What Is an Empath—and Can You Become One?

Do people often say you're a good listener? Do you tend to have a deep sense of what people are thinking or feeling? You may be an empath. Here are the other common signs.

Imagine a scenario: Your friend is crying. You can see the tears and their shoulders shaking, you can hear the sobs, you recognize the expression on their face. It is clear that they are very upset about something. As you approach them, you feel even more concerned. When you finally reach them, you ask what’s wrong and learn that their father has died.

In this situation, when did you start to feel sad? If you felt sad upon learning about the death, perhaps recalling a time when you too lost someone very dear, then you are showing empathy. However, if you began to feel deeply sad, perhaps even feeling tears well up in your own eyes, as soon as you saw your friend upset and before you’d even approached them or learned why they were crying, you might be an empath.

What is an empath?

Being an empath and being empathetic are two different things. “Being empathetic is when your heart goes out to someone else; being an empath means you can actually feel another person’s happiness or sadness in your own body,” according to Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide.

Another way to describe it is that an empath is like an “emotional sponge”—they absorb both the joys and the pains of the world around them, says Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker and an adjunct professor at Wurzweiler School of Social Work and Chief of Clinical Services at The Dorm, a treatment center in New York. “An empath does not simply understand someone else’s pain, they sense and feel the emotions and feelings of their loved ones as part of their own experience.”

The empathy scale

Empathy exists on a scale, ranging from narcissists and sociopaths, who are unable and uninterested in how others feel, to “super empaths,” who feel others’ emotions so much that they may be unable to differentiate between their own feelings and someone else’s, says Helena Rempala, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“Empaths are a type of ‘highly sensitive person,’ a term we use to describe those who are highly attuned to outside physical, social, and emotional stimuli,” she explains. It’s not just a mental response—others’ emotions trigger a cascade of reactions in the empath’s nervous system, leading them to become highly activated by it, she says.

Not everyone agrees that empaths exist as a separate category and the label is more pop-culture than clinical, Rempala says.

“The problem with the empath identity is that it’s self-imposed and does not have the support of data that would illustrate the empath as a distinct personality type, or even a set of personality traits,” says Lynnay Carona, a licensed clinical social worker at UCHealth Primary Care–Fontanero in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Defining what an empath is then becomes very complicated. The word means different things to different people; some believe ’empath’ is just a new name for ‘codependent,’ while others see it as a metaphysical or spiritual gift or even a special ability. The term becomes a moving target subject to the perception of the bearer.”

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Are empaths born or made?

Like most psychological traits it’s hard to tease apart the influence of genetics versus environment but empaths are likely born with some predilection for increased empathy and then they learn to cultivate it as they grow, says Jeff Gardere, PhD, a psychologist and an associate professor and course director of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.

“Research shows that empathy is a learned behavior, with observable empathic development as early as the toddler years,” Carona says.

However, being an empath is not just a drive, it’s a choice, Gardere says. “Simply having empathy can be a very passive position,” he explains. “Empaths actually strive to feel the emotions of others in order to be a healing force. They pride themselves on their ability to ‘read’ others and to help.”

How common are empaths?

It seems like everyone knows at least one person who is deeply empathetic, a good listener, and manages to get others to talk about their feelings, but full empaths are likely rarer.

About one to two percent of the population are true empaths, according to a study published in Nature Neuroscience. While previous research has relied on self-report, this first-of-its-kind study aimed to objectively measure empathic abilities through studying mirror-touch synesthesia, a phenomenon where someone feels as if they are being touched when they see someone else being touched. Researchers conducted surveys of self-reported empathy and then correlated that with brain scans to confirm whether or not the person experienced this type of physical empathy. The numbers may be higher, as 10 to 15 percent of people meet the criteria for “highly sensitive,” and may experience being an emotional empath without the physical component, Rempala says.

Is being an empath a good thing or a bad thing?

It can be both, Rempala says. “Being highly empathetic makes you a better friend and teacher, more kind and compassionate, and an effective communicator,” she says. “There’s a risk of becoming overwhelmed by taking on others’ emotions, especially if you can feel their pain but you don’t have enough information or tools to fix it. Helping others taken to the extreme may also cause you to neglect your own life and responsibilities.”

“Being highly sensitive can come with significant consequences, including anxiety, depression, and even a decline in physical health,” Carona says.

“I don’t think we should look at having empathy, even if there is ‘overload,’ as something negative but something to be better regulated so that the empath does not drown in others’ pain,” Gardere says. “They can learn to take care of their own emotional needs.” Need some tips? Start with our self-care primer.

Are you an empath?

Knowing where you fall on the empathy scale is an important thing to understand about yourself as it can determine whether you need work on your skills to relate to others or whether you’ve gone too far in the other direction and are sacrificing your own emotional health, Rempala says. Below are some common traits of empaths.

You cry during diaper commercials

Many people feel emotional during emotional moments in movies but if you find yourself mirroring the emotions of people in more benign settings, like watching a new mother cry in an ad or on the news, you may lean towards the empath end of the spectrum. “Often the emotions come on suddenly and the empath may not even know why they are feeling what they are feeling,” Rempala says.

