Do you often wonder which emotions are yours, and which belong to someone else? When people you care about are hurting, do you feel their pain so deeply that it’s hard to separate—even after they’re out of crisis mode? In relationships, do you donate so much of your own natural resources that you suffer from a chronic energy shortage? And with those you’re close to, is it hard to figure out what your own needs are—or even what you want for dinner? If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that you’re an empath.
What does it mean to be an empath, and why is it fraught with these basic life challenges? Derived from the Greek “em” (in) and “pathos” (feeling), the term empathic means you’re able to “feel into” others’ feelings. But for empaths, this sensitivity is magnified to the nth degree. An empath is more tuned in, and more sensitive to others than the average person.
Being this tuned in, empathic, and sensitive is an asset, but it comes at great cost. Empaths are unusually vulnerable to emotional contagion, to “catching” others’ emotions in much the same way that you’d catch a cold or flu. But it doesn’t stop there: empaths get physically ill and suffer from anxiety, depression, chronic stress, professional burnout, and pain syndromes more often than their less empathic counterparts. And empaths often need lots of down time after social engagements, “recovery periods” at the end of a workday, or extended intervals of being alone. They can feel fundamentally different from others: As a conference-goer recently put it, “It’s like I’m an alien from another planet—no one understands me, and sometimes I don’t even get myself.” The empaths I work with often confess a deep-seated fear that this “alien thing” means something is wrong with them, that they’re somehow damaged.
As a clinical psychologist and yoga therapist, I’ve supervised psychotherapists, yoga teachers, and yoga practitioners for more than two decades—and a great many of them are empaths. I’ve helped them identify who they are and develop the skills to lead more balanced and healthy lives. And as a “recovering empath” myself, I’ve had to walk a parallel path. From this personal and professional immersion, I’ve found that it helps just to name the issue, to hammer a framework of understanding around it. And then, armed with tools from yoga, mindfulness, and psychology, we can work on balance. We can create a blueprint for physical well-being, emotional health, and more rewarding relationships.
Are you an empath? Here are five signs that you might be—and that your wonderful qualities, when left unchecked, can compromise your health.
THE EMPATH CHECKLIST:
1. You struggle with boundaries. It’s tough to know where you leave off and others begin, which experiences are yours and which come from others, when to open your channels for connection or to close them.
2. You’re often not in your body. For empaths, all that “feeling into” the experiences of others means that you dissociate: you leave your body or “shuttle” out of direct experience as a matter of course.
3. You’re vulnerable to emotional contagion. You absorb the emotions of others, from your boss and colleagues at work to your family and friends, and even the check-out guy at Whole Foods.
4. You’re prone to nervous system overdrive. It doesn’t take much—sometimes just a draining conversation or a party that’s loud and over-populated—to propel your nervous system into alarm mode.
5. You have trouble with intimacy. Your relationships are filled with intense bonding and equally intense separations. You can merge with others at the drop of a hat, but get so entangled that an “emotional exorcism” of someone you care about is often the only way to get your space.
Even when we’re aware of them, these patterns are hard to change. They’re wired into us deeply, at levels the conscious mind can’t reach. For that reason, to be a healthy empath requires daily practice. Here are the key issues and therapeutic practices that form the heart of the journey. The challenge is that much of the healing needs to happen through the body. And for empaths, the body can be a wasteland of sorts, a long-abandoned battleground.
Lest you think this is a “chick thing,” there are male empaths, too. It’s just that the process of natural selection draws empathic males underground more quickly than it does their female counterparts because sensitivity, empathy, and attunement to others are considered “feminine” traits. Male empaths can be ostracized for these qualities, and learn to bury them from sight. As a male empath in one of our therapeutics clinics recently said, “I take on other people’s experiences all the time. I have a huge amount of anxiety and depression, and it’s hard to know what’s mine and what’s someone else’s. But when I talk about it to my friends, they tell me to quit being ‘such a girl.’” Male empaths need the same kind of body-based support that female ones require.
RX FOR EMPATHS:
Empaths have an extraordinary capacity for union. They’re great in a crisis; people in need call forth their deepest abilities. They make gifted, intuitive healers. They see others deeply, well beyond the surface. And they have a magnetic quality that draws people to them. Yet flanking these positive aspects are several shadow sides. Here’s what you’ll want to focus on to help you live in a state of physical and emotional equilibrium.
1. Develop Boundaries. As an empath, you give too much space to others’ emotional lives. You solve their problems with ease and help them restore equilibrium, often at the expense of your own energy stores. But even when no one needs you, the habit of “trolling for crisis” means you’re always on alert, and makes it tough to return to the shores of your own awareness.
Empath Rx: Creating boundaries isn’t a matter of mental discipline, of “just say no.” When you’re an empath, limits need to be integrated into your physicality. The core body is your seat of power: What helps is a yoga practice that brings your focus into your deep, intrinsic core where you can develop “prana in the belly.” This four-pronged core body program includes awareness, strength, flexibility, and the capacity to release. Working with the core in this holistic way helps you ground back into your body and replenish your energy stores. Mindfulness tools can also help you monitor where—or on whom—you’re focused and notice when you’ve migrated into someone else’s direct experience.
