First, let’s get the basics of empathy out of the way. It does have a perfectly mundane meaning:
1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.
In metaphysical circles, empathy’s primary meaning seems to be “the vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” There are plenty of ways to describe how and why this happens, from mingling energy frequencies to insufficient personal shields to psychosomatic tendencies, and I’ve heard theories that range from purely-energetic to purely-imaginative.
Empaths are those who experience empathy to a greater or more intense degree than the norm, and while some of the proposed “whys” of empathy might raise an eyebrow outside of a community heavily fluent in energywork-ese, the fact that some people experience heightened empathy is undeniable. Given that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that observing another’s emotional state can activate the same parts of the brain as seen in the person experiencing the original emotion, the reality of the experience of empathy isn’t up for debate.
So empathy is scientific, psychological, and potentially metaphysical. It may even be a necessary precursor for compassion. That covers the basics, so let’s get into the personal bits…
I have considered myself an empath for roughly as long as I can remember. I am hyper-sensitive to the emotions of others, both those who are emotionally close to me and those who are in physical proximity to me. I’m also very sensitive to the overall state of my environment, which links my experience of empathy to my need for plenty of light and thus SAD (seasonal affective disorder), all of which is probably tied somehow to my synesthesia.
I tend to keep fairly quiet nowadays about my experience of empathy, as the word can bring up some unfortunate New Age connotations and elicit some eye-rolling; if I must, I can phrase it as being good at “reading people” or being extra-insightful. But being an empath is like being a cold-blooded snake; just as a reptile’s internal temperature (and therefore its health) is bound to the temperature of its environment, my internal equilibrium is powerfully affected by my environment and the living beings within it. Empathy isn’t something I can turn off; it’s something I have to constantly work with and around. I have psychological techniques and metaphysical tricks to help keep myself from drowning in the tides, but that doesn’t stop me from bobbing like a buoy. There is no emotional stillness for this empath unless I am wholly alone, and even then I have to shake off the echoes of the day’s influences.
A couple years ago, I stumbled over the phrase “highly sensitive person” (HSP) and was floored to discover that my experience of empathy, as well as my sensitivity to the presence of light in my environment, was actually… a normal, albeit not common, condition. Clinical psychologist Dr. Aron even wrote a book on being HSP:
Highly Sensitive People have an uncommonly sensitive nervous system – a normal occurrence, according to Aron. “About 15 to 20 percent of the population have this trait. It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations. It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted.”
While I don’t deny a potential metaphysical component of empathy and high-sensitivity, I have found an immense benefit in learning about the physiological aspects of being an HSP. (Yes, I have the book; no, this is not a paid endorsement.) My existing “dealing with empathy” toolkit has been greatly expanded by learning how to avoid pits of no stimulation and peaks of too much stimulation. There’s a lot to be said for turning a personal vulnerability to a quirk that, in many ways, has turned out to be very beneficial.
After all, I wouldn’t be me if I weren’t an empath, a highly-sensitive person. And I kinda like being me. :)
Last year’s second E post was on eating your heart.