Ever since I can remember, other people’s pain — both physical and emotional — seemed to infiltrate straight into my own body and mind. As a kid, whenever someone fell on the playground, my stomach lurched up and down like an erratic elevator. Even if someone just talked about getting hurt, my belly reeled in empathy. To this day, my body still reacts the same way whenever I see or hear someone in distress (watching the news can oftentimes bring on a feeling of physical pain and panic).
The emotional absorption, though, hasn’t always been so clear-cut, as feelings like depression, fear, and anger are often kept under wraps. But, as I became older, it became more and more apparent just how much I’m affected by other people’s emotions. I can be perfectly at ease and feeling energized, but if I’m around certain people too long, I internalize their negative emotions, which makes me feel unwarranted anxiety, sadness, and exhaustion. On the other hand (thank goodness!), I also tend to feel more joyful and hopeful when I’m around those people who are honest, kind, and… empathetic.
In the last year or so, I’ve also discovered that there’s a term for people like me: empath. When I first heard it, I have to admit that it sounded like something out of a sci-fi story (the example that came to mind was Deanna Troi from Star Trek who had the ability to sense emotions and fittingly worked as the ship’s counselor). Yet, the more research I did, the more I realized how much the empath label fits.
In an article for Psychology Today titled “10 Traits Empathic People Share”, psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff describes empaths as people who tend to absorb other’s emotions and/or physical symptoms. An empath herself (and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People), Dr. Orloff lists some of the most common traits that empaths share, which include: highly sensitive natures and senses (an empath can get more easily stressed than others by noise, smells, etc.), a developed sense of intuition, a tendency to become overwhelmed, and an inclination to nurture others at the expense of one’s own mental health.
I know that I can relate to almost every part of that list… and now understand that when a family member called me “oversensitive” when I was a kid, it wasn’t because I was weak or wrong — but rather that it was simply a part of who I was — and will always be. As Dr. Orloff recommends, though, empaths learn how to center themselves so that they don’t become too overwhelmed. Empath or not, we all feel overloaded at times, so the following suggestions may help you navigate life, whether you relate to the intuitive Deanna Troi or the logical Spock!
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