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The Strengths and Difficulties of Being an Empath

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Empathy is an important skill that strengthens our social bonds in both private and public settings. Current ideas about empathy are greatly influenced by modern philosophy. In 1873, German philosopher Robert Vischer coined the term Einfühlung to describe the spontaneous projection of psychic feeling onto people and things. Later in 1924, English psychologist Edward Titchener developed the concept of empathy as an offshoot of Einfühlung, defining it as “a reactive-projective perspective with an emphasis on perceptive awareness of another person’s effect of sharing of feelings”. Thus the quality of empathy involves using intuitive introspection to feel as if you are the other person and transposing yourself into their thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

Theories on empathy

Carl Jung (1875–1961) was a Swiss psychologist and founder of analytical psychology who viewed empathy as a type of introjection, or the unconscious adoption of others’ attitudes. He also emphasized the necessity for trust between those involved in order to have a genuine connection. Interestingly, Jung associated empathic traits with extroverted personality types who could act on their empathic instincts with less inhibition. In Jung’s words, “the man with the empathic attitude finds himself – in a world that needs his subjective feeling to give it life and soul. He animates it with himself”. 

American psychologist Carl Rogers (1902–1987), who founded humanistic psychology and coined the phrase unconditional positive regard, later suggested that empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s experience in the world as if you were them. However, he emphasised the distinction between problematic emotional fusion and keeping healthy emotional boundaries.

Empaths defined

The term empath, first coined in 1956 by Scottish journalist J. T. McIntosh, takes the concept of empathy a step further. An empath is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “one who experiences the emotions of others; a person who has empathy for others”. Simply put, an empath is anyone who is able to embody empathetic feelings. However, most people have come to view empaths as highly sensitive individuals who are intensely attuned to the emotions of those around them, and are able to feel more empathy than the average person. As psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios describes, “True empaths – go out of their comfort zone and start thinking, feeling, and acting for other people – even if they feel drained, emotionally overwhelmed, and exhausted – and can feel another person’s happiness or sadness as a part of their own self”. 

The highly sensitive person

It is possible that being an empath is the result of having higher levels of sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). SPS is a trait that determines one’s sensitivity to stimuli and environments. To date, five studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that people with higher levels of SPS have more activity in areas of the brain involved with high-order processing and attention, including the right claustrum, left occipitotemporal, bilateral temporal, and medial and posterior parietal regions. Thus individuals with more SPS are more biologically able to empathically attune to those around them. 

In the 1990s American clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron conducted further research on SPS and developed the concept of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). She proposed that HSPs are a subset of the general population who have higher levels of sensitivity. Using the Highly Sensitive Person Scale, respondents can measure their sensitivity to pain, caffeine, loud noises, the arts, violence, and others’ moods. According to Aron, roughly 15%–20% of the general population are HSPs. 

The science of empathy

Researchers have discovered additional factors influencing empathic ability including emotional contagion, dopamine sensitivity, mirror neurons, and mirror-touch synaesthesia. 

Emotional contagion is defined as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally”. Studies on emotional contagion have focused on mimicry of facial expressions, which is a skill developed in infancy. Using the Emotional Contagion Scale, respondents can measure their ability to absorb and reflect the emotions of others. Self-report questions cover the likelihood of feeling tense around angry people, crying during sad movies, and feelings after positive social interactions. 

Another interesting factor influencing a person’s empathy is higher dopamine sensitivity in the brain. Studies have found that the dopamine beta-hydroxylase (DBH) gene, which regulates the production of an enzyme that converts dopamine to norepinephrine, is involved in empathy-related behaviour. Conversely, low DBH activity is a risk factor for mental health issues including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. DBH levels are mainly determined by genetics passed on from parents to their children. 

According to the American Psychological Association, mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that “respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action”. Mirror neurons were discovered by Italian researchers in the early 1990s and may explain how we absorb others’ emotions and sensations. Studies using fMRI scans have found a neural relay mechanism in the anterior insular cortex allowing people to unconsciously imitate facial expressions, mannerisms, and physical postures. By having their motor and sensory brain areas stimulated, empaths are able to discern and attune to the subtle emotions of others. 

Finally, mirror-touch synesthesia (MTS) is a condition related to the increased activity of a person’s mirror neuron system. MTS is a specific form of synesthesia where individuals have a conscious experience of physical sensations on their own bodies when seeing someone else being touched. Due to reliance on self-report, it is difficult to develop a standardized measure of who qualifies as a mirror-touch synesthete. However, a 2018 study used the Empathy Quotient Scale and tests of facial expressions to explore the empathy of self-described synesthetes and found that they had higher rates of emotional responsivity and perception. Additional research also indicated that those with MTS are stronger empaths. 

Social benefits for empaths

Having intense empathic ability comes with advantages and disadvantages. Naturally, emotional attunement is tied to a greater ability to build close relationships. Theories of neurocognition emphasise the importance of empathy in social interactions, developing relationships, and finding support. While empathy is a natural skill that has evolved within all humans for social survival, those with higher empathy are poised to cultivate even greater levels of social capital. Empaths are known to display a welcoming, understanding, and caring posture that sends out positive invitations to others to talk and connect, and also report feeling greater emotional satisfaction.  

Emotional and health concerns

There are some unique struggles that empaths face. For example, they may be deeply affected by the negative emotions of others and struggle to create emotional boundaries. Empaths can feel inadequate, exhausted, or sad when faced with someone else’s difficult feelings, especially if they feel unable to help. Another possibility is increased anxiety. According to Dr Judith Orloff, author of the bestselling book The Empath’s Survival Guide, empaths may experience social anxiety symptoms because their mirror neuron system makes it harder to keep emotional distance in stressful situations. 

Empaths may also be exposed to more physical stress. Sensory processing sensitivity has been connected to a greater likelihood of depression in response to emotionally difficult events. This vulnerability can translate to actual physical pain. In a 2008 study, actors were exposed to various intensities of heat and participants were asked to rate their own corresponding physical sensations. Those with the highest empathy scores felt the most painful sensations and physical discomfort, suggesting that empathy alters pain perception. Another 2006 study using the Highly Sensitive Person Scale found connections between stress and more frequent symptoms of ill health.

Finally, empathy can be environmentally driven, particularly due to hyper-vigilance following traumatic experiences. Anxiously sensing others’ emotions can be a maladaptive coping mechanism resulting from feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness. In other words, the ability to attune quickly can be a skill developed as a way to stay safe. Research has confirmed that adults with traumatic events in their childhood have elevated empathy levels, with the severity of their trauma correlating positively with empathic ability. 

Another developmental contributor may be parentification, whereby children are chronically expected to emotionally and practically support their parents without receiving attention and support in return. Parentification has been associated with higher cognitive empathy and the ability to perceive others’ emotions without necessarily sharing their feelings. 

Ways to maintain emotional wellness

Self-care is crucial for empaths to maintain well-being. Two types of self-care that have been well-researched are intentional solitude and time in nature. Studies have shown that Highly Sensitive Persons often prefer solitude as a way to cultivate self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. Connecting with nature can be rejuvenating since it fosters mindfulness and emotional and mental rest. 

Additionally, developing emotional boundaries may include practising the ability to say no to others, questioning the true origins of emotions, and cultivating an awareness of where one ends and another individual begins. Due to empaths’ natural instinct to support others, practising self-empathy is also important when establishing boundaries with someone else becomes necessary. Finally, for those who have experienced trauma and hyper-vigilance, seeking psychotherapy can be most helpful in the long term. 

Marian Ting is an associate marriage and family therapist who is passionate about articulating phenomena, theories, and research related to the social sciences.

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