, the injustice, the horror of it all, the loss and grief and suffering of people everywhere, all the time. It’s the awareness connected with the empathy, creating a heavy constant burden of emotions we cannot even actually discern at times. Like a group of strings all tangled together, to the point where they aren’t distinguishable anymore and just form a singular unit, with no meaning or form.
Even the mere act of being in a crowded place with a lot of energies and emotions running wild can on some days be too much. It’s just overwhelming. My personal experience in those situations is usually that my mind freezes. It just glitches. It’s also very similar to what happens to me when I have an anxiety attack ; my mind shuts itself to protect itself. It’s a defense mechanism, when neither the fight or flight response is something you are able to do.
Being overly empathetic means feeling beyond the scope of what your life experience and events would normally allow you to. It is living lives that aren’t yours, loving people you’ve never met, losing loved ones you’ve never had, being scared of what you’ve never faced. It can be absolutely draining, but it can also be a cathartic involvement. To be able to speak to someone, or see and hear them speaking, and to share the bond of their pain, happiness, fear, or excitement with them is an incredible and powerful thing. Unfortunately, sometimes we even get too caught up in it and allow people to abuse our patience and our almost aching urge to truly listen and truly care.
The article I mentioned previously has another interesting small paragraph regarding this phenomenon:
“Even complete strangers find it easy to talk to empaths about the most personal things, and before they know it, they have poured out their hearts and souls without intending to do so consciously. It is as though on a sub-conscious level that person knows instinctively that empaths would listen with compassionate understanding. Then again, for empaths, it is always nice to actually be heard themselves!”
Sometimes we are so good at feeling the other person they can almost forget that we are there, and that we have our own emotions, feelings and thoughts too, and in those moments we should reclaim the right to also be heard and nurtured and cared for, but too often we just let it go. It’s in our nature to always try and understand the other side, because it is in our nature to feel it. Self-awareness becomes of the utmost importance in order for us to realize where is the line after which we are no longer just being useful, but being used.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that takes away of how much beauty, albeit often overwhelming, one can find when having an extraordinary capacity for empathizing.
Empathy is a teacher, a lesson, a punishment, and a reward all on its own. It is exhausting, yes, but the rapport you are able to create with people, the connections you make and the way you can channel them into so much different types of expression, such as writing, dancing, painting, creating music, or other artistic outlets, and the amount of self-growth you can create by taking in and analyzing all the experiences, emotions and feelings, and delving into your own, all of that is, in my opinion, a gift that should not be undervalued.