Is "empath" a useful concept?
January 21, 2022 10:32 PM   Subscribe

Do you find the idea of being an empath to be useful in understanding yourself, or is it a rationalization of unhealthy coping mechanisms?

The idea of being an empath, that is, more intensely tuned into the feelings and thoughts of others than is normal, has always resonated with me.
More than the idea of just being highly sensitive or anxious, or "people pleasing" which feels like pathologising that quality.
But I'm also wary of the amount of woo and magical thinking that surrounds the idea of being an empath.
I had a look at Judith Orloff's book The Empath's Survival Guide and was disappointed to find references to predicting the future and communicating with animals.
I was hoping for a guide to being like this, knowing that I probably am better than average at sensing other people's emotions. How do I protect myself from being overwhelmed by the pain of others? How do I make sure that I am not simply projecting what I imagine others to be thinking and feeling?
Am I just taking something that is actually wrong with me (being anxious and unable to seperate my sense of self from that of others) and putting a magical spin on it, to make myself feel special?
I have a strong sense that people are not nearly as separate and individual as we think we are, that we are fundamentaly and continuously created by our relationships with one another.
But that doesn't seem to be most people's experience of reality.
I guess what I am asking is, how to find the balance between honoring my lived experience of being an empath, but not letting it become an excuse to indulge in magical thinking and distorting reality?
Book or article recommendations? Or just plain advice?
(I have a therapist and I do talk to her about this, but I'm interested in hearing from people who share this experience)
posted by Zumbador to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don't resonate with the term but I relate to being very empathic as well as being attuned to a spiritual connection between all living things.

I am clear I developed skills in 'reading' and meeting people's needs because I had an alcoholic, unpredictable father and a depressed, scary mother so I HAD to predict their needs and try to meet those needs as a kid. I'm glad I have those skills now, but I'm aware that I sometimes am wrong in my guesses when I'm constantly anticipating the needs of others, and also I sometimes participate in relationships and dynamics that aren't helpful to me (or the other person), and sometimes hurt me due to being oriented this way.

Does the label 'empath' serve you in your life? Does it give meaning in a way that helps you? Are there down sides to this way of seeing yourself? How did you develop these traits and why?
posted by latkes at 11:29 PM on January 21, 2022 [14 favorites]

If it’s useful for you then it’s useful!

Personally I am hypersensitive to other people’s moods and microscopic changes in interpersonal status, but for me I see it less about me being an empath as a personality type. I see it more as me being hypervigilant as a learned trauma response to try to predict and manage emotionally abusive behaviour from adults, and bullying and vicious cliquishness from peers, throughout my youth. (And being vigilant of racism and misogyny as an adult, too.)

That framing - hypervigilance as the trauma response of a trapped child and teenager - is more helpful to me because it reminds me that I actually don’t need to worry about everyone else’s moods any more, because now I’m an adult, so there’s no situation I can’t just exit if it starts feeling bad.

I find this framing - that I am absolutely allowed to ignore or not react to other people’s moods - more empowering, personally (even though I still do notice the moods in the pit of my stomach and I definitely suck at ignoring those moods - something to work on).
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:29 PM on January 21, 2022 [41 favorites]

I deeply relate to the concept but not the label or its associations. I take a strengths and values approach, where I have strengths of being empathetic, other-aware, and having an extreme attention to detail. This is coupled with valuing things like connection and awareness (strategic, emotional, etc). This makes me a pretty intense person and people often mistake my attention and curiosity as over-investment and interest, but that’s another issue.

For references, I’d steer toward organisational psychology and business leadership books that focus on empathy, introversion, or HSPs; there’s much less woo.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:49 AM on January 22, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'd consider empathy to be a talent rather than an identity. In much the same way that you can write without considering yourself a writer, or fit without being an athlete.

It sounds like you're experiencing a conflict between something you know about yourself (that you're very in tune with other people's feelings), and some of the things other people who self-identify about empaths say about themselves (the woo). Kind of like that brief phase when everyone talked about introverts like they were magical aliens living among us.

Any time we talk about people as being "an" anything, it's a means of abstraction. It's assigning a category so we don't need to think about particulars. Sometimes that's helpful and sometimes it's not. If you don't find the label useful for your self-image, then you can discard it freely without it changing anything about how you experience the world.
posted by Lorc at 1:40 AM on January 22, 2022 [6 favorites]

I have been called an empath by a lot of people who ascribe at least in part to a lot of the woo you describe and as such I do not care for the term. Also, I mostly associate it with Troi from Star Trek TNG so while I’m a big nerd and having alien superpowers would be neat and all, it’s always too goofy to take seriously irl for me.

