What Is an Empath and How Do You Know If You Are One?

holding hands in comfort.

PeopleImages / Getty Images

Empath

An empath is a person highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around them. Empaths feel what another person is feeling at a deep emotional level.

Their ability to discern what others are feeling goes beyond empathy, which is defined simply as the ability to understand the feelings of others. Instead, being an empath extends to actually taking those feelings on.

Science is divided on whether or not true empaths—people who can tap into and take on the emotions of those around them—actually exist, though plenty of people claim to have such abilities.

We know that researchers have discovered what they’ve dubbed “mirror neurons” in the brain, which may help us mirror the emotions of those we come in contact with. And it appears some people may have more mirror neurons than others, suggesting that empaths may exist.

Signs You Might Be an Empath

How can you tell if you might be an empath? Some of the common empath traits include:

Empathy

There’s no doubt some people are more prone to empathy than others. We’ve all known someone in our lives who was just gifted at reading our feelings, just as we’ve all known people who seem completely disconnected from the feelings of those around them.

Intuition

Empaths also tend to have a great sense of intuition. They trust their instincts and often go with their gut when making decisions.

Because they are so attuned to how others are feeling, they may pick up on subtle information or cues that might help guide their decision-making.

Caring

People who describe themselves as empaths also tend to care greatly about others. They understand the needs, wishes, and fears that others face, so an empath may strive to make sure that other people have the things they need to feel safe, secure, and happy.

Because of this, people may describe them as tender or warm-hearted. However, this tendency can sometimes make it challenging for empaths to set boundaries with others.

Sensitivity

Empaths are not just sensitive to emotions but tend to pick up on other aspects of the environment. This means they may be more aware of sights, sounds, smells, and other physical sensations that other people might not notice.

As a result, an empath may be more bothered by certain scents or more easily distracted by noises in their surroundings.

Empath Tests

So assuming empathy and other empath traits exist on a spectrum, with some people being highly empathetic and others (psychopaths) lacking empathy entirely—how do you measure your own? And at what level would you qualify yourself as an empath?

How to Determine If You're An Empath

You can start by asking yourself some questions about how well you relate to others and how you physically and emotionally respond to big emotional events taking place in your presence. If you find that you answer "yes" to most or all of these questions, there's a good chance you're an empath:

  • Do you find yourself taking on others’ stress?
  • Have you been accused of being too sensitive in the past?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed in crowded spaces?
  • Would others describe you as empathetic?

Different empathy experts have their own quizzes that may help you to answer the question of whether or not you are an empath for yourself. Dr. Judith Orloff’s asks, “Do I often feel like I don’t fit in?” while self-proclaimed empath Tara Meyer-Robson asks if you have trouble watching the news or find sad movies overwhelming.

Since there is no set criteria for whether or not you’re an empath, answering that question is entirely subjective and may ultimately come down to whether or not you believe yourself to be one.

Benefits of Being an Empath

Is being an empath a good thing? There are some obvious benefits to being highly attuned to other people's emotional experiences. If you can tap into the feelings of those around you, you should also be able to better support and care for the people who matter most to you.

Knowing that another person is feeling down, lonely, or scared, even if they don’t outwardly show it, puts you in a position of being able to help them through that—gaining their trust and becoming someone they learn to rely on in the future.

This can make you a better partner and friend and help strengthen your relationships.

Being this attuned also means you can spot a liar from a mile away. Empaths don’t have to worry about being taken advantage of because they aren’t easily tricked or manipulated. And when they are, it’s because they ignored their initial instincts about someone, not because they missed the signs altogether.

Challenges of Being an Empath

Of course, there are also likely to be some real downfalls to being this connected to others’ emotions. Most literature on empaths suggests they are easily overwhelmed in crowded spaces or at emotionally charged events (like weddings and funerals) because they soak up the emotions of those around them like a sponge. It’s not hard to imagine how quickly that could become exhausting in certain settings.

It may also be difficult for empaths to unwind if they are constantly carrying the emotions of others. Empaths may struggle with sleep or maintaining their own mental wellness if they don’t find a way to balance the outside inputs they are constantly receiving.

Finally, there may be some people who are uncomfortable with how easily you seem to read them. Not everyone wants to be an open book, and while you may think you are only trying to help, some may find your insights into their feelings and emotions to be invasive and unwelcome.

Pros
  • You can provide emotional support for others

  • You know when someone is in need of help

  • You can tell if someone will be good for you

Cons
  • You may often feel emotionally drained

  • You might find it hard to find time for yourself

  • Your ability to read others may feel invasive to some

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Emotional Exhaustion

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares what to do when you're emotionally drained. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Protecting Yourself if You're an Empath

If you relate to the description of an empath, and if you find yourself constantly taking on the emotions of others, it’s important to learn how to protect your own psyche and separate yourself from the outside world so that you can breathe, heal, and experience your own emotions.

Find Time For Yourself

This may mean finding time to get away by yourself in nature, where you aren’t being bombarded by anyone else’s feelings or stress. Or it might mean finding music or a meditation routine that can help you to reset and establish your center again.

Empaths should also work on knowing when and how to build up personal walls so that they aren’t always so easily absorbing the emotions of those around them. This won’t be easy, as creating boundaries likely doesn’t come naturally to empaths who are so driven to help. But establishing healthy boundaries is necessary for everyone’s mental health and well-being—perhaps especially for empaths.

You may want to start practicing meditation to best learn how to do this. By focusing your mind and learning to shut out outside distractions, you can begin to strengthen your ability to do the same when the emotional input you are receiving from others becomes too great.

Be Selective With Who You Spend Time With

You will also likely learn over time that there are certain people you are better off distancing yourself from. Because empaths can soak up the feelings of others, spending too much time around toxic personalities can feel like poisoning yourself from the inside out.

There are some people you can’t help, and some people you are better off staying away from—that’s okay. Recognizing that, and honoring your own boundaries, is one of the best ways you can preserve your mental health and wellness.

Finally, seeking the help of a professional is never a bad idea. If you find yourself feeling constantly overwhelmed or drained by the emotions you experience when you walk outside your front door, you may need to develop some tools to help you work through that.

A trained mental health professional can help you to develop those tools, paving the way for you to become the happiest, healthiest version of yourself possible.

In that way, you can learn how to put those empath abilities of yours to good use when you do have the emotional bandwidth to support and care for those who need it most.

How to Be More Empathetic

If you want to improve your empath abilities, there are steps that you can take to become more empathetic in your everyday life. 

  • Take an interest in others. Start noticing how others behave, including what they say and their body language. Talk to them and listen actively to what they have to say.
  • Imagine yourself in someone else's life. Empathy is all about being able to see a situation through someone else's eyes. It allows you to truly feel what they must be feeling in their situation. Empaths can do this naturally, but you can also strengthen your ability to empathize by actively thinking about how it would be to be in another person's place.
  • Open up to others. If you want other people to share their feelings with you, it is important to make yourself vulnerable to others. Talk about your feelings and give others the space to share their emotions in return.
1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jeon H, Lee SH. From neurons to social beings: Short review of the mirror neuron system research and its socio-psychological and psychiatric implications. Clin Psychopharmacol Neurosci. 2018;16(1):18-31. doi:10.9758/cpn.2018.16.1.18

By Leah Campbell
Leah Campbell is a full-time parenting and health writer and has written extensively on the topics of infertility, adoption, and parenting.