2. Bring Awareness into Your Body. Imagine that you’ve left to visit a friend in another city and forgotten to lock your house. And that’s not all: You’ve left all the doors and windows wide open, so anyone can get in. This is what it’s like to be an empath. You can abandon your own home, your direct experience, in favor of someone else’s. The more you do this, the more difficult it is to return. What makes matters worse is that not inhabiting your body (and the moment) keeps the benefits of yoga and other mindfulness-based practices just beyond your reach.
Empath Rx: Offset this tendency toward dissociation with slow, mindful vinyasa yoga sequences that link movement with breath. Empaths can spend a whole yoga class or practice on auto-pilot: adding anchors for awareness will help bring you back to your body and to the present. Contemplative practices such as meditation and restorative yoga give you the time, space, and silence you need to get re-embodied again.
3. Balance Your Nervous System.
An empath’s environment is like “emotional satellite radio” with surround sound and hundreds of channels. Your nervous system surfs the dial constantly, flipping from station to station to listen to others’ emotional broadcasts: your boss’s complaints about work, your partner’s anxiety over a potential job loss, your best friend’s sadness about a breakup. These information-processing demands can catapult your nervous system into overdrive, which reinforces anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. On top of that, the incessant electronic requests of e-mail and social media can overload and exhaust you.
Learn to notice the signs of nervous system overdrive, such as that inner sense of something always “humming” beneath the surface, an elevated heart rate, and increased emotional reactivity. Practice simple breathwork techniques like nasal breath (and if accessible, nasal breath with a longer exhale) to slow your heart and bring your nervous system back to baseline. Regular breaks from social media also help, as do practices that balance your nervous system and quiet your mind, like Restorative Yoga.
4. Learn to Regulate Intimacy.
For empaths, intimacy comes down to matters of space and reciprocity. You can feel like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me-Pull-You: Sometimes you crave intense emotional, physical, and spiritual bonding. At other times, you need so much space that having your own personal galaxy might feel too crowded. When you want to merge, you can threaten people who have a higher need for breathing room; when you need wide-open space, you can appear remote and withholding. And when it comes to reciprocity, you’re rarely comfortable on the receiving end. Your giving nature attracts narcissistic people who crave the mirroring and validation you offer. In the meantime, you’re able to create a fantasy in which the relationship lives up to its potential—and you inhabit that fantasy as though it were real. You learn to subsist on a diet of mere “emotional breadcrumbs,” and can suffer from malnourishment.
To build your ability to receive care from others, try bodywork or yoga therapy with someone you trust. You can also balance a personal yoga practice with group classes to strengthen your sense of community. If your job requires any degree of public exposure, or you work as a healer, you may need stretches of alone time to reestablish your equilibrium. Here again, mindfulness-based practices can help you notice feelings of being devoured and interrupt the cycle of merger and isolation before you reach the breaking point.
5. Develop emotional immunity.
Empaths pick up on other’s emotions and even their direct inner experience so rapidly that it’s hard to indentify what’s happened. As a result, a large part of your anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and immune issues can belong not to you, but to someone else. And just like your nervous system and physical body, your emotional body and immune system struggle with boundaries. They have difficulty discerning what’s you and what’s not. This leaves you vulnerable to emotional issues like anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, as well as auto-immune illnesses such as allergies, lupus, or fibromyalgia.
Practice interpersonal hygiene: using mindfulness, notice how you feel after spending time with others. You’ll soon learn which people are hazardous to your health, and you can limit your interactions with them. Also try lymph-stimulating asana sequences and Restorative Yoga to stimulate your capacity for constructive internal reflection.
THE EMPATH’S FILTER:
One of the more insidious consequences of Empath Syndrome is having a very thin, membranous emotional skin which reacts intensely to real or perceived invasion. This skin is allergic to a variety of foods, social settings, and other people—and on the inside, it mimics the auto-immune pattern of self-hatred. This exposes our nerve endings to all the shame, rage, and deep, existential grief inside us and in everyone around us. An offhand comment from a loved one, a request for help from someone when our resources are at a low ebb, or a harmless comment from that “weird guy” at the gym can get under our skin in microseconds. This sets off an alarm, and we immediately filter that person as either “dangerous” or “safe.” Long ago, that type of filtering was necessary for our survival but as we mature, it becomes less adaptive, even destructive. Because we doubt the strength of this filter (after all, it’s tough for us to set boundaries), we construct a narrative around the experience. Once we’ve developed a juicy story about the person who got under our skin, we repeat it. We pull for confirmation from others, as though having an army behind this filter will help it feel more like a fortress.
Having the armed forces behind us can feel comforting initially, but our actions only strengthen the sensitivity of the danger/safe filter. And since our narrative is rarely limited to one encounter, we practice it over time. Soon, it gains a brittle hardness. This outer shell protects us from injury (good), but also from intimacy with others and our deepest selves (not so good).
