What Does It Mean to Be an Empath?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on March 31, 2024
7 min read

While it's not an official psychological term, empaths are generally understood to be people who are extremely attuned to the feelings and emotions of others. The term stems from the word "empathy," which is the ability to understand another person from their point of view rather than your own -- in other words, to put yourself in their shoes. It's not quite the same as sympathy, which means you feel concern for someone who's going through a hard time.

People with high levels of empathy tend to have strong social, communication, and leadership skills. But empaths sometimes have a hard time setting boundaries between themselves and others.

In the broadest terms, there are two main forms of empathy:

  • Emotional, in which our feelings mirror those of someone else
  • Cognitive, in which we intellectually understand another person's emotions

Some psychologists say there are different types of empaths as well, such as:

  • Emotional empath. This means you're very sensitive to other people's emotions. If someone you know is happy or angry, you may have those feelings as well.
  • Intuitive empath. You're so skilled at picking up on the thoughts and emotions of others that your insights seem intuitive.

    Physical empath. You're sensitive to the physical pain others feel, sometimes to the point of feeling it yourself.

    Dark empath. You use your insights into the feelings of others to benefit yourself.

Some of the characteristics that people with an empath personality type tend to share include:

Empathy. The defining empath trait is the ability to truly understand other people's feelings. You may notice that people tend to share their problems and concerns with you.

Sensitivity. Because people with high empathy levels tend to be unguarded with their emotions, it's easy for them to get their feelings hurt.

Overwhelming feelings of intimacy. Because you become so emotionally engaged with others, too much togetherness might make you feel like you're at risk of losing your own identity. 

Good intuition. You're able to pick up subtle verbal and nonverbal cues that help you understand what people are thinking and feeling.

Truthfulness. You have little patience for those who are dishonest and may find it easy to tell when someone isn't telling the truth.

Needing time to recharge. Helping others with their problems at the cost of your own well-being can lead to "compassion fatigue," or burnout. You may crave quiet or alone time to decompress.

Curiosity. People with a high level of empathy tend to be very curious about others, even strangers.

Being good listeners. Being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes helps you fully understand and relate to what they're saying.

Difficulty setting boundaries. Your awareness of the struggles of others makes you feel compelled to help them. But it can be hard not to take on some of those same negative feelings yourself. That can leave you feeling upset or emotionally drained.

Researchers have created several scales to scientifically measure empathy, including the Emotion Specific Empathy Questionnaire, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire. These questionnaires ask you to rate how strongly you agree or disagree with statements about your reactions to people and situations around you, such as:

  • I get a strong urge to help when I see someone who is upset.
  • I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.
  • I have a hard time predicting what situations will make others angry.

Since it's not a recognized psychological term, there's no official test to determine whether you're an empath. But Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist who has written several books about the topic, has devised a self-assessment. According to Orloff's assessment, the more questions you answer "yes" to, the more likely you are to be an empath.

Among other things, it asks whether:

  • People see you as oversensitive, introverted, or shy.
  • You tend to internalize other people's feelings or physical symptoms.
  • You often feel you don't fit in.
  • Crowds make you feel drained.
  • You often feel overwhelmed or anxious.
  • You're overstimulated by smells, noise, and nonstop conversation.
  • You're sensitive to chemicals and can't tolerate clothes that feel scratchy.
  • Disagreements or shouting make you feel physically ill.
  • You overeat because of stress.
  • Intimate relationships can feel suffocating.
  • Caffeine and medications affect you strongly.
  • You dislike multitasking.
  • You have a low pain threshold.
  • You prefer rural areas or small towns to cities.

Human beings are social creatures who benefit from empathizing and cooperating with one another. To some extent, empathy may be hardwired into us. Research suggests that seeing someone else's actions or feelings can activate the same areas of our brains that would be involved if we were in a similar situation.

 The benefits of having high levels of empathy could include:

  • Building deep and meaningful relationships
  • The ability to nurture others and help them when they're upset or stressed
  • Others consider you a good listener
  • Listening to your "gut" may help you make good decisions

There can also be drawbacks to being extremely empathetic, such as:

  • You go out of your way to avoid conflict because you're easily hurt by what others say
  • You get so involved with others' needs that you lose track of what you want or need yourself
  • Burnout from helping others and sharing their suffering
  • Depression, anxiety, or chronic fatigue resulting from the stress of taking on others' emotions

If you tend to get involved in other people's feelings at your own expense, taking these steps could help you find a better balance: 

Set boundaries. Limit how much time you spend dealing with the concerns of others. Learn how to politely say no. Not only will this help you avoid burnout, it can help those around you become more self-reliant.

Avoid one-sided relationships. It's easy for empathetic people to focus on supporting others. But it's important to have people in your life who return the favor. Be aware of those who tend to drain your energy, and limit your time with them.

Check in with yourself. A daily self-check can help make sure you're in touch with your own emotions. Take a few moments to reflect on how you're feeling physically and mentally, and allow yourself to simply sit with those emotions. If you're stressed, angry, or sad, try to figure out what sparked those feelings.

Practice self-care. Don't neglect the basics, such as exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep. Also, schedule time for activities that make you feel relaxed and happy, whether that's practicing yoga or treating yourself to a movie. Some people find that techniques such as mindfulness meditation ease stress and help them recharge.

Spend time outdoors. Nature can be healing, especially for empaths. Take a stroll on the beach, a mountain hike, or just walk through the neighborhood park any time you’re feeling overwhelmed.

See a mental health professional. A counselor or therapist can help you learn to establish healthy boundaries and advocate for yourself.

Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, you can learn to be more empathetic. Here are some tactics to try:

Be present. Giving your full attention to another person helps you relate to them and feel more involved in their experiences. Ask open-ended questions, and encourage them to talk with you through nonverbal cues such as nodding. Pay attention to their body language as well as their words.

Be open. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable with other people, they're more likely to open up to you.

Don't make assumptions. If you're feeling frustrated at someone's behavior, don't just automatically react. Take time to consider the "what ifs." For example, perhaps a coworker who is late to work isn't a slacker but instead lacks reliable transportation.

Find common ground. Even when you're talking with someone with a very different background or point of view, look for something you have in common. Maybe you both like the same sports team or enjoy cooking, for example. Finding things you share helps you feel connected.

Read a novel. Reading fiction gives you insight into the thoughts and motivations of characters in the book. Some experts say this can help you gain an understanding of people in your own life. This may be especially true when you read about characters who are different from you, such as those of another gender, race, or nationality.

"Empath" isn't an official psychological term, but it's generally defined as a person who is highly attuned to the emotions of others. Empathy is an essential skill for all kinds of relationships. But people with very high levels of it may have a hard time setting boundaries between themselves and others.

How do I know if I am an empath?

There's no official test that can determine whether you're an empath, though you can find informal assessments online. Researchers have created several questionnaires to measure empathy, including the Emotion Specific Empathy Questionnaire, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire. All ask you to rate how much you agree with various statements, such as:

  • I get a strong urge to help when I see someone who is upset.
  • I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel.
  • I have a hard time predicting what situations will make others angry.

Do empaths fall in love easily?

There's no scientific research into the relationships of people who identify as empaths. But Orloff says that they tend to find too much togetherness overwhelming and may shy away from romantic relationships. For successful relationships, she says, it's important for them to assert their needs for alone time and personal space.