In Star Trek, the crew had to go to another planet to meet an empath. But you probably know one (or maybe you are one) right here on Earth. Although there’s no clinical definition of empath or research in the medical literature, an unofficial diagnosis is easy to come by—especially on TikTok, where videos tagged with the term have over two billion views. “We take on the feelings of other people as if they are our own,” explains Fraya Mortensen, an empath coach from Hamilton, Ontario, who’s popular on the platform. “And that’s the problem. You don’t have any filter. You’re an emotional sponge, where you’re just soaking it all up, feeling everything too much.”
If you’re an empath, other people love you because you’re so keenly tuned into them—sometimes with a CAT-scan-like intuition—but normal life (with crowds and the news) often guzzles your energy. It’s like being in an emotional pandemic where all the anxiety, rage, and anguish floating around is highly contagious and you’re at a loss for getting the vaccine. It’s exhausting. “It can become a real burden to walk around not just with your own feelings but also somebody else’s pain and suffering piled on top of that,” says Helen Riess, MD, associate clinical professor psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Empathy Effect.
What do we mean by “empaths” and “empathy”? In 1992, scientists in Parma published a study on pig-tailed macaque monkeys that enchanted the world. By accident, they’d found that when an experimenter picked up a piece of food, certain cells in the monkey’s brain would fire up—and they were the same cells that would activate if the animal itself grabbed the food. The researchers later named them “mirror neurons,” and as word spread of the discovery, it became the shiny object of psychology. Here they were in us, presumably— microscopic fountains of empathy in our own brains! Some even called them “Dalai Lama neurons.”
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Today, our understanding has evolved beyond just these single cells to whole mirror systems. “It’s more like when we see someone in distress, we tend to map it onto similar brain states as when we experience it ourselves,” says Michael Banissy, PhD, the head of the psychology department at Bristol University in England, and a researcher on the neurobiology of empathy. In one of his studies, he looked at a special group with “mirror touch synesthesia” (MTS)—people who intriguingly will see someone stroked, tapped, or jabbed with a needle and feel the sensation on their own bodies. These subjects, he found, also tend to catch others’ emotions more than a control group.
In other research, he has found that people with MTS have differences in an area of the brain called the temporal parietal junction. “The TPJ is what helps you distinguish between yourself and somebody else,” he says, “so they have difficulties inhibiting other people. And that might explain why they share other people’s experiences more.”
For a healthy response to someone’s distress, he explains, you’ve first got to recognize, She is depressed; not me, and then give weight to her feelings over yours—until those feelings become overwhelming, and then you need to refocus your attention on you, and keep going back and forth to get the right balance. It’s that “self–other” switch that for empaths may get sticky.
Whatever the neurobiological backstory, experts emphasize that empaths can learn to regulate the flooding they feel. You already know you should be getting regular exercise, downtime, good sleep, perhaps meditation. But aside from self-care, which is particularly important for empaths (and maybe black tourmaline jewelry, which we can’t vouch for), consider trying these tools to start protecting yourself. “But remember, you’re building a set of tools around you that takes time,” says Banissy.
A major hurdle for many empaths is to identify whose emotions you’re feeling: Are you wearing someone else’s anxiety like their scratchy sweater? Is your funk something you’re picking up from the group? Harvard’s Riess is also founder of Empathetics, a company that, based on her research, trains medical professionals to become more skilled at empathy. “One of the things we ask doctors and nurses to do before they go into a patient room,” she says, “is a self-check: How am I doing? Am I carrying over what happened in the room before or with my family this morning?’” If you practice this every time you go to meet someone, she says, when you start getting upset or uneasy, it’s easier to recognize that the mood is probably coming from them.
2. Thought tweak
Another way to train yourself, Riess says, is to mentally reframe: Instead of saying (to yourself or out loud), “I’m so sad that you are unhappy,” try “I see that you’re very unhappy.” Yes, it’s subtle, but the mental tweak sets you up as an active observer versus a passive recipient and draws a boundary between the two of you. Even switching from “I’m agitated” to “I’m feeling agitated” shifts you out of a powerless state into doing something—and that creates space to ask where that discomfort is coming from.
3. Someone else’s problem
Drawing boundaries also means getting comfortable with the idea that you can’t control other people’s emotions, and often their problems are not yours to solve. “The weight of the world is on the empaths’ shoulders,” says Anita Nowak, a social impact coach and author of the upcoming book Purposeful Empathy (preorder here). She suggests another reframe. Instead of It’s mine to fix, try: I am taking what’s being shared. I’m holding space for that. I’ll be there for this person to hear them out. And then when I go home, I have to find ways to recalibrate if I’m still feeling flooded.
One question to ask throughout the day is What do I need? If you have trouble answering that, as many empaths do, it’s important to start trying. Riess suggests beginning with the most basic: Am I hungry, or am I tired? The idea is to get to a place where you’re able to prioritize your well-being over exposing yourself to activities or people who negatively affect you. That leads to laying down limits, like “I can only hang out for an hour” or “I’m sorry; I can’t make it this time,” leaving the party early and saying goodbye to emotionally draining friends. This isn’t easy at first. “It’s the risk of disappointing others in the service of actually taking care of ourselves,” says Riess. “And that takes courage.”
4. Good question
In other situations, you may desperately want to come to someone’s aid but feel their pain so acutely you’re paralyzed or have to get away from the scene. “At a time like this, it’s not useful for you to be really distressed as well,” points out empathy researcher Natalie Bowling, PhD, a lecturer at the University of Greenwich in England who often works with Banissey. “You need to be grounded so you can call an ambulance or whatever needs to be done.”
Sometimes intentionally asking yourself, How can I help? What can I do about it? flips the switch. Focusing on a positive action can divert your attention from how terrible the situation is and how awful the other person feels. “That,” Bowling says, “appears to improve mood in general and also is more likely to mean you will actually help them.”
5. News break
“I don’t,” many empaths say when you ask them how often they watch the news. All the power to you, if that works. But Bowling says, “It’s not so helpful to ignore everything that’s going on in the world, because it’s gonna find you somehow, isn’t it?” You can control the exposure, however. And you must.
Set your phone alerts so headlines don’t ping you by surprise, and schedule a dedicated time for getting the news. Figure out what mode of delivery works best. TV may be overstimulating, and social media can be an emotional land mine. But how about reading the paper or an email newsletter, or listening to the radio? Nowak also suggests choosing a few issues that matter to you and focusing on those so you’re not bombarded with everything going wrong in the world.
At the end of the day (literally), a good practice is to take time to write an inventory of the feelings and moods you went through—and what happened that seemed to provoke them or depleted you. “Try to pick up on your triggers, the signals that you’re starting to get overwhelmed,” says Banissy. “So then you can start to recognize, This is a warning sign before you get there.”
Mortensen, the empath coach, says one signal is often an uneasiness or anxiety. Sometimes it helps to just step outside and get some fresh air or put your hands under cold water to bring you back.
One last piece of advice from Mortensen is not to think of being an empath as a diagnosis or a condition. “I think of it more like em-path,” she says. “It’s like a path for you to look deeper and discover what’s really going on with you.”
Liz Brody is an award-winning journalist and the former health and news director of O, the Oprah Magazine and Glamour.