Empathy is a word you hear a lot, often in terms of what the world needs more of. It’s hard to argue with it—the idea that the world needs more empathy. But what does the word really mean? How is it different from sympathy, compassion, or even pity? And, while we tend to think of empathy as a positive quality, is it really always a good thing for the person who feels it? What about for those deemed “true empaths”—do they feel empathy at an entirely different level?
The definition of empathy has become so jumbled over the last few decades that many of us use the word in different ways without even realizing it. That can be a problem in cases where understanding your capacity for empathy can help you protect yourself from emotional burnout.
The Evolution of Empathy
Linguistically speaking, the roots of the word empathy
can be traced back to the ancient Greek empatheia, but psychologists trace our modern use to the nineteenth-century German word Einfühlung. Philosophers used it to refer more to aesthetics than emotions, however—to communing with a piece of art rather than a person.
Translating from German into English, psychologist Edward Titchener used the term empathy to refer to at least three different phenomena, only one of which involved interpersonal understanding or the “feelings of relation” that comes close to matching our current understanding. In other words, it’s not a surprise that empathy isn’t a straightforward term.
Perhaps it’s helpful to distinguish empathy from related terms. Sympathy is the ability to sit with, care about, and accept someone’s feelings, while empathy is the ability to embody the feelings of another. Then there’s compassion, which is the desire to alleviate someone’s feelings of pain or suffering. Ideally, empathy leads to compassion.
Empathetic vs. True Empath
Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist, empath, and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People has further divided empathy into two separate categories: being empathetic (“when your heart goes out to someone else”) and being an empath (“you can actually feel another person’s happiness or sadness in your own body”). “Empathy is our ability to attune with another’s experience of life, their sadness, and joy,” Orloff says. “It is an open-hearted state that lets us resonate with our fellow humans, animal friends, nature, and the earth.”
[Read: “5 Gifts of Listening With Empathy.”]
There are people who are capable of empathy—that’s most of us—and there are empaths. Not everyone who can feel empathy in certain situations is a true empath.
Spirituality & Empathy
While the word empath was first coined in the science fiction sphere, we now use it in psychology and neurology as well, but we don’t often use it in a way that implies things like telepathy
or precognition. It can, however, have a spiritual component. Some believe that the kind of intuition that empaths exhibit is indicative of their ability to tap into a greater universal consciousness.
As a self-identified empath who also sits on the faculty of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, Orloff’s insights are apt. “Empaths like myself are emotional sponges who tend to take on the stress of other people and the world,” she says. “We don’t have the same filters that others have, so we feel intimately what’s going on in others.”
She explains that she doesn’t like using the word psychic
to describe empaths or equate being an empath to anything supernatural. Instead, she uses the word “intuition,” which is another word that’s hard to define, even if we all use it as if we know precisely what it means.
“There are intuitive empaths who have highly developed intuition and are very good at reading people. This is a very positive attribute of being an empath and is not ‘science fiction,’” Orloff contends. “Intuition is a trait that needs to be developed more to get people out of their heads and into their hearts.”
[Read: “Cultivate Intuition With This Simple Trick.”]
Of course, being sensitive to other people’s feelings to the point where you feel them too isn’t always healthy. It doesn’t even necessarily lead to a person being kind—you can be empathetic without being compassionate, for example. If you’re often in a high-stress, overstimulating environment, your empathy can also lead to burnout.
Are You a True Empath?
Here are a few questions you can ask to find out if you’re a true empath (or you can take Dr. Orloff’s self-assessment):
- Do people tend to come to you with their problems and fears because they know you will listen?
- Do you feel the emotions (positive or negative) of other people? For example, do you become overwhelmed with sadness when someone tells you a story of loss?
- Do you have a hard time setting boundaries because you’re afraid you will hurt someone’s feelings by saying no?
- Do you feel emotionally drained after spending time with people and need extra time to “recharge” before engaging again?
- Do you often feel called to intervene or help someone who is having a tough time emotionally?
- Do sad stories tend to stick with you and affect your mood for hours or even days?
- Are you a people-pleaser who will sacrifice your own plans or wellbeing to help others?
Protecting Yourself as an Empath
Being open to the feelings of others and the energy surrounding you can be invigorating and rewarding, but empaths can be easily exhausted as well. The potential for emotional overload means that empaths need to take special care
of themselves in order to keep functioning. Self-care can include using mindfulness to stop and gauge your stress levels, breathwork to reduce overstimulation, and learning to create and maintain boundaries in order to keep toxic people from sucking up emotional energy. We live in a world with so much bad energy that it can easily seep in and deplete an empath of their strength, even leading to depression and anxiety.
Most importantly, true empaths should recognize and appreciate their gift and learn to appreciate their connection to others so that they can understand why they feel so deeply and how to care for themselves while they’re absorbing the energy from the world around them.
Consider this three-step approach to cultivating compassion and overcoming empathic sensitivity.