Here are some ways in which feeling others’ emotions (as an empath) differs from feeling your own:
1. They are out of context.
Usually when feeling your own sadness, you know what you are sad about, or can get to the Heart of Darkness (Conrad reference) on a reasonably short path of honest self-reflection (the exception is trauma and physiological imbalances, see here).
With others’ feelings, you have no clue what they are about, even if you literally go and see a therapist to analyse it (at least I tried and failed). Relatedly, they can have a somewhat free-floating quality (see point 4).
2. They tend to be sudden.
This is not always the case, but a typical (real) example is: I am digging up a garden with a bunch of other people. Gradually moving down the flowerbed, I fall into a comfortable state of relaxation-meditation, my mindspace filled with nothing other than the soil, grass, and worms (mhm!). Suddenly, whoa, that mind space darkens and is filled with sadness. What?! Why? Then I look up and realise that I have moved into a maybe 2 m radius of a friend digging. Because by now I’ve read up on empaths and know that mere physical proximity can trigger empath sponging, and she’s a close friend, I ask – hey, are you very sad just now? She confirms.
3. They have these typical triggers: physical proximity (see point 2), seeing someone, eye contact (for me the killer), touch (handshake, massage, bodywork, hugs, sex, etc.), and focusing on someone (in your mind). You may also respond to spaces or objects that belonged to other people.
Example: One autumn day merely glancing at the parkway of a friend’s relatives’ house sent me into empath agony for hours. When I finally mentioned, I learnt that the building had housed enormous suffering. Two people who knew the situation confirmed that my free-floating feelings made sense in that context.
There are other triggers, like world events, weather, time of year or day, art, music & the written word, or almost anything imaginable. However, I’d say these are harder to figure out and more controversial, while the above seem most typical, but you may beg to differ.
4. They can have a different quality, which in my case I’d describe as perhaps more abstract, pure, essential, or free-floating.
This is more subtle and hard to describe. When I think of examples of these emotions, it may seem like I just sense the essence of the emotion – maybe as if someone took lavender and distilled it into lavender essential oil. I don’t see all the detailed features of the tiny petals, feel the roughness of the twig, or smell the other aromatic notes of the plant anymore.
This may be because when feeling my own emotions, they are accompanied by thoughts and images from my world. When I feel others’ emotions, they typically aren’t – the “packaging” and stingy/blurry texture of accompanying/interwoven thoughts is missing. It’s just the visceral experience in a very pure and direct form.
However, that may not always be the case (still exploring). Please comment if you experience a similar, or contrary, sense.
5. You may actually experience (feel) a distinct shift in your frame of reference as the experience begins and ends. Like switching the channel and finding yourself in a parallel movie with a different feel to it; you sense the scenery has changed.
This is not always the case, but sometimes it’s so clear that it makes it (almost) a piece of cake to tell.
Example: I’m lying face down on a treatment table relaxing with pleasure as my friend is giving me a touch-free energy healing (Reiki) session. Suddenly, “buzzzzz!” someone flicks the channel. Heck, different movie. Suddenly my body (especially arms) feels heavy, exhausted; I sense “work” and commotion, people moving about hectically. My friend asks me to turn to lie on my back, so I do. I keep feeling this uncomfortable sensation for a while, before, again, it buzzes out and I enjoy the rest of the session.
After the session, something clicks in my mind and I ask my friend: hey, did you perhaps get distracted and start thinking about work? Just before you asked me to turn around, and for a while after? She confirms (and is rather … fazed). She works on a building site moving about a lot, and says she could barely keep her arms up during that moment in the session.
6. You can verify in a significant number of cases that a person near you (or in your heart) is currently experiencing the identical thing.
This is a major project. With my fairly “rational” mind, I didn’t believe this is a real possibility before running many verifications over weeks, months, and years. Find a way to do that without embarrassing yourself 🙂
Mind you: every empath is different, and this is my personal list.
Did this help you clarify? Feel free to comment below or write me with a specific experience if it didn’t (or did).
PS. This is my condensed self-help post on the subject. To see the more subtle and philosophical approach, read here.