Being empathetic vs. being an empath

Throughout my training to become a counselor, I often heard the term empathy and sympathy. For counselors, we are instructed to be persons of neutrality, but with a great deal of empathy. Now the difference between the two, I was told, is sympathy is like patting someone one the shoulder and saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through that,” or “There, there. It will get better.” However, empathy is actually sitting with the person and knowing, understanding, and walking with them in their shoes. This difference still fascinates me and it has taken me years to learn to be empathetic. It wasn’t until I became a fiction author that I heard of actual people who are called “empaths.” If you’ve never heard of them, you probably said what I said when I first heard it. “What’s an empath?” According to Google (because that’s the fastest way to do research on a topic directly from your smart phone):

“being an empath is when you are affected by other people’s energies, and have an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive others. Your life is unconsciously influenced by others’ desires, wishes, thoughts, and moods. Being an empath is much more than being highly sensitive and it’s not just limited to emotions.” Oct 24, 2013

While being empathetic and having genuine empathy for others is a skill that can be learned, being an empath is something you are born with. Many of my author friends who write fantasy fiction have said that being born an empath is both good and bad; a blessing and a curse. Personally, I thought that was harsh, but then I began to wonder why such persons were considered both a blessing and a curse. I looked back on my own life and thought about those moments when I was happy and sad, complacent or angry, loving or cruel. It seemed to me that I was a person of extremes and nothing in between. I either ran hot or cold, and never lukewarm when it came to my emotions.

Some might call it being bi-polar, but I thought that it was just better to feel something with certainty rather than being… meh. Empaths, or the topic of such persons, became a new interest. I wondered if I’d ever met one. Then, after examining my own emotional, behavioral, and psychological history, I started to wonder if I AM an empath. Back to Google I went and found the traits of an empath and how to spot one (see http://healing.about.com/od/empathic/ss/Empath-Traits-How-to-Spot-One.htm#showall for full article). I was quite taken back by the 11 traits of an empath.

  1. Empaths come from all walks of life. There is no physical or social way to identify an empath at first sight or first meeting because they can come from any socio-economic, education level, or gender identifying background. You won’t know them until you spend time with them.
  2. Empaths are artisans. Empaths tend to be more creative. They might not necessarily be artists, but they are individuals who have very creative abilities. I myself am a musician, an artist, and an author… I am creative.
  3. Empaths are good listeners. An empath is one who will listen attentively to you in both good and bad times. They won’t just hear you out, but actually listen to what you say. Sometimes, empaths are even able to listen to what you are NOT saying, and focus on your demeanor and body language. They might not call BS on you, but they will certainly know when they’re being fed a line. I, on the other hand, have no problem calling BS on friends, but I do know when the time is right and sometimes immediately is NOT the right time to call someone out. I am sensitive when I listen.
  4. Empaths can be overwhelmed by media and news broadcasts. A lot goes on in media and news broadcasts – both positive and negative, but mostly negative. To an empath, to be bombarded all at once by this information and mix of positive and negative energies is more than an empath can handle. Empaths, while able to feel and experience others’ engergies, still need space and silence to process all these energies. In a way, empaths need a lot of “alone” time. I am always in search of more “alone” time for myself.
  5. Empaths are in tune with nature. What better place to have calm and positive energies than in the realms of nature? Nature asks for nothing from us but to take care of her and to let her be at peace. Nature in its true element, is a place of solace, and able to restore one’s balance. I find myself most calm when I am outside and simply listening to nature’s song – birds singing, water flowing, wind rustling the leaves of a tree. Nature calms the beast within me.
  6. Empaths are lovers of animals. As part of nature’s most active and sometimes social creatures, animals and empaths have a sort of symbiotic relationship. Animals provide empaths with a reminder that humans are not the only ones who roam on this earth, and it is an empath’s duty to care for all creatures through understanding all life energies. I was the kid who brought home stray animals, and who still wants to run a special wildlife sanctuary for creatures great and small. I love animals.
  7. Empaths can be open and expressive. Because an empath feels everyone’s energies, it is hard for them to keep those feelings inside. Often these feelings come out as they express what they are feeling. When faced with an emoting empath, just let them talk. They need to let it out. Many of my closest friends wished I wasn’t so expressive.
  8. Empaths tend to be reclusive or loners. You’re probably wondering how this is so if they are able to feel others’ energies and are in tune with everything else. Quite simply, it depends on the empath. For some it might simply be due to emotional overload when being around too many energies. For others, it may be a protective mechanism to prevent rejection by others who don’t understand them. In their eyes it may be better to retreat from the world than risk being seen as an oddity. For me, emotional overload and needing alone time to release the energies of others is a must. Being a loner is not a bad thing.
  9. Empaths are peacemakers and problem solvers. Empaths seek balance and peace so that the energies that exist around them can co-exist. Because of their natural ability to understand others and feel their energies, they also make natural problem solvers. In my family, I am the peacemaker.
  10. Empaths are trusted confidantes and safe havens. This is due to an empath’s ability to listen well and to be problem solvers and peacemakers. Empaths understand the nature of a person’s energies and we would not want to harm them. Empaths can be trusted with your deepest secrets and desires, and it will stay safely hidden. There are many secrets from family and friends that I will take to my grave.
  11. Empaths have compassionate souls. Empaths do not have the ability to be cruel. An empath would never inflict upon a person what they themselves would not wish for. They will not return hatred with hatred, malice with malice. Yes, they can be fair and just people, but they do so without the harshness that sometimes comes with it among those in authority over them. One of the reasons I became a counselor by training is because I believed the world needed to experience more compassionate individuals. I am compassionate and my soul craves that.

If you’ve not already guessed it, I discovered that I am most likely an empath by nature. Granted, this list is not exhaustive and I’m sure there are other traits I could find that I do or do not match when considering myself to be one of these. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, IF one is aware and vigilant in bringing balance to that side of their empath nature and the energies around them. There must be a little empath in each of us if we are to bring balance and harmony to our existence with all creatures.

Are we characters in a fiction novel? No. In the beginning of time, I believe we were meant to understand and feel the energies of all life around us. Sadly, so many of us have been so out of practice and so out of touch with that side of us that we stopped learning how to listen and feel what is around us. We were all meant to be in tune with one another. We simply need to return to that place. Why not practice it today?

How will you get in touch with the energies of others? Have you met an empath before? Comment in the space provided.

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