“. . . as babies, we have no edges or boundaries, we also have no buffer, no way to modulate the amount of sensation we experience. Any sound or emotion that happens near us flows right through us. If the person holding us is feeling a strong emotion, whether it’s love, joy, fear, or hatred, that emotion flows right through us. Not as a mental concept, but as a body sensation. We are like little tuning forks, resonating to every note that is played nearby.”
~ Steven Kessler
When I came upon the above information from Steven Kessler’s book, The 5 Personality Patterns, I realized he was describing the nature of empathy. Our tuning forks as empaths resonate at a high frequency to the emotions others experience. We are able to experience the sensory aspects of babyhood that many people grow beyond.
As empaths, being sensitive to the world around us feels at times like a gift, and other times like a curse. The gift of experiencing other people’s emotions allows us to make deep connections quickly, and grants us the ability to bring compassion and understanding to our relationships. What feels like a curse is feeling people’s fears, sadness, anger, doubt etc. all the time. Okay, so maybe not all the time, but much of the time.
Empaths have the ability to move in and out of time space with great ease.
Imagine walking down Pearl Street Mall on a summer’s day when tourists are at their greatest influx in Boulder. Walking down the center of the mall with the stores on either side filled with people shopping, musicians and fire jugglers desiring attention, children running in the shooting water of the fountain, and people eating at restaurants.
Empathic sensory input can be kinesthetic, visual, auditory, olfactory, or all of these. When empaths allow themselves to be fully open, they can feel sensations within their bodies, the sadness of the person walking with them down the mall, the wind in the trees behind them, and the angst of the song being sung by the musician on the sidewalk in front of them, all at once.
Wow! I think you’ll agree this sounds overwhelming. So what can you do if you’re someone who is highly sensitive to the people and world around you?
This article focuses on the results from the Empathy Survey I designed, completed by twenty people. In reading the personal stories from the participants, I felt deeply connected to their struggles, humbled by their tremendous inner work, and grateful to receive their heartfelt empathic experiences.
My intention in presenting this information is to universalize empathic experiences, and shed light on ways to work with being an empath. Even though a small group of people completed the survey, the results open a necessary door into the way people experience empathy. Perhaps one day, a larger study by a university can further exemplify what it means to live as an empath.
To be clear, anyone can cultivate empathy as a way to bring compassion into their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, coworkers, and world at large. My hope is by reading this article, empaths will feel acknowledged, learn tools to help them along the way, and help those who are honing the skill of empathy to receive a deeper understanding of the empaths in their families, partnerships, and work situations.
From the survey, I have chosen three areas of focus. The results are not meant to create a statistical analysis, but rather to give information. The percentages demonstrate the overall responses of a question. If you’re interested in receiving the results from each question, please email me, and I will be glad to send them to you.
The participant's stories in this article were specifically chosen to give personal examples to the questions answered. I felt grateful I had too many stories to chose from, and hope the participants understand my choices reflect the information being conveyed to the best of my ability.
To begin: of the twenty people who took the survey, 90% considered themselves to be empathic.
Feeling Empathy in the Body
Where do you feel empathy in your body?
The following percentages indicate participants chose more than one area where they feel empathy.
- 80% feel empathy in their hearts
- 60% in throat
- 40% in solar plexus
- 30% in womb/sacral center
- 30% head
- 30% eyes
The following is one surveyor’s personal story about feeling empathy in the body. This story captures the positive as well as the challenging areas several participant’s shared in their own stories:
“I feel deeply honored to be able to sense other peoples emotions. It gives me unique insights into many things, and helps me to be a better listener, friend and lover. But it has also been painful. I'm like a sponge for emotion . . . and if I'm too tuned in or I don't separate those feelings from my own, they can lodge in muscles or my heart and cause me physical pain and tears down the road. It's a gift and it's a curse...but I'm happy to have the superpower.”
However, not all survey participants had a positive view of being empathic or at the very least expressed strengths and weakness on managing their gifts. Here is another personal account of what it means to have an empathic connection with the body. This story shows important aspects related to several surveyor’s needs for isolation as well as indicating the side effects of empathy.
