What Does It Really Mean To Be An Empath?

You've likely heard the buzzword 'empath' floating around in the sphere of mental health and wellness over the past couple of years. The term describes someone who feels more empathy than the average person. And while this sounds like a positive quality (and in a lot of ways, it is) it can also be an exhausting experience, as empaths tend to struggle with boundaries (via Healthline). Whereas most people feel some empathy towards someone in pain, an empath feels this pain intensely and can sometimes have a tricky time separating another's emotional state from their own.

"Ordinary empathy, where your heart goes out to someone's pain or joy, is in the middle of the spectrum. Higher on the spectrum is an empath. They have empathy but they are also emotional sponges who tend to take on the angst of the world," said Judith Orloff, M.D., author of "The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People," in an interview with Shape. So, as we established, being an empath is a mixed blessing. And a professional won't be able to tell you if you're an empath as there isn't an official diagnosis, but here's how you can tell if you fit the bill for an empath.

Indicators you may be an empath

As empaths often struggle with energetic boundaries, they are also prone to mirror another person's emotions without really being aware of it (via MedicalNewsToday). This could look like becoming super joyful as your partner shares a story of success at work -– and then hours later feeling very blue as your co-worker shares their struggle with a chronic illness. Empaths also tend to be highly intuitive and can easily recognize patterns in people's behaviors. This can help them decipher if someone is being truthful or not – almost like having a built-in lie detector (via Healthline). Empaths are more likely to rely on their intuition to make big life decisions, which may seem a bit irresponsible to onlookers, but they feel much safer this way, as opposed to using sheer logic.

Empaths take refuge in the healing powers of nature. They enjoy solitude and will rarely engage in conflict unless absolutely necessary. People tend to open up to them with little prompting. They have a lot in common with highly sensitive people (HSPs), but there are a few key differences between the two. Empaths will absorb the energy around them, whereas HSPs will be overwhelmed by it and retreat without taking it on as their own (via Psychology Today). Both experiences are intense but also come with gifts. Empaths and HSPs are often skilled in working with animals and children, understanding their emotional states, and how to help them. Empathy and compassion are great strengths in community and relationships. And empaths can de-escalate situations, which makes them wonderful mediators. Now, how does one navigate being an empath in a healthy way so these gifts can be utilized? Let's take a look.

How to traverse being an empath

The first step to caring for yourself as an empath is to lovingly understand that you are, in fact, different. Trying to keep up with the crowd will likely leave you feeling depleted and confused. Sensitive people like empaths need small, frequent breaks alone to recharge and shake off the energy they've ingested from work, school, social outings, or stressful situations. Having a quiet, peaceful sanctuary of one's own to recenter will be life-changing -– even if that space is just a dedicated corner in a room at home, made complete with candles, books, blankets, or anything else that feels grounding to you. Meditation, mantras, positive affirmations, prayer –- whatever tools bring you back to a positive and peaceful mental state, use them. And as empaths tend to gravitate toward the healing comfort of animals, a pet might be a great way to balance out the heavy energies you feel as an empath.

Using discernment about which situations and people should receive your energy and time is another key element of preventing empath burnout. "Not every situation or relationship in your life requires or deserves your full empathetic attention," said Anna Kim, associate social worker at Kindman & Co, in an interview with Shape. "Check in with yourself to see if a situation or relationship is a place where you would like to focus your empathetic energy, so that you can make sure to lean in when it matters to you."