“Empath” is the word on everyone’s lips, and chances are you’ve heard of at least one person on social media, a family member, or an acquaintance who identifies with the term. While you probably have some concept of what it means to be an empath — it’s most letters of the word “empathy,” after all — you might have noticed that there seem to be many perspectives on the word’s exact definition. So, what is an empath then? Is there some kind of an empath test to tell if you fit the bill? If you’re interested in finding out more in hopes of learning more about yourself or those around you, listen up.
What’s an Empath?
Put simply, someone who is an empath feels other people’s emotions more intensely than the average person. “I would define an empath as a person who is very attuned to the emotions and mood states of the people around them,” says Anna Kim, associate social worker at Kindman & Co. This attunement might stem from personality quirks or early childhood trauma or relational trauma, she says. While this might sound like an endearing quality, it comes with its hurdles. “Often those who identify as empaths will struggle to separate their own emotions from the emotions of those around them or have difficulty setting boundaries,” adds Kim. You won’t find the term empath in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), so it’s not an official diagnosis. Instead, you may choose to self-identify as an empath.
Empathy is the ability to simply understand what other people feel, but empaths experience empathy to an extreme degree. “There is a spectrum of empathy,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, who identifies as an empath herself. “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.”
Living life as an emotional sponge can be taxing. “Empaths are people who rank high on the empathic spectrum and actually feel what is happening in others in their own bodies,” says Dr. Orloff. “As a result, empaths can experience deep compassion for others — but they often get exhausted from feeling ‘too much’ unless they develop strategies to safeguard their sensitivities and set healthy boundaries.”
Are Empaths Real?
The psychological community isn’t unanimous on whether there really should be a distinction for people who have more empathy than the average person. It’s not that empaths don’t exist per se, but research, as it stands, doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of empaths as a distinct category, says Amy Canevello, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “I spent some time looking for literature about ’empaths'” says Canevello. “It turns out there really isn’t any.”
Research does detail trait empathy, i.e. a person’s capacity for compassion. The literature recognizes a spectrum of empathy, measuring how a person can figuratively put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but the popular definition of “empath” takes the concept of empathy further, says Canevello. An empath is presumed to take on other people’s emotions to a degree that it will become heavy or exhausting, but research doesn’t currently acknowledge that perspective. “Whereas the psychological definition [of empathy] involves compassion and perspective-taking and stops there, the popular media seems to have turned it into something beyond the data,” she says.
While more research could shed light on empaths, thinking of trait empathy as a spectrum tends to be a useful concept. “Things like an empathic trait rarely get funded for research because they are difficult to define and measure,” says Kim. “There are natural variations in empathy levels from person to person, and some experiences — such as trauma — do often result in creative adaptations that increase empathic attunement.” In other words, while “an empath” isn’t a term born out of scientific research, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
What’s the Difference Between an Empath and a Highly Sensitive Person?
If you’re familiar at all with the idea of empaths, it’s likely that you’ve also come across the term “highly sensitive person,” or HSP. Even though these archetypes have many similarities, there are clear distinctions between the two. “Highly Sensitive People have an innate personality trait that creates sensitivity not only in the realm of emotions but in all sensory areas,” explains Kim. “HSPs overlap with empaths in the realm of emotional attunement, but also experience things like [being] overwhelmed by visual/auditory stimuli, startling easily, being very moved by art or music, having a rich inner life, and sometimes seeking high-sensation activities.”
Because there is so much overlap between empaths and HSPs, it is absolutely possible to be both, says Dr. Orloff. “If you think about this distinction in terms of an empathic spectrum, empaths are on the highest end; highly sensitive people are a little lower on the spectrum; people with strong empathy but who are not HSPs or empaths are in the middle of the spectrum,” she says. “Narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have ’empathy deficit disorders’ are at the lowest end of the spectrum.”
What Challenges Do Empaths Face?
Empaths can find romantic relationships difficult, says Dr. Orloff. “Many stay single since they haven’t learned to negotiate their special cohabitation needs with a partner, such as needing alone time to be quiet,” she says, explaining that empaths also tend to be (though aren’t exclusively) introverted. Taking on other people’s emotions can leave them feeling exhausted, so they need to be alone quite a bit to recharge their batteries.
Additionally, empaths “often struggle with being overly giving and prioritizing the needs of others in a way that deteriorates their own wellbeing,” says Kim. They can have difficulty setting boundaries. Because empaths feel the emotions of others so strongly, they tend to absorb a lot of the negative emotions around them — which can take a huge toll on their mental health, adds Dr. Orloff.
Unfortunately, most people (empaths or not) don’t actually know how to go about setting boundaries. “Empaths will have an easier time setting boundaries if they have a clear sense of themselves and their own needs/wants/limitations,” says Kim. “Helpful questions to ask yourself [if you identify as an empath] might be: Am I ignoring my own needs? What do I feel about this situation or toward this person?”
If you think you might be an empath, you can take an empath quiz to test your theory. Get started with this 20 question self-assessment empath test on Dr. Orloff’s website.
The Strengths of Being an Empath
Empaths — or people on the higher end of the empathy spectrum, if you prefer — share common strengths. “Empathy enables people to respect one another, even if you disagree,” says Dr. Orloff. “Being empathic might not always be effective in getting through to people, but I think it’s the best chance you have for peace in your own life and on the planet.”
Essentially, empaths are good at being present when you need them. “Empaths are naturally giving, intuitive, caring, and good listeners,” explains Dr. Orloff. “Through thick and thin, they’re there for you.” You may have heard of active empathetic listening, a technique that combines active listening and empathy that’s often utilized by salespeople. It involves recognizing all verbal and nonverbal cues, processing the info, and responding, and people who have mastered the skill tend to be better leaders, according to Harvard Business Review.
Importantly, “empaths can deeply feel all that is positive, wholesome, and healthy in others and the world,” adds Dr. Orloff. “They are loving friends and spouses and want to help others.” So, while the weight of emotions they feel may be heavy, if you know an empath, you can see they are also special in so many ways.
The key to preventing these strengths from becoming challenges if you identify as an empath is to prioritize yourself when necessary, even if your instinct is to put others’ needs first. “Not every situation or relationship in your life requires or deserves your full empathetic attention,” points out Kim. “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.”