Personal Journeys with Gramma

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I Know How You Feel: The Life of an Empath

You enter a room and immediately sense the mood of the group within. If it’s a party gone bad, you’re already wondering how you can remove yourself. If it’s a negative professional meeting, you brace yourself for one of those hours that seems to last an eternity. Emotions are contagious—as are opinions. Opinions, however, are contagious because we all want to be right or at least blend in. No one wants to look like a fool in front of others. So, if you want to influence someone’s opinion or vote or purchase, you simply have to convince the person that to disagree with you would make him or her look stupid or odd in front of peers.

Transferring emotions doesn’t require intention or someone doing it purposefully. Emotions are more primitive than opinions. In a sad movie, many audience members are sniffing into tissues although nothing has happened to any of them. When I watch singing or cooking competitions on TV, I’m hot and jumpy by the time a winner is named, although I really don’t care who wins. The more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to react to emotions.

Most of us are capable of empathy to some degree. Reading stories as children helps us develop empathy—emotional intelligence—as we learn to care about the characters. Psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff writes, “Having empathy means our heart goes out to another person in joy or pain.” I used to describe empathy as the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes—not merely pitying him or her as in sympathy.

But some of us were born with a sensitivity that goes beyond simple empathy. According to Orloff, “We actually feel others’ emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our own bodies without the usual defenses that most people have.” If Orloff is describing you as she is describing herself, you’re an empath. It’s a blessing and a curse, depending on whether you know how to use it.

Recently, a friend recommended I read Orloff’s book THE EMPATH’S SURVIVAL GUIDE: LIFE STRATEGIES FOR SENSITIVE PEOPLE. (I think the suggestion was a hint. I’m more transparent than I believe.) Orloff explains there are two kinds of empaths (that may be combined): emotional and physical. Physical empaths experience the sensations of others. A simple hug can transfer pain or nervousness. Emotional empaths experience the emotions of others. According to the quizzes in Orloff’s book, I am a full-blown emotional empath. I join the ranks of notable empaths such as Albert Einstein, Princess Diana, and Abraham Lincoln—who were apparently better at using their abilities than I have been.

Even if you aren’t an empath yourself, you can probably imagine how inconvenient experiencing the feelings of others can be. It’s exhausting. Most empaths develop what seem to be coping techniques—such as avoiding crowds or people who don’t feel comfortable. (I always thought I was bordering on antisocial.) As a young girl, Orloff used drugs and alcohol to protect herself. Happily, her book now suggests many coping mechanisms that are based on neuroscience, intuition, and energy medicine.

The best part about being an empath is we are unlikely to be intentionally cruel because of our very real connection. We aren’t patronizing when we say, “I know how you feel.” We do. We know—most of the time. Whether we use that information in a positive, considerate way is a choice. We also have to choose to protect ourselves from the negative emotions swirling around us in these unprecedented times. If we don’t, we can fall prey to depression or worse.

2 comments on “I Know How You Feel: The Life of an Empath

  1. Chelo Ludden
    May 21, 2017

    Yes, it is hard to be an empath but you’re so much more advanced than those like Trump who have none

    • I think there are as many empaths and people who are empathetic as there are myopic selfish people. We just need to be seen and heard and sometimes take office.

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