A few years after I heard about Highly Sensitive People, I heard the term “empath”. I immediately related to the description of people who can tune into others’ emotions and often feel them as if they were their own.
In fact, this ability to feel others’ emotions was one of the hardest parts for me of being an HSP, and even years into being a therapist, I didn’t know what to do about it. No matter how hard I tried not to, I seemed to soak up others’ feelings. Sometimes I would leave a situation feeling heavy or angry or depressed with no idea why.
I felt like I had no control over my life. Simply being exposed to someone in a bad mood could throw me off for hours.
I alternated between being a human sponge and withdrawing from human interaction to get some peace (which was really lonely).
For this reason, understanding the empath’s plight has become so important to me, personally and professionally, over the past 5 years. I’ve learned from my personal experience as well as from working with countless clients about the important differences between the two, as well as some common challenges empaths face, and things we can do to cultivate healthy ways of living as an empath.
Are HSPs and empaths the same thing?
In a nutshell, while all empaths are Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), not all HSPs are empaths.
First off, being an HSP is connected to a genetically-based trait: Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The term empath, however, isn’t connected to a known trait (though it may have a genetic/temperamental component).
And while high empathy is considered a core quality of being an HSP, it’s different from that of an empath. Whereas the empathy of an HSP looks like being able to easily put yourself in others shoes, an empath is able to literally feel others’ emotions as if they are our own.
Whereas we’re born with our HSP qualities, the qualities of an empath are sometimes developed due to growing up in an environment where it helped to be able to tune into others’ moods and energies.
In other words, life can train sensitive people to become empaths.
Let me give you an example:
I was born a sensitive soul with a tender heart. I have no doubt that I would have picked up on subtleties, including others’ emotions, no matter what type of home I grew up in.
However, I was raised in an environment where it served me to be over-attuned to others’ moods. If I didn’t take note of my parents’ body language and energy, I could be completely caught off guard when my dad exploded in rage or my mom became depressed. Having even 10 seconds of advanced warning gave me a small sense of control over my home life.
Because most of us don’t have the power to remove ourselves from a dysfunctional home as kids, often the best we can hope for is to be able to anticipate scary or upsetting things and get ourselves out of the way.
While some empaths may have grown up with abuse, that isn’t the case for everyone. We can develop this quality in other settings as well. Perhaps:
- You had a sensitive parent with a lot of anxiety or who got overwhelmed easily
- You had a family member who struggled with substance use, workaholism, an eating disorder, or some other struggle
- Your family didn’t have good boundaries and everyone took responsibility for others’ feelings
- Someone in your home struggled with their emotions and/or was unpredictable
- You got support and praise for being attuned to others’ emotions
- Life was overwhelming for you as an HSP, and being incredibly dialed in to your environment helped you avoid overstimulation
As you can see, there are many reasons that your empath qualities could reflect a need to stay alert to your environment or an attempt to create safety, control, acceptance, or love.
And while this quality may have helped in the past and given you incredible perceptive ability, it could also be wreaking havoc on your life.
Common Empath Struggles
Through my 15 years of working with empaths as a therapist, as well as my personal experience, I’ve noticed empaths tend to struggle in specific ways.
1. Soaking up the moods and energy of others
Just being around someone in a bad mood (in person or online) can be enough to absorb their energy as our own. By the end of the day, we may be covered in energetic “junk” that doesn’t belong to us. To add insult to injury, many empaths don’t even realize these feelings don’t belong to them.
2. Shape-shifting to be what you think others need you to be
Empaths sometimes change how they present depending on who they’re around. For example, we may show up as accommodating and sweet with one person and more opinionated and “tough” with another. As a result, others don’t get to know the “real us”, and we may even be confused about who we are.
3. Confusion about where you end and others begin
Some empaths become confused about what belongs to who in their relationships with others. This could sound like, “am I feeling upset or are they? Whose emotion is this?” As a result, it’s incredibly hard to set boundaries and very easy to take responsibility for others’ problems.
4. Feeling weighed down by the heaviness of the world
If you unconsciously carry the pain and energy of others, you’re eventually going to feel really weighed down by it all. Taking on even a fraction of the world’s pain as your own is overwhelming. For empaths, due to our ability to carry the emotions of others, we can literally feel pain even when it isn’t ours: whether it was something we read on the news or a story we heard about from a friend.
5. Feeling guilty for setting boundaries
Empaths often feel guilty about setting limits. We often worry we’re being “mean” or “making” others feel bad by setting boundaries. This can come from confusion about our role in relationships, which might come from a deep-rooted belief that if we’re a good friend/partner/son/sister, we’ll never disappoint others.
6. Struggling to know your needs or how to voice them
Because empaths tend to over-focus on others, many of us aren’t tuned-in enough to what WE need. And if we aren’t aware of our needs, we certainly won’t be able to voice them. This can result in resentment and bitterness while also feeling powerless to change the situation.
7. Taking responsibility for things that don’t belong to you
Do you find yourself apologizing for other people’s feelings or behavior? Not only can empaths struggle to set boundaries, we can also take responsibility for things that aren’t ours to carry (ie. someone else’s mistake). As a result, we can become overburdened with guilt and eventually feel resentful of those around us.
Now, if you relate to some (or all) of those, you are SO not alone. The majority of HSP empaths I work with tend to struggle in the ways I just named.
I used to relate to every single one of the challenges I mentioned above, and learning to heal and break free from those patterns has been the biggest turning point for me as a Highly Sensitive Person. It is absolutely possible to live as a Highly Sensitive empath and not feel constantly overwhelmed and worn down by the weight of it all!
Mantras for Healthy Empaths
If you’d like to start shifting any of these patterns in yourself, try out some of my favorite mantras for healthy empaths – I’ve compiled a list for you below.
My recommendation is to put a couple of these on a sticky note on your mirror, or make them the background on your phone. As you speak them aloud to yourself, they’ll start sinking in and changing the way you think about yourself and relationships. Pick one or two of your favorites, and try them out for a few days to see how they feel!
1. It’s caring to let people hold their own emotions
We need to feel and process our emotions to develop as human beings, so letting someone carry their own emotions is actually a way you’re supporting their growth.
2. I have the right to feel and express my feelings
Many empaths learned to ignore their own emotions and over-focus on others. We need to remind ourselves that now, as adults, we have the right to come home to ourselves and feel our feelings.
3. I can support people without carrying their energy in my body
Many of us came to believe that supporting someone emotionally looks like carrying their emotional energy within our own bodies, but in fact we can support people while having strong energetic boundaries that keeps us from soaking up their energy.
4. I’m not responsible for fixing or changing others’ feelings
Some of us developed the belief that people can’t handle their emotions, or that feelings are things we need to fix. But our only responsibility is to our own emotions. When others are having feelings, we may feel empathy and care for them, but it’s never our job to change or solve their feelings.
5. I give others space to work through their own feelings
Similar to the last mantra, many of us learned that when someone is having emotions, we need to rush in and help. This often results in us becoming over-involved or “enmeshed” in others’ feelings. Try giving the other person space to sit with their own emotions while you witness from a slight distance instead.
6. I’m allowed to have limits and voice them
Many empaths grew up in homes where boundaries were frowned upon or non-existent, and we may have learned to merge with others to stay safe. Now, as adults, we can set and voice limits that respect our needs and our autonomy.
I’d love to hear which mantras resonate most with you! Or, do you have any of your own mantras that have worked for you as an empath? Let me know in the comments below!
If you’d like more guidance on becoming an HSP who’s free from the burden of over-responsibility, watch our free workshop, How to Break Free from Empathy Overload.