The text of your question resonates with me a lot. I agree that we are not nearly so individual as the dominant culture would have us believe. That we create one another in an ongoing cycle of interconnectivity. This extends to things beyond people for me; I strongly feel like animals and objects and spaces are parts of ourselves as much as say, nature or the food we eat is. The house we live in is part of our self, our self is part of our house. I do have anxiety about perceiving others’ emotions incorrectly, and do worry about putting a magical spin on some of my challenges to make myself feel unique when ironically I believe uniqueness is not a condition of value considering the aforementioned interconnectivity of all things. Diversity is vital, yes, but in the same way like, it’s important to have a heart AND lungs AND kidneys.

Anyway, spirituality aside, what has helped me find peace with what I sometimes call my hyper empathy problem and what I sometimes call my “wizzened all seeing eyeballs” (said in a crone voice) as an adult is working to see empathy as a skill, just like anything else. Some of us are naturally capable at something like math, or cooking, or running, or being a welcoming host. Some of us have a harder time at those things. It’s like being a good listener, which is a skill - when I first learned the term active listening I was like “do I just do this by default and that’s my issue??” but no, it’s just another way people have figured out to help develop their emotional intelligence and empathy.

It can be frustrating to go into a social situation and other people aren’t understanding the emotions of the folks in the room the way I see them, or expectations don’t align because they are focused on an outcome I don’t see happening considering the receptivity of the other people. What helps is when I frame it as different skillsets. This one guy can’t tell when a woman is feeling talked over but he sure as shit knows his stuff about obscure musical history. This other person wants to do anything they can to help and can make a banger lasagne for the shelter but has trouble seeing who actually desires that help. I can have a conversation with a stranger and twenty minutes later they feel like we have made an astounding deep connection, but I’ll forget their name by the end of the night and totally flake on any follow up.

Another thing is that this doesn’t work for shit in text. I would say the majority of my long term friendships are online ones. It’s weird, it’s like because I’m not using the part of myself that is always trying to read the other person, a text based relationship can sometimes feel more balanced. Have you ever tried communicating with people you feel emotionally swayed by through emails or letters? Long hand communication like that feels super old fashioned but there is a certain charm to it, and the distance can give a space to allow for calmer, more complete thoughts and exchanges.

I think as a label, empath is not nearly as useful as a lot of other ones. It doesn’t do much to communicate your identity to others. If you feel like you would like a label to communicate your identity to yourself, and empath is what you think fits, that’s a private thing for you and nobody, especially not AskMe strangers, gets to have a say in it other than yourself. Being empathetic, as an action, is quite useful and something to be worked on and honed. Sometimes in our cases it needs to be filtered, or better directed. If you want a label to communicate your facility with the emotions of others, I suggest “emotionally perceptive”. Maybe also “emotionally receptive” sometimes too.
posted by Mizu at 3:58 AM on January 22, 2022 [7 favorites]

I personally dislike the term outside of genre fiction, because of the associated woo. I think in most people the pattern of perception/reaction that gets called "empathy" is a (usually) trauma-developed hypersensitivity to the moods of others, because if you live with emotionally volatile caregivers, being able to read and anticipate their moods is a survival skill. This is true even if the volatility doesn't cross the line into abuse! It is possible to be traumatized by environmental conditions as a child with no one being actually at fault!

But as an adult, when you have a lot more tools to deal with and/or set boundaries around other people's emotions, being hyper-aware of them can stop being adaptive. For one thing, if the skill is trauma-derived, it's very likely to be distorted - weighed very heavily in favor of negative emotions, to the point where you're percieving upset, anger, and judgement where in fact the other person might be feeling indigestion. And that can really negatively affect your relationships, because (I speak from experience) it is exhausting to have to explain and reassure someone else every time you have a thought or feeling or facial expression that worries them. And the "empath" label, most especially when its attached to the woo, tends to elide that in favor of seeing it as a magical (and therefore positive) power.

Also, there is a difference between perceiving someone else's inner state and reflexively mirroring that state. I'm pretty good at reading people - my mom's a shrink and explicitly taught this as a skill when I was little. But what I read is merely data I can use to tailor my expectations and actions, not something that causes my mood to shift. Being that strongly affected, in yourself, by what other people are feeling is usually maladaptive! It's very hard to make choices in your own best interests when your own best interests always feel like they are "make everyone I interact with happy." That road leads to bad boundaries, burnout, and often the kind of overload that leads to lashing out.

