What Is an Empath?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 09, 2022
5 min read

Empaths are individuals who are extremely perceptive of the feelings and emotions of people around them, which typically comes through some intuitive abilities. But sometimes, empaths may face challenges with setting boundaries between themselves and others. This article explains how to know whether you’re an empath, the pros and cons of being an empath, and some common empath traits.

An empath is an individual who feels more empathy than an average human. Empaths are exceptionally sensitive to the emotions and frame of mind of nearby individuals.

Empathy is a natural state that enables a person to build an emotional connection through cognition with other individuals. But the instinctive ability to understand other people’s moods goes beyond being empathetic. The typical empath personality allows an individual to accurately discern people’s emotional states just by looking at them and take appropriate action.

Experts still debate whether such abilities exist. But research has come across a specific group of cells called “mirror neurons,” which may help individuals mirror others’ emotions. Research also indicates that some people may have a larger number of mirror neurons than others, potentially explaining empaths' abilities. Empaths have a hyperactive mirror neuron system, which puts them ahead of others on the empathy scale.

On the other hand, individuals clinically classified as narcissists (or malignant narcissists) are considered low on the empathy scale, thus making them less compassionate or sensitive to others’ feelings.

Human beings are social creatures meant to empathize, cooperate with fellow beings, and help each other. Neuroscientists have recognized what they call the “empathy circuit” in the human brain. Damage to this network can hamper your ability to relate to what others feel. Empaths have many similar traits, some of which are listed below:

  • Excellent storytellers. Empaths make amazing storytellers, partly driven by their boundless imagination. With a gentle nature and a mind that’s a storehouse of knowledge and history, everyone listens to them with rapt attention whenever they speak.
  • Good listeners. An established trait of empaths is that they’re great listeners. You’ll find total strangers pour their hearts out to empaths, and before they realize it, they’ve spilled more than they intended to. Such people are put at ease by the compassion of empaths and also instinctively trust them, knowing that their secrets are safe.
  • Curious. Empaths have a deep curiosity about everything around them — including people and places. They’re likely to start a conversation with complete strangers sitting next to them on a journey. Empaths retain a childlike thirst for knowledge and voraciously consume new information.
  • Very astute. Empaths know things before being told about them. Sometimes, they can't explain it with words — it can be like intuition or a gut feeling.
  • Root for the underdog. Another common empath trait is always rooting for the underdog. Whether it’s human beings or animals, empaths take care of the purported weak.
  • Need constant stimulation. Empaths lose interest quickly when they don’t find an activity stimulating enough, whether at school, work, or home. When this happens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them mentally switch off and daydream.
  • Truthful. Truthfulness is something empaths aspire to for themselves and seek to uphold for everyone. They can’t digest untruth, and anything achieved untruthfully feels wrong to them.

Many people wonder whether they’re empaths. Dr. Judith Harloff, who pioneered the term “empath,” has devised a test that answers the question on many people’s minds: “Am I an empath?” The empath test is a list of 20 questions that group people into four types depending on their answers:

  • Partial empath
  • Moderate empath
  • Strong empath
  • Full-blown empath

Being an empath usually means having a deep connection to people and events around you. While this does have some positives, there are drawbacks too. Some of the benefits of being an empath include the following:

  • Building deep and meaningful relationships
  • Having a profound sense of compassion toward all living creatures
  • Powerful and memorable life experiences
  • An ability to intuitively know when people around you lie
  • People considering you a good listener

Being an empath could also have some of the following inconveniences:

  • An inability to set clear boundaries
  • A tendency to seclude yourself (most likely to recover)
  • Frequently feeling exhausted after interacting with other people
  • Others tending to pour all their worries on you

Being an empath can have its memorable moments and also some forgettable ones. It’s essential to first accept the abilities you’ve been gifted instead of getting burdened by them. Acknowledging this is the first step toward getting in control of your emotions and channeling your empathy for the right purposes. Some practices can help you cope better:

  • Tune in to your inner voice. As an empath, you can become too engrossed in what’s happening around you. Detach from the events around you and become aware of your breath and thoughts. Techniques like mindfulness meditation help quiet and center your mind. Meditation energizes you and helps you drown out all the external noise that can be draining.
  • Spend time in nature. Nature is healing. This is true for all humans and especially for empaths. Being one with nature makes you more attuned to the silence after the humdrum of modern-day life. Take some time out for a stroll on the beach, a walk through the park, or time in any other natural setting. It’s even more important to do this when you’re feeling mentally or emotionally swamped.
  • Forgive yourself. Often, empaths are understanding of others’ challenges but come down too hard on themselves. It’s vital to realize that you should practice compassion as much with yourself as with others. Many people struggle with this. Regularly reminding yourself of this can help you be more forgiving with yourself.
  • Learn when to say no. Another common empath trait is getting immersed in others’ concerns without regard for yourself. This can lead to unrealistic expectations, and you’ll burn yourself out sooner or later. Limit how much time you give to others when listening to their concerns or just being there for them, and learn when to say no politely. In the long run, this is helpful for both parties.