Empaths and highly sensitive people (HSPs) possess natural tendencies to...
Empaths and highly sensitive people (HSPs) possess natural tendencies to “absorb” or take on the emotions and feelings of others. In some situations, being extremely empathetic can be an enjoyable experience. Sharing the happiness of a friend or family member who receives good news allows individuals with heightened sensitivity to “share in the joy.”
Alternatively, having the “gift” of empathy or high sensitivity can also be mentally and emotionally draining at times. If a friend or loved one is depressed or angry, this can directly affect the empath or HSP in a negative way if they choose to take on the person’s emotions as their own. By setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and seeking therapy (in-person or online therapy) when necessary, empaths and HSPs can learn to protect their natural gifts.(1)
What Is an Empath?
An empath is someone who is extremely sensitive to the emotions, behaviors, and feelings of other people. Taken from the term “empathy,” which means having the ability to understand how someone may be feeling at any given time, an empath may actually feel what that person is feeling.
Researchers aren’t clear on whether true empaths actually exist, but some studies have shown that the human brain contains “mirror” neurons that may help human beings feel what others are feeling by mirroring their emotions. Studies have also revealed that some people may have more of these mirror neurons in their brains than others.(2)
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How Do You Know If You’re an Empath?
At the present time, there are no specific physical or psychological tests available that can determine if someone is a true empath or, similarly, a “highly sensitive person” (HSP). However, individuals who may be empaths often exhibit heightened sensitivity to other people’s positive and negative emotions.
This is sometimes referred to as “picking up on someone’s energy” and basically means if someone is feeling sad, happy, angry, or anxious, an empath may feel the same emotions. People who identify as empaths aren’t mind-readers, but they feel they can relate to others on a deeper level than those who don’t.(3)
What Is a Dark Empath?
It’s important to note that the term “dark empath” is not recognized as a formal mental health condition or symptom of a condition. However, dark empaths are generally defined as people who use their natural abilities to read people or pick up on strong emotions and feelings to take advantage of or manipulate others.(4) Unlike an empathetic person who can relate to and have empathy for another person’s struggles or emotions, dark empaths are usually unsympathetic to the plights of others. Dark empath behaviors can include:
- Using guilt or fear tactics to control others (emotional manipulation)
- Bullying others
- Lack of boundaries
What Is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Psychologist Elaine Aron conceived the term highly sensitive person based on her theory that some people have higher levels of a human personality trait called sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). These individuals tend to have stronger reactions to internal and external stimuli, and they display a high capacity for empathy and relating to others.(5)
A highly sensitive person may also have strong emotional reactions to both positive and negative situations. For example, an HSP may feel drained after a verbal argument, or they may cry uncontrollably when watching a sad movie or reading an inspiring story. While being highly sensitive is perfectly natural, HSPs are sometimes criticized for being “overly dramatic” or “too sensitive.”
Is a Highly Sensitive Person the Same as an Empath?
Highly sensitive people and empaths are both sensitive to their external environments and interactions with other people. Some experts believe that empaths have stronger intuitions and may be more sensitive to the behavior and emotions of others when compared to textbook HSPs.(6) They also believe that heightened sensitivity is something that people are born with and that it cannot be developed.
Highly sensitive people and empaths are often described as “carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders” because they feel things so deeply. HSPs and empaths are also similar in the fact that they usually don’t like to see others in pain, and they genuinely want to help people when they can.
What Is the Best Treatment for Empaths and Highly Sensitive Persons?
