Since I was a child, I've had very heightened senses, (sense of smell, sight, hearing, touch, taste and gut feeling), which strongly affect the way I interact, react and contribute to my world.
It wasn't until a couple years ago that I realized that my sensitivities, (which include the ability to feel other people's happiness and pain) combined with my deep love for animals, nature and helping others, characterized me as an Empath.
What is an Empath you ask?
Well, if you're looking for a concrete definition, Dictionary.com defines Empath as:
"A person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual."
"Huh?" you ask.
I agree! That's why I came up with a different way for you to understand the life of an empath:
Imagine you're at a party...
On the way to the snack table, you notice a girl standing in the corner crying. Seeing her tears makes your own eyes begin to mist. The smile you had a few minutes ago is upside down and your heart feels heavy.
Instinctively, your eyes look around the room until they finally rest upon a couple of girls at the opposite corner. Both girls are whispering and giggling while looking at an iPhone. Your curiosity has been perked so you continue to observe them.
Both girls smugly look up from their phones and glance over at the crying girl. They immediately look down and start giggling again. BAM! It's the nonverbal exchange you needed in order to make sense of what's going on.
Instantly you feel annoyed and your body fills with anger. "Why are they gossiping about her? What are they writing/reading on social media? What did they say or do to make her cry?" you wonder.
As an empath, you feel the girl's emotions like they're your own. Hurt and humiliation flood your body as if you are the one who's being gossiped about. The realness of these feelings immediately have you reliving a past experience when you too were gossiped about.
"Why do people have to be so mean?" you ask yourself. Trying hard not to cry yourself, you pull yourself together and concentrate on finding a way to comfort the girl. But before you can action a plan, she suddenly runs out of the room and heads for the front door.
Your feet start to shift. Fifteen minutes earlier you had felt happy, but now you're upset. Just by observing and being in the presence of the 3 girls, you feel consumed by their emotions and behaviour. “I hope she's going to be ok!" you wish to yourself.
Feeling overwhelmed, you also feel like leaving. But before you can make your move, a group of guys walk past and saturate the air with the overpowering smell of men's cologne. Your nose twitches, and you become instantly agitated. Tolerating strong smells has never been your strength.
You quickly move away from the lingering smell and head towards the front door but find yourself in front of the food table instead; the exact place you were headed 15 mins ago before you got distracted. Your stomach gurgles and reminds you of how hungry you are.
Oh! I forgot to mention that your heightened senses also include the ability to detect foods that you're sensitive or intolerant to. Although this should be viewed as strength, at this moment when your "Hangry" side is ready to take over, it feels more like a pain in the ass. Looking at the limited food items you can eat, you scold yourself, "I knew I should've eaten before I left!"
Your eyes dart past the carrot and celery sticks (the only thing you can eat that doesn't have gluten or dairy) and fixates on the deluxe pizza smothered in cheese. Your mouth begins to water. "It's been so long since I've had a piece of pizza," you moan. You lick your lips. "Don't do it!" you warn yourself. You quickly glance back at the vegetables and frown.
Worn out from the night’s events, you feel sorry for yourself and begin to wallow in self-pity. Thoughts of body aches, gastrointestinal issues, headaches and foggy brain, flood your mind, reminding you not to indulge in the foods that don't agree with you.
But the night’s events and a "Hangry" stomach leave you feeling weak and vulnerable. Before you change your mind, you reach for the piece of pizza and begin devouring it like it's your last meal. You savour every single bite; right down to the last crumb you lick off your finger. You let out a satisfied moan like Homer Simpson, and grab a second piece. There's no turning back now. The first bite woke all your senses up at once. The aroma, the taste, the crunchy, gooey texture...
Your euphoric food moment is short lived and is quickly replaced with churning and burbling coming from your stomach. You shake your head and sigh deeply. “Was it really worth it? I'm going to pay the price later." Feeling ashamed and mad at yourself for being weak and giving in to your temptations, your mood turns foul. "I'm stronger than this," you remind yourself.
As your eyes start to glisten, you lower your head and walk away from the table. "I work so hard to stay healthy and strong, but I always seem to sabotage myself. I'm getting tired of this!" you mope, shrinking into the corner.
Here's yet another example of how your sensitivities to other people's feelings, behaviours and emotions can have a negative impact on your health and well being. Sighing deeply, you strive to do better next time.
