I am an empath, and it took me years to admit it. I was in denial because I didn't want to limit my exposure to spaces, places, and people based on a "new-agey" concept. But, eventually the evidence was too powerful to ignore. Signs you might be an empath can include feeling exhausted or drained in crowds, mood swings that aren't explained by other conditions, heightened intuition, being sought out as a confidant (even by strangers), and more.
Psychiatrist and author Judith Orloff defines being an empath as feeling and absorbing other people’s emotions and/or physical symptoms due to heightened sensitivities. Her new book The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People offers coping strategies and survival tips for empaths. Do I really need a survival guide, you might be wondering? Personally, exploring the possibility that I might be an empath instead of dismissing it as "new-agey" has helped me cope in unusual situations that couldn't otherwise be explained. And, since it usually takes me two or three times to learn a lesson, I suffered a lot before I gave in to being an empath. Also, I just want to clarify there is nothing wrong with new age anything, but like sweater sets it's just not something I'm generally into.
Bu what's so bad about being an empath, anyway? There is nothing wrong with being an empath, but ignoring it, and continually putting yourself into situations where you experience physical or emotional pain while other people seem fine, can take its toll. Think this sounds like you? Here are seven signs you might be an empath.
1. You Experience Extreme Emotions In Certain Environments
For me it's volcanos. Now, I know this might sound "new-agey," but if anything like this has ever happened to you then you know what I am talking about. A few years ago I went on a meditation retreat on the big island of Hawaii where the leader warned us that some people have extreme reactions to being around active volcanos.
"Well that's not going to happen to me," I thought. I was wrong. Pretty quickly into the trip I started to get migraines, and I became very emotional. I snapped at people and sporadically burst into tears for no reason. Still, I hiked up to the top of Mount Kilauea, a volcano that has been continuously erupting since 1983, in the middle of the night. During the entire trip I felt a constant overwhelming sense of doom that only subsided when I left the island.
Despite this experience, I did not want to admit that I was one of those "sensitive to active volcanoes" people because I wanted to return to Hawaii; I mean, who doesn't? Orloff says that some people can literally feel what's happening in the earth in their own bodies, and while this is in line with my experience I honestly didn't want it to be.
Two weeks ago I went to Iceland, which is mostly made up of volcanoes and glaciers and has more than 130 active volcanoes. The doom and the migraines returned. What should have been the trip of a lifetime was an emotional nightmare that only stopped when I landed in Scotland for the second week of my trip.
When I look back over my life I can clearly see how physical places have affected my emotions, and even my physical health. Both of these experiences were so terrible that I know I will never go to either place again, or any other place in the vicinity of an active volcano. If you find yourself in a situation like this, Orloff offers six tips for empaths to get through difficult experiences.
2. People Seek You Out As A Confidant
If people, including strangers, seek you out as a confidante in what seems like a disproportionate amount compared to your friends and family, you might be an empath. Because empaths are highly intuitive, and easily absorb the emotions of others, they are often sought out as confidantes, which can also make them targets for energy vampires.
So, of course, I have a story. I have many stories, but I'll just tell you one. I went to a bar on St. Patrick's Day several years ago and sat in an empty seat at the bar next to a very drunk, much older man I had never met. Within in 10 minutes of me sitting down this man told me his life story, including being adopted by American parents at age 11 after his entire family was killed in a war.
He further confided that he felt responsible because he'd been tricked into giving up their location. After he told me this he revealed he'd never told anyone, and now he felt much better. I'm glad he felt better, but now I felt much worse. I could not stop imagining the horror of what he had told me as I tried to put it out of my mind and celebrate the holiday. Yeah, that didn't work.
What should I have done? A tip in a recent article on the Inquisitor suggests, "Don’t attempt to take on responsibilities that are not yours. Empaths want to help, but many people cannot be helped or must make a decision to help themselves first. Draw a mental line at when and where you will stop assisting someone and stick to it."
3. You Need A Lot Of Time Alone
Empaths can quickly become overwhelmed by the emotions and energies of others, and thus need a lot of time alone to recharge. This time alone doesn't have to include actually doing anything. Blowing bubbles in bed is a perfectly good use of your time.