So, yeah, I don't like the term "empath" because it attaches an identity to a set of behaviors that are changeable. You can learn to calibrate your perceptions, if you accept that they're perceptions that are strongly affected by your own experiences and prejudices, not inherently true insights. You can learn to separate your own inner state from that of the people around you. But it's a whole lot harder to do that when you decide there's a one-word title that encapsulates all these behaviors and that title is appropriate because you were just born that way. Like a wizard.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:06 AM on January 22, 2022 [12 favorites]

calling yourself an "empath" because you notice other people and are infrequently corrected when you speculate about their emotions is exactly as accurate and useful as calling yourself a "seer" because you don't need glasses to read. you have a very important and absolutely unexceptional ability shared by the vast majority of humankind, and easily compensated for by most of those who have a slight disability in the area.

knowing that I probably am better than average at sensing other people's emotions.

you cannot know this.

if you have noticed that you behave differently from other people in response to perceiving emotions that are not your own, that is interesting and something to explore. but that is not a basis for concluding that you perceive more than they do, or that you perceive differently.

most people who call themselves empaths are, as far as other people can tell, inordinately wound up in their own emotional subjectivity and relatively more interested in their own imaginations of other people than in the actual perspectives of other people. this is not always a fair perception but it is good information to have, as you decide how to think of yourself and what to say about it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:42 AM on January 22, 2022 [48 favorites]

This is a topic that's been a very big deal in my life so I've put a lot of thought into it.

tl,dr: Empathy is built into all humans; the actual mechanism isn't well understood; it's real in your life and you have no option but to manage it.


First of all, all humans are wired for empathy to one degree or another. For example, take a random sample of men from all walks of life and show them a video of a guy getting kicked in the nuts. They will all reflexively move to protect their testicles while making an "ooooooh...." noise. Long before cognition tells us that something is happening to someone else we respond empathetically.

There are also psychology experiments where it is shown that most people experience empathy at a cognitive level. Lots of variance in intensity but to not experience empathy at all is usually associated with sociopathy.


I experience a huge (at times debilitating) amount of empathy for living things, but coming from a scientific family I am disturbed by how opaque the experience is. You can study it by asking people what they are experiencing but it's hard to figure out exactly how it happens -- subtle cues, imagination, woo -- everything is on the table. I would love to study and produce a book about this ("energy" in general actually) but it is definitely a topic where the less that is known the more that gets written.


Reality is that which doesn't go away when you stop believing in it. I've tried hard to stop believing in empathy but no dice. For me it's real so I have to deal with it.

So first of all, I can walk around all day in the tropical sun with no sunscreen and no burning. My brother bursts into flame when he steps out of the house on a cloudy day. This is not a moral failing for either of us, and neither is the fact that the situation is reversed when dealing with strong emotions from others. It's just how we were born.

I started learning to cope with my empathy in my late twenties. By far the most important skill I learned (and one that I continue to hone 25 years later) is to recognize what are my emotions and what are someone else's. Until that time I was buffeted about, often having no idea why I was feeling the way I was. Once I could recognize what emotions I was reading versus my own I was able to begin setting good boundaries or as I call it "letting other people's feelings be their feelings". They are still there -- in my own mind I still feel the ache, or the love, or the pain that someone is feeling -- but I know who is who.


Last but not least there is the question of accuracy. If you want ten very different views of an accident, just ask ten different bystanders. We take partial information and fill it in based on our histories, what we're feeling today, how we think we should feel, etc. The "good" thing is that this is true of our own emotional landscape as well. A big part of learning who we are is about learning how we distort things. That applies everywhere.

So that's a light overview of what I've learned so far. You are who you are, and you can learn skills to manage the sticky bits. You needing sunscreen is not a moral failing. If you want a good spin, you can see in color where some people only see in black and white. Enjoy it.

P.S. I too find describing myself as an "empath" to be awkward. The term has too much baggage.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:11 AM on January 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would make two distinctions that, for me, make the concept of being "an empath" less useful as a framing for understanding ones own perceptions of and reactions to emotion:

First, framing it as a binary state of being (i.e. "being an empath or not" vs. "having a greater or lesser degree of empathy") is something I think is a mistake for most human characteristics, and doubly so for something like empathy that every human possesses to a significant degree. Like with empathy, humans possess different degree of height, but dividing the world into "Talls" and "Shorts" wouldn't be a very useful distinction. A 6-foot tall person and a 7-foot tall person might have similar experiences in some ways (they probably both get asked to take things off of high shelves a lot more than average) but very different experiences in other ways (a tight airplane seat that would be an uncomfortable annoyance for the 6-foot tall person might be completely unworkable for the 7-foot tall person) in a way that makes lumping them together as "Tall" and saying that they are categorically different from a 5-foot 8-inch tall person obscures more than it reveals. Similarly, empathy is a collection of characteristics that exist along a spectrum, and building an identity on slicing that spectrum into two halves feels like building your identity on a bit of a fallacy.

