Guilty of Calling Yourself an Empath? ... I Am Too!

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Posted on September 01, 2020

In recent years there have been multiple studies trying to prove a link between stress and our ability to feel empathy. More specifically, whether elevated empathy makes people more anxious, or if anxious people are more prone to empathize with others? And whether our ability to empathize under stress is different between genders.  

A few experiments found that the more anxious the subjects were – states associated with stress – the more self-centered of egocentric they became.1 Another study concluded that “stressed males tend to become more self-centered and less able to distinguish their own emotions and intentions from those of other people. For women the exact opposite is true. Stress, this problem that haunts us every day, could be undermining not only our health but also our relationships with other people, especially for men. Stressed women, however, become more “prosocial” according to new research.” 2

The short answer is that stress can reduce empathy, but not always, and not in all people, and not all kinds of empathy. Sciences really doesn’t have all the answers yet. While the jury is still out as to how exactly stress affects our ability to feel empathy toward others, the one aspect that is widely known is that in order to be empathetic we have to have a strong sense of self.

Giorgia Silani, from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, explains: "There's a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective -- and therefore be empathic -- and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically. To be truly empathic and behave prosocially it's important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this."2

Given all this information, then what does it mean to be an empath?

 If you look up the definition in a dictionary it tells you that being an empath is to be “a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual”. This definition is interesting for a few reasons so let’s break this down.  

Psychologist today still differentiate between an empath in a spiritual sense, meaning someone who has psychic abilities, from an empath as someone who experiences a great deal of empathy. Yet the definition refers to the paranormal ability or in other words a person with psychic ability… which makes sense since everyone is psychic. Basically, what we are saying here is that everyone has the ability to be an empath just as everyone has the ability to be a psychic… it can be learned, just like anything else.

But the important distinction of what makes someone an empath is not whether they are psychic or not but whether they have a strong sense of self or not. The definition conveniently leaves out this very crucial piece of information causing people to think they are being empathetic when they actually might not be.  

In my opinion, we should change the definition in the dictionary to something like this: 

“a person with the psychic ability to feel into the mental or emotional state of another individual while maintaining a strong and unwavering sense of self.

Where am I going with all this, you ask? Well quite often, highly sensitive people are also highly anxious people. Furthermore, for many of us our childhood conditioning has trained us to be highly attune to the emotional states of others around us, instilling behaviors that lead to people pleasing, causing anxious attachment or codependency, and a lack of healthy boundaries.

I believe that most people who colloquially refer to themselves as empaths are those talking about their ability to sense energy. I don’t believe though that many of those people actually know what it truly means to be empathetic. Because truthfully, calling oneself an empath has become en vogue and in many ways has become a way for us to excuse our codependency, lack of self-awareness as well as our lack of healthy boundaries.

Therefore, I believe that we shouldn’t call ourselves empaths so freely without also working toward cultivating a strong sense of self that is not defined by those around us – energetically or otherwise. Else, it is just spiritual bypassing.

I myself have been guilty of using the term empath without fully acknowledging or understanding what that actually means or entails. The term is certainly being overused and I know for a fact that I am not the only one who needed an education on this.

I hope that this gave you some food for thought and I have summarized some helpful pointers to distinguish between what empathy is and what it isn’t. As always awareness is the first step to making a change and to become more mindful as to when we refer to ourselves as empaths.

Empathy Is…

… the ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person

… the ability to see someone else’s situation from his/her/ their perspective

…honoring another person's experience and feelings without trying to compare, rescue, or minimize

…an understanding that other people’s emotions and behaviors are not something to take personal, change or fix

… acceptance that everyone has their own truth and an understanding that it is not our responsibility to force our truth on others


Empathy Requires…

… A solid sense of self that is not defined by those around us

… Clear boundaries to maintain that sense of self – Clarity on what you will accept and what you won’t accept regardless of the relationship (friends, family, romantic)

…The ability to hold space for another’s experience, while simultaneously being able to hold them accountable for their behavior


Empathy Is Not…

… A lack of healthy boundaries

… Lack of authentic self or a strong sense of who we are in the World

… Codependency – When there is lack of boundaries within a family dynamic, we learn that in order to receive love, we have to be hyper-vigilant to emotional states of others around us (especially in relationships)

… Egocentrism – Inability to differentiate between self and others causing a strong bias toward self and an inability to empathize

… Pity – Paternalistic feeling of discomfort at the distress of others

… Sympathy – feeling of care and concern for someone without having a shared perspective or emotions on shared distress but accompanied with a wish the other person better off or happier

… Compassion – More engaged than empathy – suffering along-side versus feeling into the suffering of another - and is also associated with an active desire to alleviate suffering


Still Think You’re An Empath? Not Sure? Consider The Following:

  • Can you hold space for others when they need support without trying to change or fix them, their feelings or the situation?
  • Do you have a strong sense of self and a willingness to be misunderstood by others to stay true to you?
  • Is what you are feeling or perceiving as empathy actually sympathy, pity, or compassion?
  • Is what you are feeling or perceiving as empathy actually a need to people please or desperate call to be loved?