On being an empath

Updated: Dec 31, 2018

About a year and a half ago was the first time I heard the word “empath.” A self-congratulatory podcast host used the word to describe what makes her special. (My boyfriend would suggest that saying both “self-congratulatory” and “podcast host” is redundant, but ya girl doesn’t have a word limit.)

The host explained why it was difficult for her to spend time around people for too long. As an “empath,” she “senses” or “absorbs” others’ emotions. And because others are always feeling things, she was always just puffing up like a sponge. I don’t think those were her words exactly. People from Los Angeles don’t tend to describe themselves as “puffing up like a sponge,” unless it’s closely followed with a plug for a tea detox.

Not long after that, I heard a friend identity herself as an empath. Unfortunately, in the next breath, she asked me what city I was born in so that she could determine my “rising sign.” I’m made a bit skiddish by astrology, and as such didn’t exactly leave that conversation convinced.

Like many elements of pop psychology, I’m torn between totally thinking I’m an empath, and totally thinking it’s garbage. Yes, it’s undeniably true that when the people I love are unhappy, I take on that unhappiness for myself. It weighs me down like a bag of bricks, in fact. But it’s kind of like being a Leo: I know it only means I was born in August, but the fact remains that I am inarguably fierce and fiery. I mean, I’m not not a lion.

At an impasse, I turned to Google. Here’s the first hit when I type the word “empath”:

(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.

Oof – things were not looking good for this Leo. Had new-age pop-psychology just adopted for itself a term that even science fiction writers call “paranormal?” Are empaths just crystal healers without the calming rose quartz?

Maybe not. I think there’s more going on here. And as usual, it says less about the quality of our pop psychology, and more about – you guessed it – existential dread.

The other day, I found myself wondering if I’m an empath. Home for the holidays, I was torn between fixing everyone’s feelings and “protecting my energy.” I felt my sister's feelings in the next room over, my mom’s feelings in the kitchen. When the whole family was mercifully in the same room, the feeling of unease waned a bit. If my family were ducks, they would be in a row.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing paranormal or even particularly special about what I just described. For one thing, I definitely don’t actually know what my mom or sister or anyone else is feeling. I think I know, and I’m preoccupied by my guesses. I’m wrestling with the fact that my happiness appears to be dependent on the happiness of people I love. Ick. Gross.

In the word “Empath,” we find a diagnostic label for a potentially irresolvable paradox. Western society promised us autonomy over our happiness. Self-help culture promised we could think our way into not giving a rat's ass. I was personally promised I could be a boss babe and/or a badass, depending on my meditation practice and whether mercury was in retrograde.

And yet, no sooner do we begin to love a person than we uncover the fatal flaw in this plan. When she’s sad, I’m sad. End of story. Rather than siloing myself and "protecting my energy," I want to acknowledge that my sense of wellbeing is inextricably tied to that of those around me - that love and pain are joined at the hip. I want to wade in the gray.