Empathy is the ability to understand the way someone else is feeling. Most people who do not have antisocial or narcissistic personality disorders feel empathy on some level.
But some people are more empathetic than others, and those very high up on the scale are known as empaths.
“An empath is an emotional sponge,” Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist who wrote the book “The Empath’s Survival Guide,” told Business Insider, adding that the person “absorbs the stress and also the positive emotions into their own bodies from other people.”
They don’t have the filters other people do
Being an empath doesn’t just mean having a lot of compassion. In many ways, empaths don’t have the filters other people do.
They tend to take in a lot of what’s going on around them and be very sensitive to noise, smell, and excessive talking, meaning they are likely to feel overwhelmed in crowds and exhausted after just short periods in social situations.
“They have gifts of intuition, of depth, of really caring for others and having deep compassion,” said Orloff, who identifies as an empath. “They often give too much. They sometimes take on their loved ones’ pain in their bodies, so they actually feel it.”
They need time alone to unwind
Some empaths need to sleep alone, which can be a tricky conversation to have with a partner. Things that many may expect in a relationship, such as physical closeness, can be draining to an empath, even if their partner’s intentions are good.
“I’ve known empaths who like sleeping alone, but they can’t tell their partner that — they just can’t go to sleep easily with someone in the bed,” Orloff said. “They toss and turn or get in uncomfortable positions. One of my patients called it the ‘snuggle hold,’ where their partner liked to snuggle and she felt she was trapped.”
It may be hard for some people to comprehend the idea of needing alone time in a happy relationship, which is a reason empaths are often misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety — they may display symptoms, but that could be a result of the way they are living their lives.
Over years of being told they are oversensitive, many empaths may come to think there is something wrong with them, Orloff said. For people who aren’t aware they’re empaths, everyday interactions that others find normal could be causing them damage.
Setting boundaries can be difficult
Empaths often want to please others and not disappoint anyone, which can make setting boundaries difficult, especially with manipulative people who may want to take advantage of an empath.
Narcissists and empaths tend to attract each other — narcissists see someone they can use, and empaths see someone they can help and fix. Orloff helps her clients who are empaths learn to stand up for themselves and realise what’s best for them.
“What I always tell them is ‘no’ is a complete sentence,” Orloff said. “Learn how to say ‘no,’ but don’t get into a big discussion about it. Just say: ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t do this tonight. I’d rather stay home.'”
Orloff has a self-assessment test at the beginning of her book that’s designed to help empaths diagnose themselves. Once they have the answers, she says, they can start trying some of the techniques to manage it, such as meditation.
“Empaths need to know that what they have is beautiful and much needed in our world today,” Orloff said. “And so my job as a psychiatrist is to help them with the challenges so that they can embrace and enjoy their gift.”