Of course, more recent and robust research is needed to confirm the prevalence of empaths, but it's worth noting that research (which is also limited and dated) has found 20 percent of the population to display empathetic qualities, and other research has found that rates of empathetic concern can change throughout a person's life. With this in mind, it does stand to reason that there's a notable disparity between being an empath vs. being empathetic.
- Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, board-certified psychiatrist based in Texas
So what does it mean to be a true empath, exactly? And if you’re not actually an empath, how can you know if you’re highly empathetic? Below, a psychiatrist clarifies the differences between the two.
What is a true empath?
The previously cited 2007 study analyzed mirror-touch synesthesia—which describes the experience of feeling touched if you watch someone else get touched—and concluded that the phenomenon is tied to being an empath. That distinction of literally feeling what someone else feels, in a way that goes far beyond being able to consider and value their point of view, is crucial in the distinction between empath vs. empathetic.
“A true empath is a person who is sensitive and highly aware of the feelings of others around them to a point of taking the pain and agonies of others as their own." —Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD
“A true empath is a person who is sensitive and highly aware of the feelings of others around them to a point of taking the pain and agonies of others as their own,” says board-certified psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD.
Essentially, a true empath thinks and feels very deeply about those around them, and may confuse those emotions as a part of their own experience. “For them, someone else's suffering and pain responses can actually become their own affective responses.” Constantly being caught up in other people’s problems (also known as empathy burnout), can can drain and exhaust their psychological resources and lead to restlessness, anxiety, or even an emotional breakdown, she adds.
Wondering if you’re an empath? Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios says the following signs can identify one:
- You have an ability to passionately understand, recognize, connect with, and share the emotions of others.
- Too much closeness or intimacy with someone can overwhelm you emotionally.
- You can pick up subtle cues like facial expressions and non-verbal gestures to understand how the other person might be feeling in that moment.
- You’re always a good listener.
- People fall back on you for emotional support.
- You love peace and don’t like conflicts or fights.
- You readily absorb the emotional responses of others and make them your own to a point of getting emotionally drained and exhausted.
- You might feel overwhelmed from being available to others and need to isolate yourself from others to unwind and heal afterward.
- You may struggle to set boundaries and say no to others or keep giving even when you lack the energy.
What does it mean to be empathetic?
Being empathetic is a positive psychological trait that makes you feel in tune with others, but still allows you to separate your experience from theirs.
“When someone becomes empathetic towards others, it means they possess the ability to put themselves in someone else's place and understand the situation and feelings associated with it from another person's point of view,” Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios says. “It’s a process of psychological identification with the feelings and attitudes of others.” So rather than energetically taking on that person’s state of being, you’re more prone to envision what it’s like to be in their shoes and better able to offer compassion as a result.
If you’re not a true empath but still feel for others, Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios says you may resonate with the following statements:
- You’re highly sensitive and compassionate towards the needs of other people.
- You’re intuitive and can pick up on cues of what others may be going through.
- You might have previous experience that relates to what the person is experiencing so you may relate with their feelings.
- You’re emotional by nature and may become too sensitive about others' well-being (even if you’re not a true empath).
Empath vs. empathetic: Here's the crucial difference
Simply put: Although you may be able to feel empathetic (which is a great thing!), that doesn’t automatically render you an empath. Dr. Gonzalez-Berrios says “true empaths always 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.”
For the non-empath empathetic people of the world, possessing an ability to relate to and understand others is no small deal either. Ultimately, having empathy and feeling for others (whether you’re an empath or empathetic) is a good human gesture that can lead to a more compassionate society.
- Banissy, Michael J, and Jamie Ward. “Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy.” Nature neuroscience vol. 10,7 (2007): 815-6. doi:10.1038/nn1926
- Acevedo, Bianca P et al. “The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions.” Brain and behavior vol. 4,4 (2014): 580-94. doi:10.1002/brb3.242
- O’Brien, Ed et al. “Empathic concern and perspective taking: linear and quadratic effects of age across the adult life span.” The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences vol. 68,2 (2013): 168-75. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbs055
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