The Power of Compassion: 8 Signs You Are a True Empath

Learn how to harness your unique ability and give to others without burning out

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

When you’re an empathetic person, people will come to you with their problems. Sometimes you will listen to several people a day and have numerous problems to sort through.

This can really weigh a person down. Some of us have difficulty separating ourselves from the terrible news we heard and it haunts us with every step of our day.

The burdens of others that we have heard about throughout our lives build up until we become completely depleted.

Some of us develop depression, anxiety, and health issues from carrying the heavy burdens of the people we encounter in our lives.

In a study conducted in 2018 in Poland, at the University of Warsaw’s Department of Psychology, it was discovered that there is a link between people who are empaths and anxiety.

The study was performed on teenagers who were admitted to a private psychiatric facility. The participants completed three self-assessments of empathy, depression, and anxiety.

The results of the evaluations suggested a positive association between affective empathy and anxiety. When the teens felt empathy, their anxiety increased and vice-versa.¹

This is one of the reasons why empaths must practice self-protection.

My Life as an Empath

Before the internet, I had no idea what an empath was, but I knew I was different. I am a healer, like my mother, who also has great difficulty in harnessing her gift. She tends to get very upset when she hears about other people’s problems and will ruminate on them over-and-over again.

I am someone who has always carried the burdens of others on my back. Since I was a little girl, and the other little girls would run to me on the playground, tears streaming down their little faces, crying about being bullied. I would take their little hands and attempt to heal them through the gift of listening.

I was born as an empath.

And it continued throughout my whole life. From random encounters at the bus stop to sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Dollar Store with a crying employee during a shopping trip, I have unknowingly dedicated my life to the healing of others through listening.

But this gift can be draining.

Fifteen years ago, I lived away from home and began a 24-hour bus ride from Kitchener, Ontario to my hometown in New Brunswick, Canada. A teenage boy sat next to me and immediately started telling me about his life. After only talking to me for ten minutes, he pulled out a photo album of photos of a baby he had with his 15-year-old girlfriend. The stillborn baby was dressed in a christening gown, and the photos were taken postmortem.

This was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen and it still sticks with me to this day. At this point, I had no idea that I was an empath and wondered, “Why me? Why did he show me that?”.

I had NO IDEA how to handle all of the negative stimuli that I heard, seen, and felt. My whole life, I would think about other people’s problems, to the point that it affected my own life.

My husband is a wonderful man and, like me, he is an empath. He never realized this until we got together and I made him take an online quiz. I listen to him constantly absorb the trials and tribulations of others, and he is even more lost than I am when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of a vent session.

Two empaths, one marriage. It is a wonderful and caring marriage, but we both carry the emotional burdens of the sad stories we hear, and that can be a challenge.

For almost two years, I have been seeing a therapist for Postpartum OCD, and she is continuing to help me with other issues in my life. According to her, one of the biggest issues I have is that I think I can change other people.

I think I can change their situations and worst of all, I try to change their way of thinking.

I have tried to talk to people about getting help and get extremely frustrated when they won’t. I try to convince them to improve their circumstances when in reality, most of them have no desire to change things.

As an empath, your responsibility is not to change the person who chose to open up to you. This mindset will only cause you disappointment and frustration.

In many cases, the person who has vented to the empath feels better, while we walk away drained and sad. Again, we have a heavy weight to bear.

Can we stop being empathetic? I think empathy is something innately ingrained in us, so I don’t believe it’s something we can stop.

But we can change how we carry the burdens of others.

Are You a True Empath?

If you have heard the term “Empath” but are not sure if you are one, you may not even realize how much of a toll this life has taken on you.

Recently, a study has been conducted by Dr. Michael Banissy and his post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Natalie Bowling, of the Goldsmith’s University of London that estimates that 1 to 2 percent of the population are empaths.²

During their study, they found that empaths have hyper-sensitive mirror neurons. This is a group of brain cells responsible for triggering feelings like compassion and love.

These mirror neurons make it possible for someone to feel particularly sensitive to electromagnetic sensations created by a person’s brain and heart and deeply feel the emotions of people who are physically near them.

That’s why you may feel very overwhelmed while you’re in a frantic shopping center or excitable sports venue with many people.

You May Be an Empath if…

You feel a true connection to animals and nature

Do you love animals so deeply that it causes you emotional pain to know they are suffering? Do animals flock to you, even when you don’t beckon them?

Empaths feel the emotions of all beings, even the ones who cannot speak.

You suffer from chronic pain or mental illness

As we discussed above, people who are empathetic tend to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety. Often times, emotional stress can manifest as physical ailments.

You are an excellent judge of character

Can you immediately sense when someone isn’t a good person? Can you sniff out a lie even when you don’t know the person telling it? Empaths have an uncanny ability to tell when someone isn't being real.

You’re sensitive to images of violence or emotional distress

If you have a hard time watching movies or viewing posts on social media that depict other beings in pain, or you literally feel their pain, this is empathy to the max.

Truthfully, it’s one of the most distressing parts of being an empath.

You frequently need to recharge your batteries (rest, unplug, be alone)

Since empaths are so in tune with other people’s emotions, we tend to need alone time after large social gatherings or a succession of encounters with individual people.

We need time to reflect, sort through the day, and in some cases forget and cleanse negative emotions and energy.

Strangers tend to tell you their problems, without prompting

I feel like I have “empath” written on my forehead sometimes. When you’re an empath, people will feel compelled to tell you their deepest, dark secrets, even if you don't know them that well.

This is actually one of my favorite things about being an empath. Sometimes it’s difficult, but there’s something special about people trusting you with their inner selves.