“It’s [Empathy] always prevented me from wanting to touch people, even as a small child. Touch amplifies my connection to others. I find that my anxiety can swirl completely out of control when I start feeling others too much. I tend to need isolation more frequently than I feel I should. Another side effect of being unable to control my empathetic nature is that I tend to read into what other people say, and assume I know how they feel or think, even when I may be incorrect. Sometimes it can make me feel that it’s my duty to ‘help’ people, and has given me a bit of a superiority complex that I’m now working on addressing.”
My Emotions or Yours?
How do you know when you're feeling someone's emotions rather than your own?
- 30% Not sure exactly, simply know I’m feeling for the other person.
- 25% Feeling spacious then all of a sudden feeling a specific emotion upon contact with another person.
- 20% Feel a tightness in my body not present before relating with this person.
Several participants relayed the difficulties they faced as children growing up with being an empath, and learning how to work with it, such as the following story:
“As a child, I was the canary in the coal mine, growing up in a family dealing (or not dealing) with a lot of emotional distress. I was overwhelmed by emotion, not having awareness of what was happening or the inner resources to handle it. I learned to check out and numb myself as a way to cope. For years, I relied on unhealthy coping strategies to stay numb. It's taken years, and a lot of personal work to shift this pattern, and get back in touch with my feeling self. Now, it can really be an asset and I no longer fear emotional invasion.”
Many participants expressed their struggles, and the great amount of personal work it takes to be able to be empathic. Here is one story:
“It can also be emotionally draining having to feel so many extreme emotions in a short space of time (like with clients over the course of a day). It's also easy to get overwhelmed with traumatic world events — social media has allowed faces, stories, and pain to permeate all aspects of our lives. I've had to cultivate boundaries to differentiate and understand my feelings and the feelings of others.”
In your experience of empathy, do you find yourself sometimes challenged by not knowing which feeling is yours or another person's emotion?
Empaths struggle with being able to distinguish their own emotions from someone else’s. This difficulty was expressed several times by surveyors. I found it interesting how 40% of people surveyed felt they Sometimes feel challenged, while 40% answered Yes, they feel challenged by not knowing which feelings are theirs or another person’s.
These results may indicate where people are in learning how to work with being empathic. From the personal stories, at least half of the participants indicated the difference between being empathic as a child, unaware of what was happening, to their inner work as adults to help them maintain empathy without it being so overwhelming.
The following are three personal stories demonstrating the challenges of knowing whose emotions are whose including participants’ processes around working with empathy, and wisdom they’ve learned along the way.
“Empathy was much more challenging when I was younger. Even when I realized what I was feeling was not mine, I felt a responsibility to "fix it" — process it, calm it, lighten it, try and make it easier for the other person. As I've gotten older, I realize that it can be helpful to understand what another is feeling, but I cannot process for anyone else and it takes away from their experience if I try.”
“I tend to feel the emotions of people I am close to. Not so much complete strangers. Took me years to learn how to differentiate between other people's feelings and my own feelings. I would just get very stressed and overwhelmed without understanding why. I still have this problem sometimes with my husband (who is also very empathic). But we are both getting better at it.”
“Growing up, people loved me because I really listened, and could understand them, but eventually I discovered this one way friendship was not good for me. Now I can tune into others while I'm working with them, but turn it off when we are finished.”
Suggestions for Working with Empathy
“Be gentle with yourself.”
What helps you come back to your center while your experiencing someone else’s emotions even when they may not know you’re feeling them?
- 55% Acknowledging the feeling by naming it, sitting with it, and/or noticing it in your body.
- 45% Bringing your awareness to locate your own feelings
Other responses in the lower percentage bracket that may be helpful were:
- Energy Management
- Deep breaths, listening/observing, moment of silence
- Consciously grounding
In the section of the survey about suggestions for working with empathy, the highest percentage of participants relayed the great importance of managing boundaries when necessary. The boundaries participant’s are referring to may range from psychological and emotional to psychic and spiritual.
