Empath is described as “A person with extra-sensory empathic ability, capable of sensing the emotions of others around them in a way unexplained by conventional science and psychology” (Wiktionary.org). Some definitions go so far as to explain that empaths’ abilities occur “chiefly in science fiction” or as part of a paranormal experience.  These descriptions serve as further reminders that those of us living in “giftedland,” feel like we are from another planet. Not every gifted or twice exceptional person is an empath, but every empath has the gift of uncanny perception and an ability to truly experience the feelings of those around them. Just as being “gifted” is a blessing and sometimes a curse, so too is the innate experience of the empath. Living a happy, successful life as an empath, requires strategies in helping others understand the empath experience, and tools to regulate and mediate intense reactions to emotional and physical stimuli.

The Empath’s Experience

One is born an empath, facing emotions at a tender age when life experience cannot possibly provide understanding needed to regulate responses to emotional onslaught. Whether picking up on the angst, anger or euphoria of another person, the empath is affected deeply within her own emotional being.  These feelings often trigger physical responses – shaking, weeping, or belly-laughing, and drain the empath to the point of exhaustion. Noticing a homeless person is different from feeling deep sadness about their condition and needing to do something to change their plight. Feeling heart strings tugged at commercials on television for impoverished children is different than bursting into tears and emptying a piggy bank to donate to the cause. Pausing to take in the beauty of nature is a completely different experience than weeping at the thought of all the people who cannot at that moment see this gorgeous sight.  Looking away as a classmate struggles in school, is different than pulling up a chair and leading the peer through the lesson.

As a child, when this phenomenon occurs, adults may react with praise for extraordinary compassion. Just as likely, adults may poo poo the child empath’s nosiness, over-involvement or label the response as an over-reaction. As empaths attempt to avoid demanding situations, they may exhibit reluctance to enter a room, greet another person, or look someone in the eyes, much to a parent’s or teacher’s chagrin. As a child matures, if her gift is neither valued nor understood, she learns to eschew her abilities – concluding it is better to push away or push through her natural proclivities. The empath’s choice is to deliberately ignore her innate powers or suffer the chastisement and diagnoses of the adults and peers around her.

What would the world look like if empaths were respected, celebrated, and even consulted?  Not only would the empath have a better chance of learning how to modulate her reactions, but the world would likely benefit from the empath’s observations. Empaths see directly to the unfettered heart of the matter – when someone is hiding their true feelings, an empath intuits the person’s genuine emotion. If someone is affected by an unintentional comment or facial expression, the empath knows. Imagine how political, educational and social responses could differ if empaths were consulted.

Those who parent, teach or treat empaths – people who are so attuned to other people’s emotions that sometimes they can actually feel what other people are feeling – know this gift to be true.  We watch as our children’s astute antennae convey feelings of everyone around them, and we agonize when within their little bodies they struggle to cope with incidents and emotions they are not equipped to understand or process at their tender age. As our children become tweens and adolescents we struggle with respecting their abilities – those that at once make them perceptive but simultaneously overwhelm them as they monitor their own shifting hormones and emotions. The empath’s reaction to an ambush of feelings, on top of their own, may appear as “over the top” “out of whack” or too intense.  As adults we find ourselves “suffering fools” scratching our heads over peers’ value systems and priorities. How do we help our children, our teens and ourselves stay centered and celebrate these super powers?

Responses to Empaths

Throughout their lives empaths struggle with unfiltered emotional input and learn to protect themselves. So often the world responds to empaths in an all or nothing manner – “you’re too sensitive,” “you care more than you should,” “you’re thinking too much.”  If empaths feel respected and valued it is easier for them to learn to modulate and address emotional input. First and foremost, let the empath in your life (including yourself) know what a unique and useful gift they have. Caution them to notice when they feel overwhelmed and need a break or to literally rid themselves of excess emotion. If they recognize that “raw nerve feeling” of positive or negative energy that overwhelms their physical being, and can react in a proactive way, they are more likely to avoid emotional exhaustion. Having a menu of specific steps makes it easier to know what to do when overwhelmed by emotions.

What the Empath Can Do

Here are some steps to assist the empath in appreciating and accepting their abilities.

Step 1: Recognize the intense feeling.
Step 2 Decide whether you want to jump in and immerse yourself in the feeling or attempt to avoid it.[1]
Step 3: If you do not want to ride the wave of emotion you are absorbing, see suggested ways to rid yourself of negative energy, below.
Step 4: If you decide to take on the input, react in a way that supports or heals the source of intense feelings. Do something to acknowledge those feelings. In other words, celebrate someone’s copious joy or lend a hand or sympathetic ear to someone who is struggling. Go with your gut.
Step 5: Have an exit strategy. Know when you’ve had enough and need to separate based on your needs not theirs. Walk away, hang up the phone, don’t email/text back. Inherent to this step is forgiving yourself for detaching – this can be very hard for the empath.
Step 6: Check in with yourself and see if you need to purge some of the intense and excess energy.

How to Purge Energy

There are many suggested ways to clear oneself of negative energy. The bottom line is to change your surroundings based on the five senses; burn sage (smell), dim or brighten the lights (sight), lie down on something soft or rough (touch), suck a

peppermint or drink ginger (taste), listen to music – classical or hard rock or anything in between (hearing) – whatever type will allow you to purge the excess. These strategies can help shift your internal focus by noticing external stimuli.

Create a menu of these choices for yourself or the empaths in your life so when you or they are overwhelmed there are clear choices that resonate at that moment. Other options include:

  • Shower, bathe or swim. Water is healing.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Curl up in a ball or stretch out.
  • Have a tantrum – yes, on purpose, and full on.

As with any outlier trait, the biggest risk is misunderstanding. Empaths must honor their true selves, recognize when their senses are at their most powerful and accept the need to ride the emotional undulation through its course. Whether the empath’s emotional wave gently washes up on shore or crashes on the beach depends on their ability to address their gift with understanding, forgiveness and intentional healing.

[1] There are times when we simply cannot give in to our gift. We are at work, in class or somewhere else where our undivided attention is needed. It is extraordinarily difficult to push aside emotional feedback, but if you can, in this instance, make a mental note to process later. These feelings will not dissipate on their own, and may leave you with unsettling emotional loose-ends.