Empaths and highly sensitive people experience the same ups and downs in life as those who aren’t highly sensitive or intuitive. However, because HSPs and empaths are extra-sensitive, they may experience mental health symptoms on a deeper level than others. Some research has also shown that HSPs and empaths have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When seeking treatment or therapy for mental health issues, it’s important that these unique individuals look for a psychotherapist or counselor that specializes in treating empaths and HSPs. Some therapists also identify as empaths or HSPs themselves, which makes it easier to relate to their clients.(7)
Online Therapy for Empaths
Some empaths and HSPs opt for online therapy. Sometimes referred to as e-counseling or teletherapy, online therapy provides many of the same benefits as traditional therapy in a virtual fashion. During an online therapy session, patients log into an online portal and chat with their therapists via a video call. Some therapists also offer sessions via email, chat, and text messaging. There are several convenient online therapy providers available including BetterHelp, Pride Counseling, Online-Therapy.com, and ReGain.
Online therapy can help individuals with mental health issues such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. This type of therapy is convenient and allows patients to work with their therapists from practically any location.(8)
In-Person Therapy for Empaths
In-person therapy differs from online therapy in a few different ways. During an in-person therapy session, the therapist can pick up on a patient’s nonverbal cues. When a patient uses nonverbal cues while sharing stories and personal information, it can give the therapist a better idea of their needs and aid in diagnosis.
When an empath or HSP takes the steps to travel to a therapist’s office, it gives them a break from their daily routine and allows them to receive therapy in a neutral location. This can make it easier for the patient to open up when compared to online therapy, especially if the patient lives with other people.(9)
How to Protect Your Energy as an Empath
People who identify as empaths may feel sensitive to the energy or vibes that other people give off. A person’s energy can also refer to their overall mood, feelings, and behavior, which can affect an empath’s energy as well. Empaths and sensitive individuals can protect their energy by setting boundaries with friends, coworkers, and family members who tend to come on strong or struggle with their own issues such as anger or anxiety.
Practicing mindfulness and staying in the present moment can also help people protect their energy. Staying present allows empaths to simply focus on the tasks at hand and not worry about how other people are feeling or behaving.(10)
Try Not to Absorb Other People’s Emotions
While happiness and smiling can be contagious in a positive way, absorbing emotions such as anger, depression, or anxiety can be difficult for an empath. Some steps that sensitive individuals can take that may help prevent them from overly absorbing the emotions of others include using visualization techniques and creating strong boundaries.
Some therapists recommend visualizing a glass wall or divider between the empath and the other person to prevent the empath from absorbing the negative emotions. Learning how to step away from negative situations and practicing saying “no” may also help empaths strengthen their defenses against the negative emotions of others.(11)
Learn to Set Healthy Boundaries With Friends and Family Members
Setting healthy boundaries with friends and family members is extremely important for empaths and highly sensitive individuals. In close relationships, boundary lines can sometimes become “blurred,” and the empath ends up taking on the emotions and feelings of their entire circle.
Because many empaths and HSPs have people-pleasing tendencies and often work hard to make sure that everyone is “okay,” absorbing everyone’s emotions can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety. Whether it’s a friend asking for multiple favors or parents who constantly argue, setting boundaries can help create a healthy distance between the empath and their loved ones.(12)
Practice Healthy Habits When Overwhelming Emotions or Negative Feelings Arise
Healthy habits are helpful tools for individuals who identify as empaths or HSPs. When negative emotions or strong, overwhelming feelings become too much to bear, taking some deep, calming breaths can help empaths become centered and focused on the present moment.
Counting backward from 50 to 0 is a simple, effective exercise that provides the individual with the time needed to relax and calm the mind.(13) Spending time in nature and making sure to take as much alone time as needed are also great ways for empaths and HSPs to refresh and recharge when overwhelmed with their own emotions or the energy of others.
Take Care of Your Own Feelings and Mental Health With Self-Care
Individuals who identify as HSPs or empaths can help manage their feelings and emotions through healthy self-care practices such as making sure they get enough rest and reciting positive daily affirmations. Because HSPs and empaths are affected by the moods, emotions, and behaviors of others, it’s also important for them to be mindful of potential triggers and step away from situations that may cause uneasy feelings and stress. Taking some time for activities such as art projects, performing, or writing poetry is good for the soul and provides a positive outlet for empaths to express themselves.(14)
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