Personally I need one-to-two hours alone to drink coffee or read before going to a social event, and going from thing to thing without a break makes me feel chaotic, and I usually start crying. Orloff also says that empaths often prefer to take their own cars when they go places (I know I do) so they can leave when they want.
Additionally, empaths also tend to be introverted. "Empaths become overwhelmed in crowds, which can amplify their empathy. They tend to be introverted and prefer one to one contact or small groups," Orloff says on her blog. "Even if an empath is more extroverted they prefer limiting how much time they can be in a crowd or at a party."
If you're an empath, practice self care and don't resist your need to be alone, leave early, or stay home.
4. You Become Overwhelmed In Intimate Relationships
OK, so relationships are hard for everyone. That's not news, but intimate relationships can be especially difficult for empaths because we have a difficult time setting boundaries and can spend all of our time nurturing the other person.
If, as an empath, you absorb the emotions of others, or are constantly listening to other people's problems, and you feel overwhelmed and exhausted, this is amplified in an intimate relationship.
Because of this some empaths avoid relationships altogether for fear of losing their identities, Orloff says. To help, she offers tips for sensitive people in intimate relationships to make the idea a little less daunting.
She also suggests setting healthy limits and boundaries. "Control how much time you spend listening to stressful people, and learn to say no," she writes on her blog. "Set clear limits and boundaries with people, nicely cutting them off at the pass if they get critical or mean. Remember, 'no' is a complete sentence."
5. You Feel Drained In Large Crowds
OK, this one was hardest for me to admit because so many "fun" things involve crowds, like Coachella. But, after multiple experiences that were emotionally difficult, I have come to learn that as an empath I need to limit my time in large crowds, and select only the things I want to do more than I want to avoid that terrible feeling that being in a crowd brings. For me this includes a few musicians I would brave a crowd to see live, traveling (LAX airport is the nightmare of my life), and things like the Women's March.
Large crowds are often overwhelming for empaths because there is so much going on, and deciphering what is your energy versus what is someone else's energy can be difficult. Many empaths avoid things like malls, and that's OK. Personally, I cannot stand shopping, even for groceries, and I have twice walked into, and promptly walked out of, Costco in tears. The throngs of people, amount of items, and size of the store throw me into an instant spiral of exhaustion.
One coping strategy on the Inquisitor includes, "Imagining a barrier between yourself and the world, a fluid, moving shield that protects you from the energy of others when you feel you cannot absorb their energy or are being faced with much negative energy."
6. You Have To Sleep Alone
If you have trouble sleeping next to your partner, there is nothing wrong with you.
Orloff says, "Traditionally, partners sleep in the same bed. However, some empaths never get used to this, no matter how caring a mate," she writes on her blog. "Nothing personal; they just like their own sleep space. Speak up about your preferences. Feeling trapped in bed with someone, not getting a good night's rest, is torture. Energy fields blend during sleep, which can overstimulate empaths. So, discuss options with your mate. Separate beds. Separate rooms. Sleeping together a few nights a week. Because non-empaths may feel lonely sleeping alone, make compromises when possible."
This is me all day. I cannot sleep in the same bed with another person no matter how much I love them. I have trouble sleeping in general, and adding someone else's energy to the mix pretty much guarantees that I won't sleep at all.
7. You Go Out Of Your Way To Help People
But, wait, everyone does this, right? Here's the thing — they don't. I used to think that it was completely normal for strangers to need medical attention, a ride, a person to confess to, or money all of the time. This happens to everyone, right?
It doesn't. I found out that not everyone has called ambulances for strangers in multiple cities, helped drunk people off the street find their way home, or amassed a backlog of weighty secrets from perfect strangers. While this might happen in the periphery of everyone else, it's the empath who takes it on over an over again.
"Empaths are big-hearted people and try to relieve the pain of others. A homeless person holding a cardboard sign, 'I'm hungry' at a busy intersection; a hurt child; a distraught friend. It's natural to want to reach out to them, ease their pain," Orloff writes on her blog. "But empaths don't stop there. Instead, they take it on. Suddenly they're the one feeling drained or upset when they felt fine before."
If this sounds like you, there are things you can do (like meditation) to protect yourself from taking on the energy of people and places. Not sure if you're an empath? There are myriad online tests you can take to find out. Just because you're sensitive doesn't mean you have to suffer.