ON BEING AN EMPATH
I am a true empath and I am never wrong.
In this post I cover some personal ground. What it is like being highly empathic? How can we understand this as a part of Emotional Intelligence? How is this related to ‘art’ and being a creative person? Well, if one can believe Myers Briggs personality profiles, when I test as INFJ (intuitive, feeling, judging – look it up) what is one of the ‘best fit’ professions for this personality type? Artist. There you go.
“But “I am never wrong?” Oh please, that’s just not possible. Only sociopaths and narcissists think they are right all the time, and they are the opposite of empathic.”
Yes, that is true. Of course no one can be right all the time. But that is not what I said, and not what I’m talking about.
The label ‘empath’ is new to me. Recently a professional psychologist heard me describe something and responded with ‘sounds like you’re an empath’. And indeed, after assessment this appears to be well supported. Oh great, another label.
Yet it makes sense. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember, sometimes ignoring, other times employing. But often I don’t fully realize what I’ve experienced until later. The best descriptor is ‘insidious’. How to tell others what my world is like?
After this small epiphany I delved into what “true empath” really, clinically, means. I knew I was a HSP — Highly Sensitive Person — when I read Elaine Aron’s book back in 1996. At the time I hit 19 of the 23 markers for HSP, but the ‘empath’ part didn’t register. In the mid ’90’s the idea that being born with a highly sensitive system (or, clinically, SPS — Sensory Processing Sensitivity) was a fairly new concept for Western psychology. It helped but I had a life to get on with.
Over the years, however, I’ve dealt with issues that I felt weren’t properly explained by SPS. Why do I have such a near pathological sensitivity to personal criticism, even after years of psychological help, great success in school, business and life in general? Why do I fail so easily marketing my art work? Why do I need at least two hours to myself every day? Why didn’t I identify more closely with the HSP group; I still felt like an outsider?
Because I’m a true, or super, empathic person, and as such my body does not lie, it always tells the truth. I’ll explain.
First let’s be clear. We are not talking about logic, memory or facts, we are talking about physical perception and emotional abilities that allow us to accurately understand our environment, ourselves and other people, and use that knowledge to successfully predict the future.
So this isn’t about IQ — logic and reasoning and remembering facts correctly, but about the processes of sensing, experiencing, understanding and predicting human behaviours. This is about Emotional Intelligence — or EQ (Emotional Quotient), and specifically how the highly sensitive and those HSPs who are at the farthest end of the spectrum, the True Empaths, interact with the world.
Now, let us look at how SPS works.
Each person is born with a certain number of neurons in their brain. Some have more, some less, and unfortunately some very much less.
Most of us are in the fat middle with enough brain power to function in the ‘modern world’. This is not set in stone, certainly we can use our brains and make more and new connections with effort (this is ‘brain plasticity’). When we have lots of neurons and lots of connections in the parts of our brains for “standard Intelligence” we can score high on Intelligence Quotient tests. This would be memory, logic, problem solving and pattern recognition. To score high on IQ tests we must have more ‘horse power’ in our heads than the norm or average.
When we have more connections in our brain to process the sensory stimuli coming from our body’s six senses, and have more connections for our emotional memory database, and for the processing, comparing and abstracting (imagining) of that information, then we can score higher on EQ evaluations, or the Emotional Intelligence scale.
And yes, there are six senses: touch, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and proprioception (awareness of your body in space).
The EI process works something like this: your senses bring in stimuli to your brain, your brain processes the stimuli into information, puts this info into short term memory and compares it to the data base of emotional memories it has stored, deals with information that is new or does not fit, codifies and assesses, and then uses other memories, decision making and imagination to understand what has just happened and what will likely happen next, and with this guess, decides if or how to feel or act.
Of course, this happens unconsciously in a fraction of a second. It’s why we don’t fall on our face every time we walk around a corner, and how we can tell when we are happy or angry, when someone else is emotional and how to react, and why we don’t keep eating stuff that tastes horrible. Emotional memory.
To be clear, the Highly Sensitive have the same physical senses, not super powers, but their brains have a lot more power for processing that stimuli, in the same way that people with higher conventional IQs have more computational brain power. To have a high EQ one needs not only Sensory Processing Sensitivity but the whole Emotional Intelligence system working extremely well.
The super empath who can fully employ their SP Sensitivity will also have the mental capacity — brain power — to process that info, and a vast emotional memory data bank to correctly and accurately understand this info as it ceaselessly streams in, and the capacity to identify and store ‘important’ new memories, and then a superior imagination to use this knowledge to accurately assess what is happening, predict what will happen next, and take the coarse of action that they imagine will bring the most favourable outcome.
Any ‘normal’ person can improve themselves in many ways, of course, but improving EQ requires courage because emotional improvement requires you to evolve. And those with super empathy have much more work to do, just like anyone with a gift or talent has more work than the ‘norm’ to fully realize that potential.