One resource that has continued to help me over the years is the book, Emerging Light by Barbara Ann Brennan. She delves into the aspects of the psychic and energetic sensitivities people experience, and how to cultivate boundaries as well as strengthen one’s inner core. The book referenced at the beginning of this article, The 5 Personality Patterns by Steven Kessler dives into the survival patterns we choose in life, and outlines specific aspects of how and why highly sensitive people experience life the way they do. Also, check out practices I’ve created based upon my own empathic experiences: Working with Energetic Boundaries and Centering in 3 Steps.
Here is a participant’s powerful personal experience of working with boundaries and empathy:
“I know that I need to work on building a strong shield protecting me from experiencing emotions that aren’t my own and aren’t my business — as well as keeping myself from being an open vessel at all times. Through therapy and working on my connection to the universe I’m beginning to understand, and name my OWN feelings, thoughts, and emotions with better accuracy. I’ve also begun work on connecting with my ancestors, guides, and angels to help me use my gift towards the highest good for myself and for those around me. I think that my empathy will be an amazing tool in my spiritual work once I can become adept at using it.”
The second highest percentage of how participants worked with empathy was:
“Awareness, awareness, awareness . . .”
The continual practice of bringing awareness to one’s body, sensations, and emotions. One surveyor’s way of being aware is as follows:
“I use mindfulness and body awareness to stay present with the emotion, mine or not. At best, I allow it to move through me, trusting that emotions are not static, and they will pass. The more present I am in my body, and the less I resist or get caught up in creating a story about it, the more at ease I feel and best able to respond in a helpful way. Also, self compassion and radical self acceptance are crucial to this process.”
The third highest percentage of how participants worked with empathy was: finding ways to distinguish other people’s feelings from their own feelings. Cultivating one’s ability to discern whether an emotion is one’s own or belongs to someone else is key to being fully present in the moment without dissociating, going unconscious, or losing oneself in a mire of sadness or rage. Check out this practice to help with distinguishing emotions.
The last two suggestions from survey participants relate to ways empaths can express their own deep seated emotions around being highly sensitive. These suggestions are extremely valuable in sublimating emotional residue and compacted emotional patterns.
“Art in any form is not only an outlet for the intense feelings I get, but is a way to express a common language to other empaths I might not ever otherwise really meet.”
“Move it through and out of the body . . . using dance, massage and stretches, etc. I also find vocalization very important, not talking it through, but feeling into it, moaning, groaning, singing and screaming it out. Journaling and storytelling are also wonderful outlets!”
After reviewing the questions and personal stories, I've gained a greater understanding about several universal aspects of being empathic. One aspect relates to the way in which children continue to grow up without the necessary support to understand their unique gifts related to the “unseen” realms of emotions, psychic information, and sensory input. As many as a third of the participants wrote about the difficulty of growing up as an empath. One survey participant offered several resources in working with children and empathy. One such resource is: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen.
At least a third of participants relayed how they felt responsible for fixing other people’s emotions or simply felt responsible for them. This is very true to my own experience. This is one the most difficult bridges to make within the self: to feel the strong emotion of a loved one, especially a parent, and allow the parent to continue to experience this emotion without intervening. Because by simply being aware of the loved one’s emotion, they will begin to bring more awareness to their feelings which helps the empath and the loved one simultaneously.
The last aspect I will mention is the continual empathic challenge of feeling like a sponge, feeling dumped on, and feeling drained. These feelings may come from the overwhelm of feeling the emotions of our loved ones, but also from feeling the community’s suffering as well. At least two participants described being able to feel the world’s suffering or their community’s suffering in “the masses of homeless, disadvantaged, and people with anxiety, depression and unfair treatment by others.”
All in all, the results of the Empathy Survey are reassuring and exciting because of the ways many people are awakening to their empathic gifts, as well as working diligently to maintain a healthy relationship with being empathic. Well done!
I feel grateful for each person who participated in the survey, and expressed their heartfelt experience with empathy. I feel a kinship with each of you. I’m grateful to you for being an empath. For helping others to bring awareness to their feelings, express them, share them, and feel connected with another human being. May we continue forth as empaths to hone our skills as a way to demonstrate the power of compassion in our families, communities, and the world.