You need a lot of alone time

Taking on the emotions of others is hard work and empaths often find themselves emotionally and physically exhausted, particularly after being with someone who is having strong negative emotions, Gardere says. They will seek out time alone to recover and recharge.

You love to help people

Despite the tendency to self-isolate at times, empaths genuinely like and care about others, Gardere says. They see being empathic as a core part of their personality and crave being needed in that way. Because of this, many empaths find themselves drawn to “helping” professions, like therapists or social workers, he says.

You are very sensitive to strange smells or scratchy socks

Empaths are often highly sensitive in more ways than emotionally, so it’s common for them to report being irritated by itchy clothing, overwhelmed by loud music or bright lights, or to prefer small, quiet gatherings to large parties, Rempala says.

You are often told you’re a great listener

People naturally seek out empaths when looking for an emotional connection and will often say they don’t know why but they’re able to open up to them in ways they can’t with others. Empaths enjoy hearing about others’ experiences so they listen attentively.

You have to be alone to feel calm

Absorbing others’ emotions, especially when it’s unconscious, means that an empath is constantly in a state of hyperarousal—feeling sad or happy or anxious as those around you do, Rempala says. This means that the only time you feel calm and like yourself is when you’re alone.

You form very deep bonds with people

Feeling others’ emotions can make you feel very close to them which can help strengthen and build deep, lasting relationships with people, as long as healthy boundaries are maintained, Gardere says. Empaths are often seen as loyal and someone who can be called on in an emergency.

You have a difficult time in romantic relationships

Because empaths feel and experience the emotions of others so deeply and viscerally, many struggle in intimate and romantic relationships, Fialk says. “Spending time with someone they love and care deeply for can make an empath feel stressed and overwhelmed. Intimate relationships can deplete their emotional reserves and they may become enmeshed and codependent in relationships, losing their core sense of self in the emotions and experiences of others.”

You have a hard time moving on from relationships

The flip side of that intense connection is that empaths may have a harder time moving on from relationships and separating themselves from others, Rempala says. Empaths may get clingy or resort to unhealthy ways to maintain the emotional connections they need.

You notice little changes in people that others miss

Did you know your best friend was pregnant before she told you? Were you able to spot that your brother’s seemingly perfect girlfriend was a scammer? “Empaths have good intuition and are often able to pick up on subtle cues that others don’t see,” Fialk says. Empaths may not be able to verbalize or even understand all the stimuli they are taking in as it happens so their intuition is a very important tool, allowing them to act quickly.

You experience sympathetic nausea

As shown in the Nature Neuroscience study, empaths often take on the physical sensations of others, as well as the emotions. So if they see someone else itching, they may feel the urge to scratch, or if they see someone else become nauseous or complain of a headache, they may start experiencing those feelings too.

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How to deal with being an empath

Empaths need to take special care of their own inner lives and needs so as not to be overwhelmed by taking care of others, Rempala says. “A lot of them are good advice givers, very intuitive, and maintain deep friendships but if you find yourself always giving but never receiving, feeling constantly sad or depressed, or are overwhelmed, it’s time to ask for help,” she says.

If you feel like you’re stuck on an emotional roller coaster there are options out there to help you, Carona says. Start with a mental exercise. “Mindful awareness is a quality of attention that focuses on the present moment in a non-judgmental manner. An emotionally overwhelmed person might begin by simply naming the emotion as he/she experiences it. Acknowledging the emotions we experience individually is a stepping stone to disentangling ourselves from the emotional experiences of others, and ultimately reaching the goal of getting off the emotional roller coaster,” she says.

Anything that helps you ground yourself physically can also help you stay in the moment and be more aware of where you end and where others begin, Rempala says. Exercise, yoga, and meditation are all good options.

Lastly, cognitive, behavioral, and dialectical therapies are particularly useful for helping the empath to learn interpersonal effectiveness skills such as assertiveness, laying boundaries, and setting limits, as well as helping the empath to manage emotions and practice self-compassion when they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed as a result of the experience of others in the world around them, Fialk says.

Can you become an empath?

While it’s unclear whether or not someone can choose to be an empath (or even if they’d want to choose that), it is certainly possible to teach yourself skills for greater empathy, Gardere says. “There are things that can be done to strengthen your empathy muscle,” he says. “I recommend starting by reading about people who overcame adversity and volunteering to work with people who experience different challenges than you.”

Another way to become more empathetic is to practice listening from a place of empathy. “Check in with friends and loved ones, ask open-ended questions, and, most importantly, actively listen to their answers,” Rempala says.

Sources
  • Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist and author of The Empath's Survival Guide
  • Helena Rempala, PhD, ABPP, BCN, Board Certified in Clinical Psychology and Neurofeedback, at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
  • Jeff Gardere, PhD, psychologist and an associate professor and course director of Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City
  • Lynnay Carona, MSW, LCSW, a licensed social worker at UCHealth Primary Care–Fontanero in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, an adjunct professor at Wurzweiler School of Social Work and Chief of Clinical Services at The Dorm
  • Nature Neuroscience: "Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy"

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.