When searching ‘high sensitivity’ online, you can’t miss the term Empath. However, it often seems misunderstood and at the more F end of the spectrum, accompanying esoteric terms like ‘psychic’, ‘light workers’ and ‘ESP’. As a T, this can be confusing. The fluidity of the definitions and the tendency to lump together traits, leading to wild speculations that “all HSPs are xyz” or creating an HSP hierarchy is both inaccurate and incredibly frustrating.
There’s also this underlying thought that being ‘empathic’ and ‘empathising’ isn’t as valid unless it’s accompanied by the Empath label. Yet HSPs can empathise as wholeheartedly and as deeply as Empaths. The only difference is that an Empath picks up on, and feels emotions from everyone, all the time. As a result, Empaths often know and understand their situation, and have put in place emotional checks and balances to deal with their talent, whereas empathic HSPs can get stuck in over-empathising quicksand.
Empathising, is far more than using your imagination. For example if you are talking with someone who is suffering from heartbreak, you can feel their pain because as well as putting yourself in their shoes, you are also picking up cues from heightened emotions, using your intuition, applying additional knowledge that you may know about the situation, body language, as well as using your own experiences and emotions. You don’t have to know someone to powerfully empathise with them – they don’t even need to be human! You can emotionally and physically feel someone else’s pain as if it’s your own – yet that doesn’t make you an Empath.
There are countless Buzzfeed style tests available to tell you if you’re an Empath, but when you look at the traits, a lot of them coincide with the HSP traits on the Elaine Aron checklist. For example, being overwhelmed when you are around a lot of people, preferring to be in natural surroundings, have a physical or emotional reaction from situations or people, and unable to watch violent films. Other Empath traits are more common in introverts, for example preferring the company of animals, creative, strives for truth, a good listener, hyper aware of your environment, finds solitude refreshing, as well as being aloof and cautious. Having taken several of these, I came out as an Empath, yet as someone who doesn’t pick up emotions from others all the time – this isn’t true. I’m really just an introverted HSP – but it shows how the meaning of the term has become so fuzzy.
As HSPs are naturally deeply empathic, it’s easy to slip into over-empathising; even resulting in a strong physical reaction. Imagine you are listening to a tragic story. While we are picking up on all the silent cues and information that I mentioned earlier, we are also thinking ‘what would I do?’, ‘how would I feel?’, ‘could I cope?’. In my last post I talked about how important it is for us to empathise with other people, but sometimes we get locked in our own brains in a cycle of over-empathising.
This is where things go awry. We may be walking in their shoes, but we aren’t living in their brains. We are still in ours; applying our experiences, knowledge, intelligence, views and opinions on the situation. Our over-empathising results in us creating scenarios that differ wildly from the original situation. Even though you are feeling this person’s circumstances, you are far from their reality
That is when you are wearing the Empathy Goggles.
As an INTJ we frequently find ourselves in this trap because we are far more comfortable dealing with situations in our head, but it’s common with HSPs too. NFs in particular, get wrapped up with the people and emotions involved, taking the pain upon themselves, especially when over-empathising. We end up reacting to both the situation and people, using knowledge that is wildly different from how it is in reality. So as well as confusion, we feel lost and disappointed – or even worse, betrayed by people who we thought we had a common bond with. I think that it’s part of the reason why HSPs tend to get targeted by narcissists and less than pleasant characters
Like all things, it’s once you realise the tendency to don the Empathy Goggles, you can recognise the triggers and make the choice to step back. You can still be empathic, and wholeheartedly so, but also making sure that you are protecting yourself from getting drawn into an unrealistic situation.
It’s important to remember that Empathy Goggles aren’t all bad, it’s what allows us to feel and participate in life. It’s also the reason why HSPs can create amazing works of art, films and books, because we not only create worlds, but can live in them too. It’s probably why there are so many HSP actors, authors, songwriters and performers.
What it boils down to, is that empathising is a choice. By empathising you are actively choosing to feel that person’s pain – even if it feels like you are being overwhelmed by it. Whereas Empaths are continually reacting to the barrage of emotions they are subjected to, with no choice in the matter.
Whether it’s a relative or friend, stranger, animal or character on TV or in a book – as Brene Brown said, empathy is the source of connection. It doesn’t matter if you are actively empathising or reacting as an Empath, it’s what you do with that connection that matters.