You feel strong secondhand embarrassment

This is can be a comical side effect of being an empath. If you cringe and feel sympathy for people when they are embarrassing themselves, you may be an empath. My husband and I laugh about this a lot because he gets so embarrassed for people that he blushes on their behalf.

In a group setting, you make it your duty to make others feel included and validated

I’ve done this since I was little. If someone is talking in a group and everyone is ignoring them, I make sure I am actively listening so the person feels heard, even if I cannot actually hear them over the crowd.

These are just a few signs of a true empath. It’s a great thing to be an empath if you know how to handle it. But if you don’t know how to deal with your power, the stress of the stimuli you absorb daily will lead to mental and physical health problems.

So how do we end this cycle while still performing our duty as an empath?

How to Keep Your Sanity as an Empath

This is not an easy process and I am still muddling through this journey but every day it gets easier.

I’ll paint a picture for you:

You just got off the phone with your mother, whose friend’s daughter recently died at a young age after a long illness. You do not know the deceased or her mother but you just listened to an hour-long, intimate, and vivid description of her last moments.

Now, that you’re off the phone, you have a family to look after, a child or pet that depends on you. And you are drained.

This is going to sound cruel, but you have to look after yourself and your family. Your mother’s friend has a family who is tending to her needs, and she will get through the unimaginable grief with the help of the people who love her.

The truth is, you do not know her. She doesn't know that your day has been upset by her horrible tragedy. Her problem is terrible but there is nothing you can do about it.

In fact, 99% of the time, there is nothing you can do. You can’t change someone else’s circumstances.

Repeat after me: “Their problem is not yours to fix”

I have recently started emotionally distancing myself from the stories I hear. I listen to what people tell me, and I only offer guidance if they ask for it. Then I hang up the phone or walk away, and I mentally put their situation in a box and put it on a shelf.

This is where it stays until we speak again.

Whenever I start to ruminate on the conversation, I tell myself, “This is not your problem to fix, you have your own issues, and this is your time”.

My therapist helped me realize my problem, and I found a way to distance myself from what was causing me emotional pain. I still have to catch myself from trying to fix people and now I’m attempting to fix other empaths.

My husband and cousin are both empaths. I try to tell them how I deal with the emotional fallout from being an empathetic person, but they have to find their own path, and it's my duty to respect that.

The truth is, the person venting to us doesn't owe us a miraculous transformation. To them, we are a sounding board, until they decide to change things themselves.

Happiness is a choice.

And while we can't choose whether we are an empath or not, we can choose how to carry the weight.

Once I realized this and started to “put my burdens in the box,” I felt this amazing power, control, and freedom that I have never felt before.

It takes commitment and practice, but even after a few weeks, I’ve noticed it is a lot easier, and I feel happier and lighter as a result.

How to Clear Negative Energy

Now that you know how to “walk away,” if necessary, it’s time to discuss the energy we can’t escape, the constant buzzing that surrounds us when we are in a crowd of people, or work in an environment where we serve many people in one day.

These tips are from a friend of mine named Coralee who is a certified Yoga teacher, Reiki Master, and healthcare worker.

  • Ground yourself (walking in nature, barefoot if possible).
  • Bathe or shower with Epsom salt (She likes to visualize negative energy as a dark cloud being washed away as she’s showering).
  • Smudge yourself and your space.
  • Setting boundaries (limiting contact or completely eliminating people from life who always leave you emotionally drained).
  • Meditation, yoga, or any form of exercise.
  • Carry a grounding or healing crystal, such as hematite or black tourmaline.
  • When entering a public place, visualize yourself surrounded by white or golden light to protect you from negative energy. When Coralee does this she notices that no one approaches her, or if someone does it’s always a positive encounter.

If you practice self-protection and use these tips to encourage positive experiences with others, you will notice a difference in the weight you are bearing.

Just as we eat and drink to sustain ourselves, we must ensure we are looking after our emotional wellbeing so that the compassionate weight we bear doesn't turn into mental or physical ailments.

Empaths Are Not Therapists

Empaths don't get paid for what we do. We are providing a service that comes naturally to us. But this doesn't mean that we have to dedicate our time and energy when we, ourselves are drained.

So what do we do when that phone rings, or we walk past a sales associate crying in an aisle at a store but we are just too drained to listen?

We let the phone ring, we keep walking.

I know, it sounds cruel. But you cannot pour from an empty cup, and if you are an empath, chances are you have helped so many people in your lifetime, that you can take a break.

I guarantee you, another empath will pick up the phone or stop in that aisle to pick up the slack. We may not know each other, but the network is pretty tuned in.

If you don’t listen, someone else will.

Let It Be

You were born as an empath, and while you have a responsibility to others, your most important commitment is to yourself—your health, and your happiness.

If you carry the burdens of others on your back, eventually you will break.

So practice self-protection. At first, it will feel weird. You may even feel a little empty, or you may feel a level of guilt. After all, you have been carrying the feelings and grief of others for a lifetime.

But great freedom comes with letting go of what you cannot change.

Reference

[1] Malgorzata Gambina and Carla Sharp. October 19, 2016. Relations between empathy and anxiety dimensions in inpatient adolescents. https://uh.edu/class/psychology/clinical-psych/research/dpl/publications/_files/Articles/2018/6-gambin-2018-relations-between-empathy-and-anxiety-dimensions.pdf

[2]: Michael J. Banissy. 2013. Synaesthesia, mirror neurons, and mirror-touch. http://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/8699/

Wife, mother, and researcher of a myriad of subjects. I love to write about anything and everything! Writer for The Startup, Better Marketing, & The Ascent👊

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