The Trouble With Being An Empath
What I discovered learning how to navigate life with heightened senses and emotions, but without having to absorb everyone else’s stuff
A therapist once told me I was an empath. It wasn’t even my therapist — it was my child’s. She asked me if anyone had ever told me that before. I took it as a compliment and answered “oh, sure,” thinking ‘empath’ like ‘empathy,’ a good thing. Like someone who feels a lot of care and concern for others. In my mind empathy was kind of like a gift that not everyone has, where you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel things as if you were that person. This is sort of what she was referring to, but not quite the full picture.
By ‘empath,’ she meant a person who has an almost paranormal ability to sense or gauge things, just by intuition — like what others are thinking and feeling before they’ve even opened their mouths to speak. She told me to look it up and read about it, because emotionally speaking, I was taking on way too much. I was taking on other people’s stuff that I didn’t need to take on, and in doing so, I wasn’t modeling the best behavior for my kids.
So I began reading. I learned that empaths are the people in our lives who are the nurturers and the healers. Empaths also give and they give, until the point of exhaustion, or until they have nothing else left to give.
That got my attention.
It probably goes without saying that empaths are also highly, highly sensitive individuals, and can be easily overwhelmed by feelings — whether positive or negative. And when overwhelmed, empaths are more prone to having bouts of anxiety (or full-blown panic attacks), episodes of depression, mental exhaustion, physical fatigue, and a whole host of other physiological symptoms. Even more troubling, if they don’t learn to channel their abilities in healthy ways, empaths are also prone to self-destructive behaviors.
This was feeling all too familiar. I saw myself in every article I read, and I had to reckon with the fact that I also had a lot of the unhealthy coping mechanisms that empaths fall prey to. I wanted to stop this cycle, or at least learn to manage it better. In my early 40’s, I certainly didn’t want to feel like I had nothing else left to give, so I began learning whatever I could in order to successfully manage this thing that seemed both a gift and curse. Here are a few things I learned along the way.
Empaths are the people who often get labeled as oversensitive, overemotional, or even “drama queens.”
Yes, we are highly sensitive. It’s a by-product of our tendencies to take on too much, and give too much. Because we’re also really good listeners and advice givers (or so I’m told), others frequently seek our support. And because most of us have an instinct to nurture, others frequently seek our attention. We have an almost incessant need to alleviate the pain of others. It’s not enough that we want to help someone who’s hurting; we actually go an unnecessary step further and almost inhabit the body of the person suffering, to the point where we absorb their energy and we feel their pain on some level ourselves. This causes us to have unusually strong reactions to witnessing violence (even if it is only a movie.)
Empaths have strong (and usually accurate) gut feelings.
Empaths are highly intuitive all around. Whether it’s picking up on the most seemingly insignificant detail of someone’s behavior, or accurately sensing the motives of complete strangers, we can be a force of nature. This, combined with our keen ability to hone in and instinctively feel others’ moods and vibes right off the bat, we make pretty good detectives and judges of character; our gut feelings are typically more accurate than not, and we can seldom be fooled or tricked into believing a lie. Unfortunately, because we’re highly intuitive and highly sensitive, we’re also natural magnets for a variety of toxic emotional vampires. Emotional vampires are people who suck the emotional energy out of everyone they come into contact with, especially empaths.
Empaths absorb other people’s emotions like a sponge.
Empaths are highly — almost to a fault — in tune with other people’s moods and energy, or the vibes they put out. We’re not only in tune with these things, but we take them on (good or bad) even when we shouldn’t. We feel everything. This tends to work out well for everyone if we’re surrounded by love, positive energy, and other good things, but what happens when it’s the opposite? When we’re surrounded by negativity, we take that on just like we take everything else on. If we spend time with someone who’s a chronic complainer, or someone who’s grumpy or pessimistic all the time, we will absorb that and become physically exhausted in response. Empaths may even get physically ill when surrounded by continual negativity or chaos. We’re also more likely than others to have chronic pain conditions and other health issues or diseases.
We need time alone to recharge.
Being an empath is mentally draining. Even though it’s our innate ability to be able to “read the room” and know how to handle various social situations, it still depletes us of all our energy. It’s for this reason that we always, always will need some period of time alone (or “alone” with our pets) to recharge after social events or gatherings. Sometimes we may need to step away and recharge during the event or gathering. Please don’t take this to mean we’re being rude or antisocial. It’s just that experiencing the world so intensely takes its toll, and if we’re removing ourselves to recharge, that’s a good thing. It means we’re listening to our bodies and doing what’s in everyone’s best interest. Whether it’s moving from a crowd into a quiet room for a few minutes, or insisting on driving separate cars so we can a.) leave when we want, and b.) decompress on the drive home, we will always find a way to get our recharging time. Please don’t take it personally — it’s not about you, we promise.
