An empath is someone who is highly aware of the emotions of those around them, to the point of feeling those emotions themselves. Empaths see the world differently than other people; they’re keenly aware of others, their pain points, and what they need emotionally.
But it’s not just emotions. According to Dr. Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide , empaths can feel physical pain, too — and can often sense someone’s intentions or where they’re coming from. In other words, empaths seem to pick up on many of the lived experience of those around them.
It’s likely that most empaths are highly sensitive, but not all highly sensitive people are necessarily empaths. So how do you know if you are one? Here are 5 signs.
1. You cannot see someone in pain without wanting to help
Can you walk past someone who’s in need, without wondering how you could help them? Do you struggle to turn off your concern for others because “there’s a job to do”?
If the answer is no — not even when you’re busy, not even when you’re rushed — then there’s good chance you’re an empath.
2. You have a calming effect on other people — and the power to heal them
It’s true. Just as people seek out empaths for advice, they also just feel more at peace in an empath’s presence. In fact, people often unwittingly seek out their most empathic friends during difficult times.
This is something you can develop and use to actually heal people, in the sense of helping them work past serious emotional baggage and overcome unhealthy patterns.
But you can’t do so if you hide your sensitivity and empathy — you have to embrace your gift if you really want to make a difference.
3. You can become overwhelmed in intimate relationships
Relationships can be challenging for everyone. But imagine how much bigger those challenges are when you can sense every little mood, irritation or, yes, even lie from your partner.
And positive emotions can also become overwhelming — as if the relationship may “engulf” you. Sound familiar?
But it’s more than that. Once you live together, the shared environment is also a hurdle.
A cohabiting partner’s “energy” is always present for an empath, and can almost feel like an intrusion. Empaths view their homes as a sanctuary where they can get away from the constant demand on their emotional senses, and a partner changes that.
While some empaths choose to remain single for this reason, others learn to adapt — perhaps by having a room that’s their private space, or (extremely important) seeking a partner who respects their boundaries.
4. You understand where people are coming from
Empath expert Dr. Judith Orloff explains that this is the core trait of an empath — even more so than absorbing the emotions of others. After all, empaths can learn not to absorb emotions as much , and some empaths rarely “absorb” them at all.
But all empaths are able to intuitively sense what someone is trying to express, even when they’re having a hard time getting it out.
Empathy, after all, is fundamentally about understanding and connecting with others. And that’s what it means to sense where people are coming from.
5. You take on other peoples’ emotions as your own
This is the classic, number one trait of an empath. No matter what someone else near you is feeling, even if they think they aren’t showing it, you’re likely to pick up on it immediately.
But more than that: you may actually feel the emotion as if it were your own, essentially “absorbing” it or sponging it up.
How exactly this works is a subject of some debate.
But we do know that people who have high levels of empathy also have very active mirror neurons — the part of the brain that reads emotional cues from other people and figures out what they might be thinking or feeling.
In other words, if you’re an empath, it’s likely that you can pick up on tiny changes in expression, body language, or tone of voice that others miss — and immediately sense what the person is feeling.
Those same active mirror neurons, however, mean that you basically live through the feeling as if it were your own. That can be a powerful gift, but also exhausting and overwhelming at times.