I can’t seem to escape the word these days. Empath. It’s everywhere in my tiny world. I hear it used in casual conversations. It jumps from book covers and pops up uninvited from the pages of my social media accounts. But what in the name of dictionaries is an empath?
If you’re not familiar with the word, or sort of fuzzy about it, I’m not surprised. The term is new, mooched from the lexicon of sci-fi where it describes persons with the paranormal ability to capture the mental or emotional state of another. Star Trek fans, think Deanna Troi. Her character, and even more so her mother Lwaxana Troi, will give you a bit of insight into what an empath is. If, however, you’re an earthbound life form, think Judith Orloff.
Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist and declared empath who has dedicated her life to helping folks peel back the layers of complex psychological issues. Since I only skim the surface of most subjects, my comments purely personal observation, I needed some help. You see, it turns out there is no clinical definition for the word empath except as it refers to its role in science fiction, so I had to “do my homework”.
Orloff’s discourses on the subject are informative and easy to read, not filled with jargon. She is my primary source for information in case you wonder as you read on. She’s been investigating the term for a while. A renowned therapist, hers was the credibility factor I sought. Christiane Northrup, M.D. also explores the topic in her latest book.
Obviously, “empath” derives from empathy but is not necessarily interchangeable. The latter word which most of us know is also relatively new. Taken from the Greek “empatheia”, it was translated into the German “Einfuhlung” (from ein “in” + Fuhlung “feeling”) in 1853 by philosopher and physician Rudolf Lotze who used it to describe our responses to art. In 1909, British psychologist Edward Titchener expanded the noun’s definition into what we use today.
Anywho, empathy is understood to be the subjective version of sympathy. According to Merriam Webster, it is “…the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner…”. Whew. Bit of a mouthful, that, but let it settle. It makes sense, especially if you are at all empathetic.
Until recently, pre-theoretical concepts considered empathy a virtue. Currently, it is seen as a skill which can be honed. For example, if a person is known to have empathy, they can be taught to effectively help others instead of being overcome by their own feelings. Empathetic people exhibit warmth with ease. They extend gentleness naturally. Careful to give people the benefit of the doubt, they are loath to judge someone knowing how hurtful that action can be. We all know people like this and tend to like them – a lot! Empaths, not so much.
Empaths can be empathetic, of course, but not always. In fact, they can appear to lack empathy totally, be unkind, even cruel, a result of their inability to cope with the cruelty and ignorance they “feel” and see in the world at large. Confused, they retaliate, lashing out in pure frustration and disillusionment. This is not an empath’s natural state, however, and she will end up persecuting herself for adding more suffering to the world, no matter how insignificant her actions might seem to others.
“The world won’t be kind to you unless you toughen up. You’re too thin-skinned.” I heard these words many times. (They still echo in my head.) They came from my dad, mostly. He cared about how I would manage in the big, bad world (his description). His sentiments were shared by plenty of others who did not care one iota, however. “That one’s sure in touch with her feminine side.” (Teasing laughter.) “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Have you no pride?” (Ridicule.) “Spooky. You need help.” (Fear.) “Not a logical bone in your body.” (Demeaning.)
The jibes were intended to belittle me or toughen me up. They succeeded in the former. Destabilised and undermined, wracked with self-doubt, I longed to change, to thicken my skin, and stop feeling so much. I wanted to become what they wanted me to be and I worked hard to that end. But this leopard’s spots went through to the bone. I couldn’t erase them and ended up a diluted and stunted version of myself.
I’m a lucky one, though, and bloody resilient. I rebuilt myself and am grateful now for everything life has tossed at me. In fact, I’m still building and still grateful. But, I digress.
Researching this word empath has turned out to be hard going. It’s taken me weeks to get to this point. I didn’t anticipate the slog. I’ve tossed and turned and spent countless hours pondering my navel with the word “empath” tattooed there (figuratively). Could I have foreseen that the assimilation of an apparently innocuous word into the dialect of my life would be such hard work? Probably, yes.
Words are attached to lessons, at times, and it’s not uncommon for truly profound teachings to take a toll. Digesting them is often a slow and gradual process that must be respected if the full effect of their message is to be experienced. The grip they have on you is released only when the message is realised. Thankfully, I am creeping closer to that realisation.