When you grow your emotional intelligence system and fine tune it through adulthood, you are learning from your experiences. Emotional learning means changing who you are, making better choices, understanding better and deeper what is happening around you and inside other people, and accurately predicting farther into the future. But those who are highly sensitive, maybe 15% of the population, have an opportunity to do better still. They have an advantage, a potential. The 1 or 2% who are true empaths, however, are truly gifted.
Here is what IQ score distribution looks like, and we can think of EQ being the same:
Barely functional to none: scores 0–79, 9.6% of the population
Below average intelligence: scores 80–90, 15.7%
Average intelligence: scores 90–110, 51.6%
Above average intelligence: scores 111–120, 15.7%
Gifted intelligence: scores 121–130, 6.4%
Genius: scores over 130, 1.0%
With EQ there aren’t the same labels, but we understand. Most of us have “Average” or maybe “Above average” emotional intelligence. People who can use their extra sensitivity processing (some can’t) will score in the Gifted range of EQ, about 15% of the population. But those with true empathy skills, fully employed to power their Emotional Intelligence, are only 1% of the population. True emotional geniuses.
There are two key ideas here: functionality and development.
The goal for both IQ and EQ is ‘functional intelligence’. Little use having “raw” talent you can’t do anything with. How useful for example is being a musical savant or mathematical wizard when you can’t figure out how to button your own shirt or remember how to find the bathroom?
Similarly, how functional is super sensitivity when all you want to do when around people is run away and hide? Or when others use the feelings they prompt in you to control you like a marionette, always pulling your strings?
And the reality is that the full development of your IQ and EQ does not even start until you reach adulthood, around the age of twenty four. You’ve made it out of adolescence. Now the real work starts. Your EQ needs conscious dedicated adult work realize its full potential.
This, btw, is why the human race has always needed both IQ and EQ to survive: IQ is about the ‘how’, but EQ is about the ‘why’. Our astonishing IQ without advanced EQ to balance our actions would long ago have driven us to extinction.
IQ is our advantage, EQ is our survival. You won’t have any advantage if you’re dead.
Unfortunately not everyone who has high IQ or high EQ is able to successfully develop their potential. Some people are simply flawed.
And we recognize this. We can tell when someone is mentally or emotionally compromised.
We don’t want sociopaths and malignant narcissists running day cares, no matter how smart they are. We don’t want sexual predators policing our communities or teaching our children. We don’t allow schizophrenics to run hospitals; we keep the mentally retarded from running our banking systems. We don’t want those with dementia and paranoia in charge of our military.
If a person’s EI system is broken or deficient anywhere in the process it shows. Some people in ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ environments are over stimulated to the point they don’t function. And this includes of course all the information our own bodies generate in order to tell our brains what is happening inside us and to us. This might be part of the ‘autism spectrum’.
Sadly we know there are people with enough standard intelligence — IQ — to prosper in the world, but their emotional intelligence system is broken and they can’t ‘figure out’ either their own minds and bodies or the people and society around them, so they constantly ‘fail in life’, or worse, ruin the lives of others. They make poor life decisions…often repeatedly, failing to correct themselves. Malcolm Gladwell has written whole books about this.
For some the EI system breaks down later in the process, so that they have the information in their heads but the process then fails. This I suggest is where cruelty comes from, the ability to process stimuli and logically understand human behaviours, but a failure of emotional memory and the imagination to know what the other is feeling. These people try to use this knowledge for their benefit, as we all do, but their actions are too selfish, too self centred and the outcome is not the happy result they see others experiencing. In short, a failure to empathize.
What exactly then is empathy and emotional intelligence, especially as a key part of successfully functioning in the world?
Definition: “Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict. (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/emotional-intelligence-eq.htm)
From the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology:
“Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it.”
And ‘super’ empathy? Super empathy is actually living the other person’s experience, indistinguishable from your own.
There is no imagining. Empaths experience the emotion as their own. The super empath’s body lives through the same feelings as the person(s) who sent out the information. It is that simple. This makes the empath a mirror, a reflection of their environment. (At least in that initial moment.) And this gives the empath tremendous insight into the emotional lives of others, insights which most people simply cannot experience.
Because we constantly broadcast information the empath can, if focused, form an on-going picture of another person’s (or persons’) physical and emotional state. Empaths can instantly and unfailingly ‘read the room’, or you. This is possible because every human being involuntarily broadcasts a continuous stream of information. Our appearance posture and movement, odours and chemicals, micro movements in face and body, the tone and energy of our voice, the words we choose, our breathing and blood pressure, the look in our eyes…all this information we constantly send into the world. And more. Our body tells the world the truth about us.
And when people try to hide this involuntary expression, or disguise it, btw, we call it anti-social behaviour, and the empathic pick this up like a red warning light.