The other distinction that I would make is that empathy really divides into two related, but distinct characteristics: the ability to perceive others (and our own) emotions, and how deeply and easily the emotions of others affect our own emotions. These two characteristics are often intertwined, but not always. At the pathological extremes you have the charming sociopath who is expert at perceiving others emotions, but has no sensitivity to them, and the codependent narcissist who is intensely sensitive to others emotions, but can only perceive them when they are directly affecting them. This is an important distinction because it can be really hard to judge our perceptiveness of others emotions objectively. We rarely get good feedback in the form of people telling us whether our perception of their emotions were right or wrong, and it's really easy to mistake sensitivity for perceptiveness. ("Why isn't everyone else reacting to this expression of emotion the way I am? It must be because I can see it and they can't, not because they perceive the same thing I do and just have a more muted reaction.") I think that placing a lot of importance on "empathy" or "being an empath" as a distinct concept without breaking it down further strongly conduces to that sort of error of perception.
posted by firechicago at 10:24 AM on January 22, 2022 [8 favorites]

Every person is an "empath," human beings are born with innate senses of connectivity.

It is a skill that can be enriched. It can be extremely helpful to use the term "empath," with others who may believe in more narrative views of the term, or for those who seem restricted to their own perspective.
posted by firstdaffodils at 12:40 PM on January 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am clear I developed skills in 'reading' and meeting people's needs because I had an alcoholic, unpredictable father and a depressed, scary mother so I HAD to predict their needs and try to meet those needs as a kid.

Exactly my experience except sub in narcissist for depressed. When I hear the word, I think of it as like a muscle you learn how to use and tune, not an extrasensory perception.

I have a strong sense that people are not nearly as separate and individual as we think we are, that we are fundamentaly and continuously created by our relationships with one another.

I generally agree with this observation as well.

What was helpful for me in understanding this concept and having it be useful to me was making decisions about how and how much to interact with other people's (especially) negative emotions. Which is not to be all "Hey I just need a little self-care so I can't be there for you while you're grieving" but more like "Hey you seem to really hate your job and when we get together you're always venting about it and you never ask how I'm doing. I'm sorry this has been hard for you but I've got a limited amount of time I can be available for venting but I do care about you so maybe we can work on some other ways for you to get your needs met?" that kind of thing.

I do have a therapist and she's helped me, over time, get better at boundaries with people who are energy vampires or however you want to look at it, people who once you spend time with them you invariably feel worse not better (this is not the same as people just going through a rough patch, people who are depressed, or anything like that, it's people who are draining in part because I wasn't good at getting my own energy/social needs met and just applying myself to the crisis at hand) and people who aren't concerned about my mental health relative to their own.

And in terms of a positive attribute, I'll often talk about how I was a pretty good moderator because I had a pretty bad family. Being able to get a read on the emotional weight and probable direction of an interaction, even an online interaction, can have utility in some cases. It's honestly not a thing that I didn't realize other people couldn't do because how would you know that? But I think it can be useful to apply this skill or talent or whatever it is, to help facilitate interpersonal interactions among others.
posted by jessamyn at 1:03 PM on January 22, 2022 [6 favorites]

I think most humans have some level of "empath" without it meaning that you're a full blown psychic or something. Humans have to read/guess/interpret other people's emotions for their own survival, after all, and it's difficult for those who are unable to do that. I've had people call me an empath because say, when someone screams at me, I get upset about it and don't just somehow separate myself from their screaming and "take on" their abuse. Is that being an "empath" to feel someone's rage when it's directed at me? Are you not an empath if it doesn't bother you to be abused? I don't know how anyone can manage that one, but some people have told me it doesn't bother them. Maybe they learned not to, I don't know.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:32 PM on January 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have found the term useful in that people who call themselves empaths are very often people I will be uncomfortable around and want to avoid.

In my experience, somebody who calls themselves an empath is usually (a) highly anxious and hypervigilant, sensitive to other people's emotions, often as a result of early trauma which they have not fully dealt with; and (b) not actually any more accurate about other people's emotions and motivations than anyone else, but think they are and are resistant to any information otherwise. Indeed, very often they are less accurate, because their own emotional sensitivity is tuned so high and usually so negative that they misread in the direction of their trauma, and have less cognitive processing left over to figure out where the person might actually be truly coming from. In other words, they have emotional but not cognitive empathy; yet because they see themselves as being so much more empathetic than other people -- and it is so bound up in trauma for them -- they are unwilling or unable to hear feedback about how they might be wrong.

