Does it ever seem like you’re crying for no reason? Does watching a sad movie cause you to break into spontaneous crying? You may be an empath.
The other day, a man stepped into the street, and I stopped my car so he could cross. Suddenly, I felt the overwhelming urge to cry for no apparent reason.
Then I looked more closely at the man walking just feet away from me. He looked pained, just as I suddenly felt. “Ahh,” I realized, “these emotions are not mine.” I sent him a silent prayer, grateful I had finally learned to tell the difference between my emotions and those of others.
What Is an Empath?
Recently, I read an article describing the difference between an empath and someone who is highly sensitive. The author distinguished an empath as someone who can feel the emotions of others, sometimes even physically, even though they are not actually going through the same experience. Compared to someone who is highly sensitive (empathetic vs. empathic), an empath has a greater sensory awareness and feels extremely emotional about others, their surroundings, and the visual images or media they’re exposed to. (You’ll often hear empaths say even TV commercials can elicit spontaneous crying). The resulting experience can be intense and confusing.
There may even be something uniquely spiritual about all that spontaneous crying.
Researchers say around 20 percent of us are genetically predisposed to empathy and have highly sensitive brains that respond powerfully to emotional images and our surroundings, while only 2 to 3 percent of us are actually empaths.
This means that, to varying degrees, one out of every four or five people experience the emotions of others—in addition to their own.
Am I An Empath?
You (especially as a child or a teen) may not even know you are sensitive to the energies of others. You may even be oblivious to the reality that such a thing exists. Consequently, there is a tendency to think something is wrong with you.
If you’re not empathic, you may see those who are as overdramatic, reactionary, and too involved. You may not understand why your empathic partner or peers cry for no reason or when someone else in the household is depressed. You don’t understand why they can’t watch violent movies or fights on TV. In fact, my husband often points out to me: “They’re just actors. It’s just a movie,” while I assume a fetal position on the couch, looking the other way.
[Learn more about why some people are more sensitive to screen violence than others.]
Feeling other people’s feelings, being sensitive to images, wanting to cry for no apparent reason, and processing emotions that don’t belong to you can hit an empath like a ton of bricks from unexpected places at unanticipated times—which can lead to spontaneous crying.
If you don’t realize that these emotions are not actually yours, it can cause a lot of stress, depression, anxiety, and confusion for both you and those who love you.
These are particularly challenging traits to have at a time when so many people report strong feelings of fear, concern, hope, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and divisiveness, often due to the political environment, current events, and so on. Actually, most of the world is deeply concerned. Your own emotions can be overwhelming by themselves, but now the challenges of being empathic are amplified. And in a personal relationship, unknowingly feeling the emotions of others can be devastating.
What Empaths Must Know for Relationships
First, you need to practice self-observation and self-inquiry, which leads to self-awareness. Get to know yourself well enough to be able to decipher your emotions from others. This can be as simple as asking yourself, “Is this emotion mine?”
This awareness helps to unravel what you are feeling when a wave of emotion washes over you. If it’s your emotion, take responsibility for handling what needs to be handled. Cry if need be. Apologize. Forgive. Express your needs. Grieve. Make some changes. Take a break. Heal the rift. Find a spiritual solution. Identify what the emotion is showing you.
If nothing has happened in your life to cause the emotion—if there is not a triggering event or experience—the feelings are probably not yours. Simply understanding that can make processing the emotions easier. And knowing this offers you the choice: to process the emotions, release the emotions, or determine if another action needs to take place.
There may not be anything that needs to be done—in which case, simply be aware and breathe as the emotions pass through. If you can identify the person to whom the emotions actually belong, you can use the information to offer guidance or compassion. If the emotion is coming from a loved one or housemate, you can use that wisdom to heighten your sensitivity to their needs. If it is collective emotion, it may well be that as you process these feelings, meditate, or pray for the planet, you vicariously ease the pain or tension in others.
But, before you jump into the caretaking of other people and intervening to solve their problems, assess the situation. You don’t want your empathy to move you toward codependency while leading other people away from personal responsibility.
Sometimes all that’s necessary is a heightened sense of awareness, a few tears, and some carefully sent prayers.
Read more about spirituality and crying in “The Restorative Power of Tears.”