People have different degrees of empathy. Some seem to have little at all and it is seen as a pathology. Most people are tuned into the feelings of others at least some of the time. Others have so much empathy that they are called empaths. They can experience the feelings of anyone around them. What if you are an empath and are simply not aware of what that is? An empath can experience the feelings of others around them and never realize they are not their own feelings.
My own experience as an empath led me to become a therapist. And as a therapist I quickly had to learn to open to the clients feeling just enough to gather information and then to step back into me. I discovered one night just how constantly I felt and monitored the feelings of others. In the early eighties, I went to a bar with friends to hear a favorite musician. During his break we went to the basement bar to listen to a different musician. I rarely went down there because it was a small low-ceilinged place and the music could be loud. This particular evening it was a single singer and it was rather loud in the small space. As the five of us sat around a small table not far from the singer a strange thing happened. I suddenly felt freer, more carefree, than was usual for me. I was really enjoying being there. It was very different somehow.
That was when I realized that the heavy vibrations of the loud music in the small space were so completely filling the space between us that I could not experience the feelings of those around me. That was when I became aware that I was constantly monitoring the states of others and feeling obligated to help manage their states. For this moment, I was free. Free to be me. Free to not be them.
Prior to this I had had a few experiences when I noticed I was feeling feelings that were not mine. I felt a tight band around my forehead accompanied by feelings of anger. These were not familiar feelings. I knew they could not be mine. There was a woman in our group who was very psychic and was great at facilitating psychic exercises that we explored in meetings. She was also determined to break up my relationship with the man I lived with at the time. I quickly realized it was her feelings I was experiencing.
For me the easiest way to step out of another’s feelings has been to simply recognize that the feelings belong to someone else. But what if you have no idea that it is even possible to experience the feelings of another? What if you just assume that whatever you are feeling are your feelings? And those feelings are painful? or sad? or depressive? or angry? What if you are medicated for those feelings?
Another example is when my real estate company had to fire a man who had worked for us for a couple of years. This was a man who kept people around him and kept things stirred up (even to his detriment) and could be a lot of fun to be around. We actually wondered if he was unipolar manic. However, we discovered that he was most likely bi-polar but could not bear to experience the deep depression that he did his best to keep at bay, so he did whatever he could to keep the “ups” going.
When we fired him, he had to leave the house we owned that he had been living in. I went there to change the locks and clean up a bit. I was there about an hour and a half. As I drove back across town I began to feel a sense of depression coming on. I was driving and not paying that much attention. By the time I was almost back to the office it was moving into a deep despair and grabbing my attention. That’s when I realized, “These are not my feelings!” I had been in the employee’s house. And soon as I realized where the feelings came from it broke the spell and I was me again. This was what he felt when he had to be there alone and could not keep the feelings away.
People leave feelings in places and things. I first noticed this in 1971. Having just finished my Master’s degree in a small college town where there were PhD’s working in McDonald’s and few jobs available, I opened a vintage clothing business. I scored a purchase of a number of old fur coats that were very popular with the college students at the time. A young man and his girlfriend came in and he tried on a woman’s blond mouton 1950’s style fur. He loved the coat and wore it around the store for quite a while. But he struggled with the idea of wearing a woman’s coat. This was the early 70’s and gender lines were blending some but he decided to go home and think about it.
About twenty minutes later a woman in her fifties came up to the store. She had a kind of glazed, puzzled look in her eyes. This was a second story shop and usually only young people were willing to climb the 26 steps to shop the trendy items. She said, ”I’ve never been up here. I just want to look around and see what you have.”
But she didn’t look around. She went straight to the coat rack, put on the coat the young man had wanted. She paid for it and left without looking at another item. As I expected, the young man returned and was devastated that the coat was gone. And I am sure the woman got home and wondered why she had bought the coat.
After that I watched many examples of a person leaving strong feelings in an item and those feelings being strong enough to bring an empath up 26 steps from the street to purchase an item that someone else had loved.
So, if it is possible to pick up feelings left in an empty house, or left in an item in a store, how much easier it must be to take on the feelings of a spouse or a child or a parent or anyone who you live with on a daily basis. If you are sensitive, if you are an empath and do not realize it, how would you know if you are depressed or if you are feeling the depression of someone you live with or spend a lot of time with.
When a client or someone I know loses a spouse or loved one I encourage them to keep an item of clothing that person wore a lot without washing it right away. I suggest they wear it or sleep with it or keep it close in some way. That person has left a lot of their energy in that item and it can bring comfort to the one left behind.
In my practice I often see people, particularly women who are taking antidepressants. As I learn more about them I often find that they have a high degree of sensitivity and that their spouse or another household member is also depressed. As I help them get back to feeling good again I also help them to understand what it means to be an empath and how to separate “me” from “them”; how to say, “That’s not my feeling” and let it go.
My clients often get off of medications for a variety of reasons. I especially like to see them no longer need an antidepressant once they can tell the difference and sort out who the feelings belong to.
There are many articles on the internet that list qualities of an empath. The following list by Judith Orloff M.D’ was published in Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-freedom/201602/10-traits-empathic-people-share
1. Empaths are highly sensitive.
Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually open, and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, these world-class nurturers will be there for you. But they can easily have their feelings hurt, too: Empaths are often told that they are “too sensitive” and need to “toughen up.”
2. Empaths absorb other people’s emotions.
Empaths are highly attuned to other people’s moods, good and bad. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme. They take on negativity such as anger or anxiety, which can be exhausting for them. If they are around peace and love, though, their bodies take these on and flourish.
3. Many empaths are introverted.
Empaths become overwhelmed in crowds, which can amplify their empathy. They tend to be introverted and prefer one-to-one contact or small groups. Even if an empath is more extroverted they may prefer to limit how much time they spend in a crowd or at a party.
4. Empaths are highly intuitive.
Empaths experience the world through their intuition. It is important for them to develop their intuition and listen to their gut feelings about people. This helps empaths find positive relationships and avoid energy vampires. (See How to Develop Your Intuition.)
5. Empaths need alone time.
As super-responders, empaths find being around people can be draining, so they periodically need time alone to recharge. Even a brief escape prevents emotional overload. For example, empaths like to take their own cars when they go places so they can leave when they please.
6. Empaths can become overwhelmed in intimate relationships.
Too much togetherness can be difficult for an empath so they may avoid intimate relationships. Deep down they are afraid of being engulfed and losing their identity. For empaths to be at ease in a relationship, the traditional paradigm for being a couple must be redefined. (See Secrets for Sensitive People: Why Empaths Stay Lonely.)
An empath’s sensitivity makes them particularly easy marks for energy vampires, whose fear or rage can sap their energy and peace of mind. These vampires may do more than drain an empath’s physical energy. Especially dangerous ones such as narcissists (who lack empathy and are only concerned with themselves) can make empaths believe they’re unworthy and unlovable. Other vampires include The Victim, The Chronic Talker, The Drama Queen and more. (See 4 Strategies to Survive Emotional Vampires.)
8. Empaths become replenished in nature.
The busyness of everyday life can be too much for an empath. The natural world nourishes and restores them. It helps them release their burdens and they can take refuge in the presence of green wild things, the ocean, or other bodies of water.
9. Empaths have highly tuned senses.
An empath’s nerves can get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talking.
10. Empaths have huge hearts but sometimes give too much.
Empaths are big-hearted people and try to relieve the pain of others: a homeless person holding a cardboard “I’m hungry” sign at a busy intersection, a hurt child, a distraught friend. It’s natural to want to reach out to these people and ease their pain. But empaths don’t stop there. Instead, they take it on—suddenly they’re the one feeling drained or upset when they felt fine before.