Note that this is about people who call themselves empaths. I do not have this sense about people with similar trauma or similar traits but don't label them this way. The labelling itself is the red flag to me, because it often indicates a person who has tied their identity to it and who think they are "better" than other people because of it.
posted by contrapositive at 7:00 PM on January 22, 2022 [19 favorites]

I think everyone is empathetic to a greater or lesser degree - it's a function of human beings that they work better together if they can read how other people feel.

Two ideas you might explore to understand how you think are:

emotional intelligence, one part of which is your conscious and subconscious analysing other people to try and work out how they're feeling and how you might affect that feeling

mirroring emotions, where you reflect what you think they feel by feeling it yourself.

(I'm using cagey words here, I know, but for a reason. I don't see myself as a mind reader, so when this happens to me I try and remember that it's only my interpretation of their mental state that I'm working with, based on my experience in similar situations and their outward signals, and I might be wrong.)

I'm very much not a therapist. But this is how I rationalise what's going on.

It sounds like your debilitating bit is that you tend to mirror their state of mind (or your reading of it, at least) to a point where it distresses you and causes problems. I would think your therapist can help you to identify and separate those feelings from your own personal state of mind.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:45 PM on January 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all these thoughtful and immensely helpful answers. I want to post a follow up question although I'm not sure it's answerable and is probably something I need to hash out with my therapist.

In thinking through my responses to these answers, trying to eliminate bias and being honest with myself, I suspect that I might be attracted to the idea of someone being an empath because I am possibly *worse* than average in judging emotional and social context in many situations.

So many of you have mentioned childhood trauma as a contributing factor. That does not seem to be true in my case. Even taking into account that childhood trauma doesn't have to be the obvious events, but can be subtle.

I think what might be going on is that I'm not entirely neurotypical, and not great at figuring out my own and other people's emotions so I might be over compensating by being hyper vigilant about this stuff. I have developed coping mechanisms like always trying to imagine what others are thinking and feeling, and getting confused, as a result, which of the resulting emotions are my own, and which the imagined emotions of others.

Does that ring true for anyone? I know nobody but me can really answer this question, but I'm uncertain about the possibility that the things I am struggling with necessarily are the result of childhood trauma.

I hope my question doesn't come off as doubting or minimizing the experience of those of you for whom childhood trauma is a undeniable fact.
posted by Zumbador at 8:11 PM on January 27, 2022

It doesn't have to be capital-T Trauma to be a coping mechanism developed in childhood. Definitely something to explore with your therapist - specifically stuff like how you react to the idea of being wrong about someone else's emotional state, or not noticing. And there is a whole set of ways to get better at perceiving your *own* emotions that your therapist should be at least familiar with.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:08 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

I wonder if it might help to take the word "trauma" out of the conversation for a minute - it's a big word with a lot of baggage, maybe we can gently put it aside and come back to it.

What if instead we talked about childhood difficulties? A neurodivergent child who has some trouble fully understanding the social interactions happening around them could absolutely develop some coping behaviors, and perhaps complex emotions, about others' emotions and responses. I certainly did. Maybe you did too. I don't think it was an unhealthy coping mechanism for me as a younger person, or at least not nearly as unhealthy as other options I could have come up with. In retrospect, I'm proud of younger me for finding her own ways to get through a world that she didn't fully understand how to be part of, without much available help from the adults in her life.

(We could have a different discussion about whether simply the experience of being a neurodivergent child in a neurotypical world is a form of low-key, grinding, everyday trauma - but we don't have to. It's fine if it was just a mostly normal childhood with some tricky aspects to it that Young You had to find ways to navigate.)

For me, some of my coping mechanisms around overreacting to my perceptions of other people's emotions got less adapative for me as a grown-up so I've worked on unlearning them and learning other ones. Based on that experience, yes, I think it's absolutely possible you could be hypervigilant about other people's emotions. I think that how you label that - empath tendencies, a response to trauma, neurodivergence, whatever - is likely less important than continuing to work with your therapist on figuring how this is and isn't serving you well. There may be some ways that a high level of reactivity to others' feelings is useful for you, and you don't have to pathologize it or stop doing it altogether if you don't want to. But you can build yourself a bigger and better toolbox of other ways to approach situations, or remove yourself from them entirely if you need to. And that can only be a good thing.
posted by Stacey at 7:12 AM on January 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

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