"Is it just me, or is it suddenly louder and brighter than before?" you ask yourself. Your ears start to throb from the sound of the bass booming out of the stereo and your eyes begin to squint at the bright lights and colours around you. Feeling completely exhausted and overwhelmed, you yearn to go home and be alone.
But, upon leaving, you notice the family dog pacing by the back door. You scan the room and notice his owner absorbed in a conversation with one of the guests. So you bend down and pet the dog and promptly let him outside. "Don't worry boy, I'll take care of you," you reassure him. Your empathetic qualities include a deep sensitivity and love for animals.
You decide to follow the dog outside so you can get some fresh air too. While the dog walks around the yard, you inhale a deep breath of cool, brisk air. With every exhale; all your problems float into the nighttime air. Being outside and connecting with nature always seems to clear your mind.
You gaze up at the sky and your eyes are instantly drawn to bright glow of the full moon. "No wonder, I'm so emotional today," you tell yourself. The full moon has a tendency to magnify your emotions, thoughts and feelings.
The dog walks over and licks your hand, thanking you for being so attentive to him. You kneel down and pet him, telling him what a good boy he is. Spending time with the dog has warmed your heart, and has returned a smile to your face. Animals have a way of nurturing your spirit with their unconditional love and compassion.
Feeling renewed, you give the dog one last pet before you both go back inside. You watch the dog walk over and lie down on his bed and feel happy that you helped to make him more comfortable.
Looking around the room, you notice that your best friend has arrived. "Maybe staying at the party wouldn't be so bad after all," you decide. You walk over to greet her. “It’s pretty loud in here," she remarks. You nod your head in agreement. "Do you want to go somewhere quieter so we can have a tea and chat?" she asks. "Yes!" you nod, smiling. You can already feel your body relaxing.
The two of you spend the next three hours at a small, quaint, coffee shop, engrossed in a meaningful conversation. You’re grateful for a friend who has the ability to light you up from the inside out. She nurtures your need to be heard, and values and loves you for who you are. These are all the things you value and share in your friendships.
The next day, you find out that the girl, who was crying at the party, was dumped by her boyfriend. You are angered when you find out that the reason! Sounds like the two girls at the party had spread rumours that she had cheated on him. They did this because one of the girls liked the guy and wanted him to ask her out. You remind yourself to always trust your intuition because your gut instinct never lets you down.
This story describes how I navigate my world on a daily basis. If you totally resonated with the above, then you too may be 5% of the population that is deemed HIGHLY SENSITIVE and defined as an EMPATH. If you didn't resonate with it at all, that just means you navigate your world differently and there's nothing wrong with that.
Thus, being an Empath means that I am HIGHLY SENSITIVE and INTUITIVE, due to my HEIGHTENED SENSES and my strong ability to pick up on energy. But, sometimes my sensitivity to energy makes it difficult to decipher if it's my own emotions I'm feeling or if I'm being affected by someone else's feelings/emotions that I've absorbed energetically.
Do you know the terms, "If looks could kill" or "You could cut the tension with a knife"? These are great examples to show how people can sense and feel the strong emotions of others. As an Empath, my sensitivities pick up on these energies like a sponge soaking up water.
So YES! Being an empath does come with some downfalls! It can be overwhelming and taxing, leaving me exhausted, and sick. That's why it is SUPER IMPORTANT for me to protect myself by establishing appropriate boundaries for myself and with others.
As an Empath, I have to balance my desire to help others with my ability to help others due to my sensitivities. My niece once told me, "You want to save everyone, even those who don't want to be saved." She was bang on! And after hearing this it made me realize how I over extend and involve myself when I shouldn't. (A good example is the story above!)
Being aware of this has helped me to finally say no to the people, places, and things that drain my energy, without the guilt. I've become more self-aware and realize that my moods can change quickly due to my environmental stimuli, such as: strong odours, loud sounds, increased visual stimulation, intense emotions, strong flavours and unhealthy foods, chaotic settings, violence and negativity and a "sense that something just isn't right".
In closing, I may cancel plans at the last minute or say no to big party invitations but I no longer feel guilty for putting my needs first. Understanding and accepting who I am has allowed me to embrace my empathic qualities and see them as special gifts, not weaknesses. In doing so, I've realigned with my authentic self and harmony and balance have been restored to my mind, body and spirit.
Shannon Phillips BSW