The process of my explorations and the embodiment of concepts are what I’ve been sharing on this blogging journey o’ mine. There would have been no Redo 365 unless I’d captured my experiences and stuck to the vows I made when I began Zigzagging Toward Zen. One crucial promise was to inspect closely how I use words. By examining how language fashions my behaviours and influences my perspectives, I could make positive changes in how I speak. One word has brought me back and around to my original intention.
So, those derogatory phrases mentioned above, not originally on my radar, I view through a very different lens at this juncture. I see them in all their glory as expressions intended to levy harsh judgments against anyone who is different. We still witness almost daily the violence wrought by bigotry. But, emotions are frightening, especially to those who don’t have them. And it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t that long ago when intuitive knowledge was thought preternatural and any “…action of understanding… without… the feeling, thoughts, and experience fully communicated…” could get you tortured, burned at the stake, or locked away in a dark dank prison to die exiled and alone.
Thankfully, we “feely” types aren’t rounded up en masse anymore but don’t be fooled or rest complacently on your fence. Privileged puppeteers clinging to archaic practices of suppression pull strings from their places of power and authority. Loving the sound of their own voices, they dictate how best to express, or should I write “repress”, emotions. We puppets, inculcated despite our tears and protestations, still fear banishment if we allow our anger to show. The puppeteers control with silent stoicism, their aggressive natures clear to all but themselves. They manipulate, convinced their artificial controls over human emotion the more evolved path. Medical science, and scholarly thinkers, however, propose the puppet masters are at risk of becoming the unwitting victims of diseases born of their own making. It seems the curtain might well be coming down at long last, but there is still much to do.
Breaking free of long-held beliefs isn’t easy. Society has long feared those who, through no fault of their own, feel things deeply. Empaths are so open and can feel so deeply that they often see beyond the external façade of not only other human beings but animals, and trees, even sensing the energy of the artist who created a painting or sculpture. Some empaths actually relive horrific events even though they were not present at them. But, despite astonishing sameness, all empaths are not created equal. Like most things, there are varieties of aptitudes and levels of consciousness which can make it challenging to determine who is, or is not, an empath, especially if you’re an amateur. But does it really matter?
In my opinion, it does matter. Labelling, like almost everything, is double-edged, of course. I’ll briefly defend what I consider the good if affords. We all know about the other side of the coin.
“Normal” is a label. We’ve expanded the definition of it, altering or debunking totally much of what it once defined. It’s used less and less as individuals and society outgrow it. That is how it should be. Helpful as a benchmark, its limitations now clear, it is time for us to go beyond it.
Being labelled manic depressive or “bi-polar depressive” which is currently favoured, did not limit me. It gave me wings, releasing a weight I’d carried for more than thirty years. Once diagnosed, I learned there were others like me. I was no longer alone. Further, there was help for me. I set upon a path of recovery, able to forgive myself. I suddenly understood why I acted in one way or another. Bad behaviour wasn’t excused, but I had explanations for it and could make changes.
We’ve a plethora of labels at our disposal. I’ve cited two. Do we choose to see them as opportunities or cages? If the former, we don’t use them to limit possibilities but rather to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves or of another. We can then evolve from that place. If the latter, well, the word speaks for itself.
Before I wrap up this long blog, it’s important for me to add that according to those whose expertise I graciously concede, empaths are not common. Studies into highly sensitive people (HSP) guestimate 15 to 20 percent of the world’s population is highly sensitive. Empaths are considered a segment of that group and would be fewer. I do, however, have a funny feeling the numbers for both HSP and empaths are rising incrementally. We just cannot recognise them quite yet. Soon.
One more thing. The Internet is rife with sites claiming to know all about empaths. There are plenty of charlatans on the Internet. Don’t believe everything you read. Do your own homework!
Lastly, I don’t claim to be an empath. I am a sensitive person, and probably highly sensitive. I am not sure I’m an empath. What I am sure of is how weary I am of misused labels that become trendy overused words. It makes communication really difficult! Perhaps when I’ve sussed out more information on this topic and disseminated it further, I’ll change my mind, but for now, suffice it to say, I’m happy simply being sensitive.
My wish today is for those sensitive humans who have been, and continue to be, persecuted for following their hearts, expressing their emotions, and speaking their truth. May they find their divine spark within and rest in its arms. And while there, may they find the grace to love who they are, completely. I wish them the same peace, forgiveness, and joy they freely give to the world. And may they find learned guidance, nurture, and support so that their “knowing” can be enjoyed fully for the gift that it is.