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What is an Empath? Traits and Signs Explained 🧠
A Neuroscientific Perspective on Empaths. (8min Read)
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Empaths deeply sense others' emotions, often feeling them as their own.
This trait can originate from childhood traumas, serving as a protective mechanism.
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett's research highlights empaths' unique emotional construction in the brain.
Empaths mainly exhibit Emotional Empathy and Compassionate Empathy.
Challenges include emotional overload, but tools like breathing exercises and Dr. Judith Orloff's guide can help manage their sensitivity.
Setting healthy boundaries is essential for empaths to maintain well-being.
The term "empath" often floats around in discussions about empathy, becoming somewhat synonymous with those who are in tune with other people's emotions.
However, from a neuroscience standpoint, being an empath is far more intricate and complex than merely understanding others' emotions.
And how does an empath fit into the three primary types of empathy that we talked about last week - cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
That’s exactly what we’re going to cover in today’s blog!
What is an "Empath"?
An empath is someone who is highly attuned to the emotions and energy of those around them. They can FEEL the feelings of others in their own body.
For a highly sensitive person or empath, the world feels a lot more intense.
They don't just understand or share in these emotions; they feel them deeply, often as if they were their own, which can make it hard for them to decipher their own emotions from others.
This can also make them world-class nurturers, good listeners, and great at picking up people's moods.
Empathic people often report having a hard time in crowded or emotionally charged settings due to the sheer intensity of absorbing the emotions around them, even if they aren't their own feelings.
In fact, it's not uncommon for these individuals to experience panic attacks when overwhelmed by negative emotions, especially if they are in public places or in large groups.
The Empath Part & Internal Family Systems
In the realm of Internal Family Systems (IFS), the psyche is envisioned as a multifaceted landscape comprising various “Parts.”
Each Part arises as a response to specific life experiences, especially during formative years, and holds distinct roles or burdens.
From an IFS perspective, the Empath Part often has its origins in traumatic or intense emotional experiences like emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.
For many, this Part may have evolved as a protective mechanism in turbulent environments.
Consider a child growing up in a volatile household where predicting a caregiver's emotional state was crucial for emotional or even physical safety.
Here, the child's system develops the Empath Part as a way to hyper-tune into the emotions of others. By accurately gauging the emotional temperature of their surroundings, they can better anticipate potential threats and navigate them.
Being attuned to the emotions of others can be a lifesaver.
If this Part can anticipate what might trigger an outburst from an unpredictable family member, it offers the individual a better chance at evading conflict or harm.
Over time, this Part refines its abilities, becoming adept at reading subtle cues like body language, facial expressions, and shifts in energy.
While the Empath Part might have been a protective force during childhood, its hyper-vigilance can become both a boon and a burden in adulthood.
On the one hand, it allows for deep connections, understanding, and compassion. Empath Parts make individuals excellent listeners, attuned partners, and intuitive friends.
However, the Empath Part can also lead to overwhelm. Absorbing the emotions of others, whether it's a distressed friend, the collective mood of a crowded place, or even the general ambiance of a social media feed, can lead to sensory overload.
For those with a prominent Empath Part, distinguishing between their own emotions and the feelings they've absorbed from others becomes a complex task.
This blurring of emotional boundaries can lead to chronic fatigue, mood swings, and a need for prolonged alone time.
The Empath's Brain
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett's groundbreaking work in neuroscience and psychology supports the IFS concepts we just talked about and gives us an enlightening perspective on the workings of the brain, especially in relation to the phenomenon of emotions.
While her work doesn't directly label or delineate the concept of an "empath," the principles she outlines are crucial in understanding the heightened emotional attunement empaths seem to exhibit.
The Theory of Constructed Emotion
Central to Barrett's research is the idea that our brains construct emotions based on our experiences, predictions, and the information we receive from our surroundings.
Instead of emotions being universal and hardwired, our brains are constantly predicting and interpreting our internal sensations in relation to the external world, resulting in the vast spectrum of emotions we feel.
For empaths, this theory has profound implications. It suggests that empaths might have a particularly nuanced or intricate system of constructing emotions.
Their brains, over time and with experience, may have developed a refined ability to pick up on subtler emotional cues from their environment, as we discuss earlier, this is often a protective mechanism.
This heightened sensitivity might make them more adept at constructing emotions that align closely with those of people around them.
Role of Interoception
Barrett also discusses the significance of "interoception," the process by which the brain interprets signals from within the body.
An empath's brain might be especially tuned to this interoceptive process, making them more sensitive not just to their own internal sensations, but potentially also making them more adept at resonating with similar sensations or emotions in others.
Where Is Empathy in the Brain?
