Ever end a call with a distressed coworker feeling equally distressed or happy-cry at a loved one’s wedding? Or maybe every time you celebrate a coworker’s achievements you also experience a deep sense of pride.
Feeling emotional is common in scenarios like these, but if you often physically and mentally take on the experiences of others, you might be an empath.
While most people express some form of empathy, like offering a comforting hug or a shoulder to cry on, frequency and intensity set empaths apart. Knowing what an empath is and whether you are one might relieve the emotional burden that stems from this frequency and intensity.
What’s an empathic person?
An empath is someone who feels others’ emotions often and in a profound way.
Most people experience empathy, which is the ability to recognize, understand, and relate to someone’s emotions and experiences. But this ability is heightened in empaths, and they might struggle to shut it off.
Say your friend feels sad and disappointed because they didn’t receive the promotion they wanted. If you once didn’t get a promotion, you can remind yourself of how that felt to better understand and support your friend.
But even if you never missed a promotion, you’ve felt disappointed and sad. You can remember what it feels like to experience a hard time to offer your friend more meaningful advice and comfort. An empath relates to others’ feelings and experiences constantly, and they typically take on these feelings.
When comforting the friend who didn’t get promoted, they might physically and mentally experience disappointment and sadness, taking on the weight of the other person’s feelings.
This might cause toxic empathy, defined by the following experiences:
- Justifying bad behavior
- Finding it difficult to say “No”
- Feeling physically and mentally drained
- Struggling to complete everyday tasks
Toxic empathy might make empaths feel drained after social interactions or conversations with distressed loved ones. Avoiding this toxicity likely means setting boundaries and removing yourself from highly emotional settings when possible.
6 types of empaths
According to Judith Orloff, psychiatrist and author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” here are six common empath types:
Physical empaths feel other people’s physical symptoms and manifest those symptoms in their own body. If a friend has a headache, you might experience forehead tension. Or if your coworker talks about their public speaking anxiety, you might feel your heart race. This also means that someone’s positive physical energy might manifest itself in your body.
Emotional empaths feel the emotions of others as their own. While this can be mentally exhausting, it also means you benefit from surrounding yourself with happy and positive people.
Intuitive empaths also experience others’ emotional states, but they often intuit these feelings without someone explicitly sharing them. These empaths have high emotional intelligence and might guess your feelings before you do or foresee their own reactions to mitigate causes and preemptively prepare.
Dream empaths easily recall and derive meaning from their dreams, believing dreams hold important insights for dealing with real-life situations. These empaths might ask struggling coworkers or friends about recent dreams to try and better support these individuals.
Earth empaths are highly attuned to the universe and can sense changes in their surroundings. For example, an earth empath might sense the signs of an upcoming earthquake or thunderstorm quicker than others.
Plant and animal empaths feel they can communicate with and understand flora and fauna. These individuals are natural caregivers, feeling immensely passionate about protecting all forms of life.
9 signs you’re an empath
While there are various empath types, most share some common characteristics. If you’d describe yourself in several of the following nine ways, you’re a highly empathetic person.
1. You easily sense people’s emotions
No matter the type, all empaths share this characteristic. You might notice a friend is down before they share their disappointing news, or perhaps you intuit that a coworker just got some good news in a 1:1 because they seem happy.
Accurately recognizing the feelings of others likely means you have a high emotional quotient (EQ), or excellent emotional intelligence. That’s great, since this intelligence allows you to regulate your own emotions to remain professional during conflict or behave respectfully when you feel threatened by a coworker.
But sensing others’ emotions can also be exhausting, especially if you can’t turn it off. You might need to set boundaries — like limiting social interactions outside of work or asking your manager to handle a difficult coworker — to protect your energy.
2. You find crowded spaces overwhelming
Because you take on others’ emotions, you might find crowded spaces overwhelming, like grocery stores, metro stations, and city streets. These spaces increase the chance of witnessing emotionally-charged situations, like arguments or upset children.
To avoid becoming mentally exhausted by all this emotional stimuli, you might avoid crowded spaces or listen to calming music when moving through them.
3. You often experience sensory overload
Empaths might be more susceptible to sensory overload, which is when excessive brain stimulation makes you feel anxious and exhausted. Common stimuli that trigger sensory overload are loud noises, dramatic light changes, and intense smells.
You can also experience sensory overload caused by excessive emotional responses near you, like a very lively party or an emotionally-charged team conflict.
You can decrease the chance of experiencing sensory overload by avoiding flashy games and movies and sticking to smaller social gatherings when possible.
4. You quickly detect dishonesty
Because you’re emotionally intuitive, you also detect the signs of dishonesty in others. You might notice a person fidgeting, looking away, or sweating when telling a story, all signs of nerves associated with deception.
You might even intuit why the person is lying because of your high emotional intelligence, meaning you can address the situation more strategically. Perhaps a coworker doesn’t want to tell you what they did on the weekend because it’s highly personal. You might shrug off their dishonesty since you want them to feel they can keep their private life to themselves.
5. Emotion and intuition guide your decision-making
And because you often intuit what others are feeling, you trust your gut feelings when making choices. You use your intuition to determine how someone’s feeling and let these feelings influence the decision you make regarding next steps.
6. You can quickly read a room
If you’ve ever left a networking event thinking, “What a great vibe,” or a meeting wondering what caused so much tension, that’s your empathy talking. You can quickly read a room to assess the collective mood.
This often makes you excel in social situations since you can improve the environment with your positivity or meet the more somber assignment when there’s no room for joking around.
7. You avoid violent news and media
Because you take on others’ emotions, you might find violent media like horror movies or daily news stories too overwhelming. Seeing extreme poverty or environmental degradation might make you sad and anxious, especially if you feel helpless about the issue.
Instead, you might be drawn to tasteful comedic movies and easy-watching TV — anything with feel-good vibes that doesn’t ask too much of you emotionally.
8. You care more for others than yourself
You’re highly caring and compassionate, not wanting others to ever feel negative emotions. This means you might spend too much time protecting and caring for those around you, often forgetting about personal self-care.
But this means you never recharge your battery, which could eventually lead to burnout and exhaustion — and you can’t help anyone in that state. Remember to prioritize self-care so you have the energy to help others.
9. You’re an excellent listener
You’ve gained excellent listening skills through a positive cycle of self-improvement. Because you’re empathetic, you want others to feel heard and to retain important details so you can support them as best you can. And because you listen well, you’re empathetic since you better understand everyone’s emotions.
Although being a good listener is a positive empath trait, toxic people might abuse it, treating you like a mental health professional and not offering you support in return. Assess your relationships to ensure they’re mutually beneficial and respectful. If not, set boundaries to avoid having support vampires steal all your energy.
Care for others by caring for yourself
If you relate to several of the above characteristics, chances are the answer to “What’s an empath?” is: you. And that’s a great thing, because empaths have so much to offer those in their life, both personally and professionally. You’re an excellent listener who knows how to support those around you and adjust intuitively to each situation.
Just remember to empathize with yourself first. Understand that you can only help so many people, and you need the energy to do so. That requires thoughtful self-care like alone time, healthy boundaries, and strategic decision-making about what you can and can’t attend to.