First things first, what and who is an empath? Empathy, simply put, is the ability to feel the emotions others are feeling, especially people you may care about but also people you don’t personally know. It’s more than just understanding what a person is going through, it entails a deeper and stronger connection with the mourner, to be able to feel exactly what the mourner is feeling without any of the triggers. Now an empath takes it up a notch. Dr. Orloff described an empath as an ‘emotional sponge’, and there’s not much I can say that will explain the same any better. Empaths have this incredibly strong affinity with the world, wherein they absorb all of its emotions, in their rawest and strongest forms. Non-empaths have the ability to protect themselves from certain stimuli relating to other people, that might evoke strong reactions. Empaths (fortunately or unfortunately), lack this ability and tend to lose themselves in the emotions of people they might not even know.
An ideal, albeit a little far-fetched example of the same, comes in the form of Theodora Crain from the Netflix series, Haunting of Hill House. Theodora had the ability to understand and feel exactly what a person was feeling, through a simple touch (basically verbatim but for emotions), and she tended to always break down as an effect of her profound ability. That just about sums up, what an empath has the power of – feeling limitlessly.
Personally speaking, I found out I’m an empath in a rather difficult manner. In June, 2016, I came across a letter on the internet. It was a letter written by a woman who fell victim to rape at the hands of Brock Turner. In her letter, she described in vivid detail what she was subjected to, in a little over 12 pages.
Halfway through page 4, I realised I had started weeping. By page 7, the feeling of utter despair was spreading all over, and towards the end, I was heaving with sobs, trying to make sense of how such injustice could prevail. All this turmoil, over a person I did not even know personally, but couldn’t stop crying about. Anger, dejection, pain, all of it building up in volumes I had never experienced before, and the most unusual part of it all was that these feelings weren’t for me, but for a stranger. The only thing on my mind was that if I—someone with no relation whatsoever to the events that transpired—felt so strongly about them, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the victim must have endured, and that thought would break me all over again.
Initially, I chalked it up to being oversensitive, which was what I’d been called by numerous people I confided in. A quick Meyers-Briggs Personality Test stated I’m an INFP, wherein the F heavily emphasises on ‘feelings’— which means, I’m incredibly in touch with my emotions and feelings.
It is true that empaths have a sensory overload, a higher sensitivity than considered normal, to such events. But it’s not something that can be willed away, it’s an ingrained personality trait. It can be controlled over time with knowledge and experience, but being an intrinsic value, it’s here to stay. Accepting that was a challenge in itself because I didn’t know what to do with all of these emotions.
Our news cycle is a vicious entity, it reports that which garners maximum
engagement and to a majority of the population, these always happen to be the most gruesome and disturbing events. Normally, one would read such an
instance, sympathise with the victims and move on with their lives. But
empaths have a difficult time getting back to that routine, with what they’ve
absorbed still weighing heavily on their minds. Processing such events is a
tedious task and requires conscious effort. Especially now that we’re in the
midst of a global pandemic, we’re barely through processing one disconcerting event when we are hit with another.
I spoke to a psychotherapist, Prachi Naik, about this topic and managed to get a more professional insight. On asking about why empaths have such difficulty processing devastating events unrelated to them, Prachi said, “An empath is a person who has the ability to imagine the feelings of another person by taking the person’s worldview into consideration. It’s like a super-power where you are able to step in, experience someone else’s life, understand what they are going through, then step out and help them out. An empath doesn't need to have suffered through a similar disturbing event to understand the suffering of those individuals. This ability comes without having actually experienced what the other person has gone through or is going through. Although this is one of the sincerest forms of expressing humanity, it comes at a cost. Being highly empathetic makes you vulnerable because you feel at a greater level than non-empathetic people do. Hence, empaths feel hurt more when they come across disturbing news.”
She further gave some wonderful tips on how to process such incidents and deal with these emotions in a healthy manner. In her own words,
“An empathetic person needs to understand that while they carry this power to do good to people, this power is exhaustive. Chances of burn-out are high in such kinds of people as they frequently give and rarely receive.”
Thereupon, some of her tips include:
Remember to step out - Since empaths step in to experience other’s feelings, sometimes they forget to step out and come back to their own lives. This may look like thinking about it over and over again, and emoting, getting distracted from other tasks. Hence, do remember to step out. Write down how you’re feeling, express and validate it especially if you’re overwhelmed. Destress your body through some muscle relaxation and breathing exercises.
Start by saying 'No' - Saying no doesn’t make you selfish. You can’t give if you are out of your resources or you will be drained. Saying no is saying yes to self-
care, and yes to future cries of help.
Establish boundaries - Figure out your stress level and don’t go beyond that. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when you are an empty vessel allowing people to unload their burdens. However, then you need to empty that vessel and recuperate so that you are back to being helpful.
Self-care is of utmost importance to such individuals - Taking a long bath, playing with your pet, watching a movie or show, taking a day or two off (where you don’t touch your phone) etc. Everybody’s idea of self-care is different and correct for them. Figure out a pattern and do what works for you.
Having read about all of this in such detail, and my conversation with Ms. Naik, helped me understand a very huge part of my personality. Being an empath isn’t a weakness, and neither does it make you any less smart than an extremely analytical person, no matter how everyone portrays it to be. Feeling a lot can be exhausting, but it’s still a gift that must be understood and used accordingly, to help others or even just yourself. If you think you are an empath, you ought to take pride in it rather than letting people bully you into thinking you’re too sensitive, because empathy is a gift that keeps on giving, and this world will always need people who bring heart and love into it and contribute greatly to its beauty.
P. S. If you're on a lookout for counselling, Ms. Naik is available, do reach out to her through her Instagram handle @thepeacefultherapist if you think you are in need of help. Don't repress it! Talk :)