Often, the deepest (and hardest!) work happens long after the interaction is over, when our nervous system is back to balance and the temporary comfort our narrative gave us has dissipated. Our task is to go back to the filter, to our initial decision in the moment, and reevaluate. We can (this is so hard!) reconsider and re-examine the encounter from all angles, balancing the harsh light of hindsight with a healthy dose of self-compassion. We can even ask others for input—preferably those who don’t indulge our stories, and who want to see us grow.
Over time, we can acknowledge where our filters make errors or blind us. We can change their sensitivity settings to be more open. We can acknowledge where they make errors or may blind us. Then we’ve got something to grown on. The challenging part: Empaths have a really tough time changing this filter because it feels so necessary for safety. What’s more, adjusting the settings actually stretches our “emotional skin.” This expansion is uncomfortable: It can feel in some ways like a “little death” and it can jolt the nervous system into caffeinated overdrive. This is when the quieter aspects of yoga and mindfulness like Restorative Yoga can help promote constructive internal reflection, and help us assimilate the changes we’ve made to our filter. I’ve been in this place many times and experienced the struggle myself. And while our asana practice helps us be more embodied, this epic battle with our filter is carried out on the very plains of engagement where mindfulness and yoga try so hard to lead us.
IT’S LIKE A TATTOO:
Empaths often ask me, with great sincerity, “How do I get rid of this?” Their poignant request reflects the cost they pay, in time and effort, to achieve a measure of balance. But being an empath is like having a tattoo: the imprint is there for life, no matter what you may do to change it. These practices aren’t a time-limited, do-it-for-three-months-and-all-will-be-well kind of program. Rather, they’re a lifelong journey of self-discovery. But it needn’t be a life sentence. Having a daily empath-balancing practice improves our relationship with ourselves. It juices our creative process. It improves emotional regulation. It deepens our work life, and enhances our physical health.
Empaths need community, a tribe of our own to belong to, and a shared language through which we can first unload the burden of being built as we are. Yet once we’ve ingested this sense of belonging, our task is to resist the temptation to rest there forever, and cultivate instead both personal and shared practices that bolster our body, calm our mind, and help us ground into and explore ourselves. We do this first in shallow waters and then in time, the deep.
It may seem that transformation is about transcendence: that we somehow leave behind our flaws to achieve a measure of spiritual perfection. Yet true spiritual evolution and emotional health entail a reckoning with and even valuing of the unique set of challenges we’ve been given. Sometimes the holes in our evolution—the very things that we lack—plait a deep thread of awareness into the fabric of our self-study. We’ll spend the rest of our lives unraveling that thread, and weaving and reweaving it. And there’s a measure of honor that comes from having to work so hard at the skills that others seem to master so naturally.
And the reward for all this hard work of integration? There will come an extended moment in time when something or someone will activate your nervous system, stimulate your filter and the narrative that comes with it, and tie you in emotional knots. But this time, you’ll recognize it as it happens. You’ll be able to enter a dialogue. You’ll say to yourself something like, “Oh- here it is again—it’s happening! This person has bumped right up against my need to feel special,” or whatever it is they’ve activated. You’ll notice the signs of activation: elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, intense emotional reactivity, and an immediate gravitational pull toward a difficult story. “They must not care about me at all,” you’ll start to think. Then suddenly, you’ll remember to feel where that activation is concentrated in your body: often, for empaths, it’s the upper core or solar plexus area. You’ll bring your hands to that area and breathe deeply into it for several minutes. And if it’s still highly engaged, you’ll opt to practice a little longer until you hit your “reset button.”
And all at once, you’ll feel the deep worth of daily empath practices. You’ll find a simultaneous sense of yielding and resilience. You’ll feel a beautiful solidity, as though you’ve colored in your outlines. You’ll discover a newfound sense of your own intrinsic value in the world. And this will be matched by the joy that comes bubbling up from the wellspring of your body.
Being an empath asks us to become fluent in the field of paradox, to metabolize opposing concepts and challenges. How can we engage in rich relationship with others and the world around us, for instance, while finding the silence and space to discover the self and world inside us? How do we find balance between matter and spirit, inner awareness and outer focus, or self and other? And how might we engage in the dynamic interchange between the concept of evolution—which hints at a future self—and the self we are right here, right now?
It may be later in life by the time we truly blossom, but the time, patience, and inner work are well worth the effort. When we learn to regulate our nervous system, create healthy boundaries in our body, and adjust the filter through which we evaluate direct experience, we become truly resilient. And instead of making ourselves small to fit the world around us, to find a tribe where we belong, we learn to blossom on our own. This blossoming draws others to us. And an empath in full flower is an extraordinary thing to witness: vulnerable yet resilient, intuitive yet grounded, and deeply creative, expressive, and magnetic—but with a fully functioning sense of where and how these qualities balance.