We may seem like extroverts, but at heart, we’re introverts.
We often fool people with this one because we’re adept at engaging — whether in small talk at a spouse’s company party, or among a group of our own friends; we appear at ease when holding conversations. Many of us are comfortable with public speaking, presenting, or lecturing, and many of us even enjoy acting, singing, or performing in public. These are a few things that make us seem extroverted.
It’s not that we’re shy, but we just don’t get our energy from being around other people — even if we enjoy being around other people. Because still, we’re constantly living in our heads — constantly sizing up the room, doing a temperature gauge, perceiving and receiving the output of energy. Since we’re more comfortable living in our headspace, we don’t really like crowds and tend to avoid getting trapped in them whenever we can. Crowds can send us in to sensory overload, or even panic attack mode. Which leads to the next point…
Our five senses are hypersensitive.
Picky eaters? Scratchy tags? Sensitive stomachs? That’s us. We absorb and process many things that other people seem to be able to filter out. For this reason, we may notice sensations, smells, or tastes that others don’t. Please don’t say we’re only “imagining it” when we notice that the milk smells “off” and refuse to drink it. We know you don’t smell it, and we know we may sound ridiculous, but please just go with it.
This quirk could even be some type of leftover survival instinct, like one that protected our ancestors from eating poisonous foods while hunting and gathering. In other words, it may be a primitive instinct that most other people have fully evolved beyond needing today, but for some reason, us empaths still have it in full force. And who knows — maybe it does serve some purpose, even if only for ourselves.
Likewise, our nerves might become frazzled if we perceive the music is too loud, or we may be more prone to having legit conditions, like full-blown misophonia (a physiological rage response to certain specific sounds that others might perceive as unreasonable, given the circumstances). Our eyes may actually ache, hurt, or burn in environments where there is a lot of sensory input, like contrasting bright colors or patterns, or even just rooms full of people.
Empaths often have intense mood swings
We can go from giddy to depressed and back to giddy so fast it’ll make your head spin. Both our highs and our lows can be extreme. It’s important to note this is not always indicative of how we actually feel, but rather, what we’re picking up in others’ cues. Which can be understandably frustrating and confusing for those who have to live with us. Empaths are also capable of coming off as needy, or demanding of our loved ones’ attention, whether it’s justified or not. Until we learn to better manage these emotions, we can even come across as being somewhat narcissistic, especially when we feel we’re not being heard. (It’s likely not narcissism, but more an inability to self-regulate when we become overwhelmed with input and emotion).
Empaths have really strong moral compasses.
We are sometimes known to have “trust issues” due to past hurts or breaches of trust, which we never tend to forget. Empaths absolutely abhor being lied to, manipulated, or played, especially by someone whom we’ve chosen to let into our inner circle. If we learn that we’ve become victim to these things, we not only feel deeply hurt, but also deeply disappointed and possibly even disillusioned. Equally, we can’t stand witnessing social injustices in the world, and we can’t handle practices that don’t appear to be morally sound. We have an extreme dislike of bullies and tyrants.
Being an empath can be a valuable gift most of the time, but if we don’t learn how to take care of our own unique set of needs, empaths can spiral downwards quickly into a depressive or anxious state. For me, a few simple strategies go a long way. I’ve learned to avoid places that are known to be packed, like shopping malls. I enjoy online shopping instead. That way, I’m not thrown into sensory overload soaking up all the different energies exuded by many different people. I’ve learned the art of saying no (without feeling any guilt), and I’ve also discovered the rejuvenating and restorative healing power of water — whether a hot bath, floating in the ocean, or relaxing in a pool, water is a tremendous source of comfort for me.
The good news is that once we understand boundaries and learn strategies that help us self-protect, we make some of the best friends and partners you’ll ever have the pleasure of knowing. And our natural healing powers are a pretty cool benefit, too.
Martie Sirois — pronounced “sir-ROY” — (she/her) writes on a variety of culture/politics/equality topics and has been a featured contributor for Medium, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, SiriusXM Insight, the LTYM show, and TIFO Podcast, among others. She’s editor in chief for Gender from the Trenches, a publication on Medium that amplifies voices from the trans community. Outside of writing, you can usually find Martie wasting too much time on TikTok. Feel free to connect with her also on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, or visit her website.