Are you an empath or a highly sensitive person?

Empaths feel other people’s feelings physically, viscerally in their own bodies.

They are not simply people who are highly empathic or exceptionally sensitive (the latter may enjoy resources for HSPs). They are not people who find it easy to imagine what other people feel. On the contrary, they often feel other people’s feelings without understanding that they are not their own, as these feelings arrive without any intention on the part of the empath to take someone else’s perspective. They can be perceived as intrusive or bewildering.

If you suspect you may be feeling others’ feelings, I suspect that you are experiencing unexplained, incomprehensible, or overwhelming feelings.

There are several alternative explanations for this:

1. You are simply a sensitive and emotionally intense person. This does not automatically mean that you are feeling others’ feelings – it’s entirely possible that you are very intensely feeling your own feelings, and your own reactions to others’ situations.

Example: Your friend is shattered after losing a dear person. As a sensitive and empathic person, you immediately grasp the situation they are in, and upon seeing your friend’s barely masked sad face are deeply touched by their grief; you can vividly imagine, or even remember from your own life, what this is like. You feel an intense compassion that results in your comforting them. Perhaps deep emotions are stirred up in you in response to seeing your friend so vulnerable: pain, worry, caring, love.

While these are intense, they are not the emotions that your friend is feeling, which is grief and perhaps despair.

As an empath, you may suddenly viscerally feel a profound wave of grief welling up inside your belly, perhaps while doing something entirely unrelated; or the instant you catch sight of or even e-mail your friend. You may not realise the two events are connected until you hear the news, or even ever. Sometimes you may feel so crushed by the emotion that you act less empathic than you’d like to, as you feel burdened yourself and find it that much harder to pull the other person up. Perhaps you feel drained and secretly want to withdraw from their company and recuperate in solitude or nature.

If you are an emotionally intense person, you may enjoy Imi Lo’s book on the topic.

2. Your emotions seem bewildering and overwhelming to you because you have experienced trauma or painful situations that you never quite healed from.

If you have experienced situations that were so painful for you that you could not process the feelings in the moment, your body stores them away for later (so to speak). While you may not even be aware that something was difficult for you, your body remembers every time a new situation (a trigger) remotely resembles the old, and sends all those stored up feelings your way. This feels like an intense wave of emotions coming from nowhere, and when you cannot see how it relates to your present circumstances, you may wonder whether these are really your feelings.

Note that it does not take an earthquake or war to store up difficult emotions. Especially if you are highly sensitive, relatively mundane events like, say, being an outsider in school or misunderstood by a parent, a sudden move or being left alone with a relative can do the trick.

From my experience, this one is hard to distinguish from empath experiences; you need consistent and honest self-observation. The deciding factor is ultimately whether the emotional shifts are related to recognisable triggers, or to identical feelings in the people around you or emotionally close to you (even if geographically distant). I have found no other way except doing the detective work over and over again for each type of shift. Drawing on trusted others’ observations can be very helpful, as they might notice patterns that you don’t.

If these issues are serious, finding a good therapist will help you get clear on this (you don’t need to tell them you suspect you are an empath; above all get help concerning the stored pain and things will gradually clear up).

If this is an issue for you, you may benefit from reading Sonia’s articles.

3. Your emotions are acting up due to a bodily imbalance.

There are many organic causes for emotional imbalance, notably hormonal imbalances, thyroid issues, imbalanced blood sugar, a disrupted circadian rhythm, and even an unsuitable diet and food sensitivities (the gut affects the brain and hormones in major ways).

While the conventional place you’d go to for that is a physician or psychiatrist, I feel much better sending you to this holistic psychiatrist’s resource page first for things you can do yourself (of course if the issue is serious, by all means go see a doctor!).

If you are affected by one of the above, this does not automatically mean that you are not also an empath. To the contrary, my experience is that if you resolve one or more of these, as a side effect your empath overwhelm symptoms will get milder. While you will still need to sort out the empath-specific issues, this will be much easier now.

4. Complex mental issues, spirit possessions, not knowing yourself (repressing your feelings).

To sum it up, I suggest these criteria:

  1. Are you physically overcome by intense and puzzling feelings that are unrelated to your situation and have no recognisable psychological or physiological trigger?
  2. Is the only recognisable trigger the (physical or mental) presence of another person, or (quite typical) eye contact or physical contact (e.g. giving a massage)?
  3. Optional: Do you intuitively sense a qualitative difference between your own emotions and some of those that “fall on you”?
  4. Can you, with some honest detective work, confirm that someone close to you (whether physically or emotionally) is currently experiencing the same?

To answer the latter, the most effective way is ultimately to ask people.

Do this subtly. Think “You look slightly off, is something going on?”, not “I think I have psi and sense anger in my belly, guessing it’s yours; are you mad at your husband again?” (well, unless you are really close to the interviewee!).

If you are still not sure, you can e-mail me with your experiences or questions. I will be happy to respond as best I can.

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