While Barrett doesn't pinpoint specific "empathy centers" in the brain, the principles of her work suggest that regions involved in sensory integration, such as the insular cortex, and those responsible for predictions and interpretations, like the anterior cingulate cortex, might play a crucial role in the empathic experience.
Drawing from Lisa Feldman Barrett's work, the empath's brain can be seen as an incredibly attuned, predictive, and integrative organ, constantly constructing and resonating with emotions based on a rich tapestry of past experiences and present stimuli.
Which Type of Empathy Does an Empath Have?
So, where does this Part fit in when it comes to the 3 types of empathy we talked about last week? Let's find out.
Cognitive Empathy: While empaths are naturally intuitive and may have a profound understanding of what others are feeling or thinking, they don't merely stop at comprehension. Their experience delves much deeper than just the intellectual realm. Thus, while they possess cognitive empathy, it is not their defining characteristic.
Emotional Empathy: This is where empaths shine the most. Their innate ability to feel what others feel is almost unparalleled. They don't just recognize sadness, joy, pain, or elation - they experience it. If a friend is grieving, an empath doesn't just sympathize; they might feel that grief weighs heavily on their own heart. It's this profound emotional resonance that often draws empaths to professions or roles that involve healing, counseling, or caregiving.
Compassionate Empathy: While empaths are naturally inclined towards emotional empathy, their deep connection to others’ feelings often propels them to act. They may find it unbearable to sit by when someone is in distress, leading them to take action to alleviate the pain or discomfort of others.
If we were to categorize, empaths lean most heavily towards emotional empathy, given their intrinsic ability to feel deeply and intensely.
However, their profound connection to the emotional realm also often steers them towards compassionate empathy, as they are moved to act upon the emotions they so deeply resonate with.
For anyone identifying as an Empath, recognizing these tendencies is crucial for personal well-being, boundary setting, and harnessing their gift in the most constructive way.
Empaths: A Blessing and A Challenge
While the empath’s sensitivity is a gift, it's not without challenges.
For instance, they might have a difficult time in intimate relationships due to their high sensitivity.
The presence of "energy vampires" – individuals who tend to drain emotional energy – can be especially taxing for empaths.
In addition, empaths may find it challenging to navigate social media, as the flood of emotions can be draining.
Healing and Harnessing the Empath Part
Recognizing and understanding the Empath Part is a pivotal step in the healing journey. The goal isn't to eliminate or suppress this Part.
Instead, it's about appreciating its protective origins, acknowledging its burdens, and helping it unblend or differentiate from the Self, ensuring it doesn’t dominate the internal system.
By doing so, individuals can harness the profound sensitivity of their Empath Part in a balanced way. They can engage with the world, offering their compassion and understanding, without being overwhelmed by the vast sea of emotions that they naturally tap into.
As with all Parts in IFS, the Empath Part is a testament to the psyche's adaptability and resilience.
With awareness and therapeutic guidance, this Part can transform from a protective shield born out of necessity to a cherished aspect of one's emotional toolkit, guiding them toward deeper connections and self-understanding.
Managing Your Energy & Mental Health as an Empath
While it can be challenging to embark on this journey, there are some neuroscience-backed ways to protect your energy as an Empath!
Physical spaces that offer a brief escape from overwhelming stimuli, like bodies of water or green wild spaces, are a great start.
Another tool that I've covered extensively in many blogs is the power of breathing!
Your breath is with you 24/7, 365, so why not use it to your advantage?
Whether it's Heart Coherence breathing, or tools like CalmiGo that can help you ground, and turn back on your Parasympathetic Nervous system, you have the power to take a couple of moments and center yourself.
Remember to use the code “MBBLab” for a discount on your CalmiGo!
Resources like Dr. Judith Orloff's "Empath's Survival Guide" offer strategies to cope as well.
And, of course, as an IFS practitioner and researcher myself, I have to mention talking with this Part of you.
Ask it what it wants you to know about it. How old does it think you are? What is it afraid would happen if it didn't do its job? Talk to it like a curious and compassionate parent would talk to a child!
This can be very enlightening to the Part, and to you!
A Final Note
Whether you identify as an empath or not, understanding this trait and the underlying neuroscientific mechanisms can foster more positive relationships, both with oneself and others.
For empaths, establishing healthy boundaries is crucial to ensuring their own well-being while continuing to nurture and care for those around them.
Recognizing the unique world of empaths, with its deep emotional resonance, offers a beautiful lens through which we can appreciate the diverse spectrum of human emotions and connections.
As always… Live Heroically 🧠
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Orloff, J. (2017). The empath's survival guide: Life strategies for sensitive people. Sounds True.