From Vice magazine:
“New research supports the existence of [true] empaths, finding that between 1 to 2 percent of the population report experiencing this condition.
The work has been carried out by Dr. Michael Banissy, a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, and his post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Natalie Bowling, who spent years looking into empathy and, more specifically, mirror-touch synaesthesia.
Mirror-touch (is) that trait of being able to “feel” the feelings of others…rare enough to be an alien concept to 98 to 99 percent of the population.
They found that many people with mirror-touch synaesthesia didn’t even know they had it. “Your brain is integrating everything,” says Bowling. “You’ve got your heartbeat, stomach, touch receptors on your skin, but it’s all put together holistically in your brain. We don’t think about it, really — it’s all going on in the background.” In other words, if you’ve always experienced other people’s sensations as your own from within your own body, how would you know?
Bowling says, people with mirror-touch report being overwhelmed a lot of the time.”
[A test of mirror-touch synaesthesia is a clinical way of proving that an individual is a true empathic, as opposed to answering spoken or written questions.]
So there it is, the reason empathy is so important. Empathy is the mechanism that makes the Emotional Information Loop work. And when it works well for you, your choices and predictions will benefit both you and those around you. You learn from this and do it again.
Sometimes people don’t benefit from your good choices. They reject them. The empath in us quickly recognizes either a different social context is at play, or something new has happened. Or that the person is flawed.
Again: your good choices and predictions make the people around you better. If they then make better life choices (because of your choices and your emotional broadcasting), their feedback reinforces your emotional knowledge. Your EI skill set improves and hopefully their’s too.
When things go wrong we learn equally, if not more, from the negative outcomes. As we grow and mature this EI system does a lot of learning, but even as adults we learn when things don’t go as well as we felt they should have.
The empath in us learns very quickly when other people have a flawed emotional intelligence system. They make us upset or angry. We’re suddenly uncomfortable, or scared. Those with psychological disorders, those who are damaged, those who care only about themselves — we learn, hopefully, from these encounters too. We feel it.
Again, this is Emotional Intelligence: ‘normal’ people experience empathy; Sensory Processing Sensitivity takes EI to another level — if you can learn to manage it — and Super or true Empathy is the SPS system in overdrive, working so hard the Empath’s system is unable to separate another’s feelings from their own.
This is why Empaths need much much more work to learn to manage their lives, if they are to have a healthy Emotional Intelligence. Much more than the ‘normal’ person can even imagine.
Putting an extremely sensitive sensory system to use has unique challenges. HSP people have difficulty developing ‘healthy egos’ and boundaries when growing up, yet you must know who you are and what you can and will not do if you are to have a healthy EQ.
As the Vice article basically said, How can you know who You are when the feelings of other people, their emotions, their desires, their wants are constantly felt as your own? This is family pressures, religious edicts, social rules and pier pressures in overdrive.
How does ‘your own personality’ develop in a healthy way, and how to do this when growing up or living with people who do not respect your boundaries or acknowledge your gifts? How can you care about others when they constantly overwhelm you and you have to fight to remember who you are?
This is why the highly empathic become people pleasers, to the extent they aren’t even sure who they really are or what they need. If they live the negative emotions and stresses of those around them the empathic can never be happy themselves, so they will sacrifice their own needs to make the world around them less toxic and less stressful. This is great for others, but the favour is almost never returned.
As a highly empathic adult what then can you do?
Here is my advice to anyone who wants to improve their emotional lives: Work to become the Manager of your gifts.
A caveat: Many super sensitive people will have to wait until they have control of their lives because drastic changes may be required.
Listen to your body. Your body does not lie; it quietly and constantly tells you the truth. Start there.
You also must have control of your environment.
The more sensitive you are the more control you need over your living situation. Control allows you the opportunity to isolate, which allows you to know yourself. Figure out your boundaries, learn how to stop people and groups, family and church, peers and others from crossing them.
People do this to you unconsciously, cross your boundaries. Organizations do it deliberately, and ’evil’ people do it to exploit you, almost exclusively for their own benefit. Cut them off.
You must control and then limit your exposure to media and news. And this includes social media.
In some parts of the world this can be difficult. You may have to move away from the community you grew up in. You may have to end relationships. But that’s okay.
People break up and move all the time. Ex-pat writers and artists famously could not deal with the culture they grew up in while they still lived in it. You can do this too.
You may have to deal with loneliness.
Highly sensitive people who live in large communities with family, friends, work mates and acquaintances might feel like outsiders (in some respects) but rarely feel alone. Everyone is inside them all the time. But when you truly isolate and start to pay attention just to yourself, to learn who you are and not take care of anyone else’s needs or issues, you may feel very empty and very alone. You will have to make peace with this. But you can find better people.
The highly empathic’s goal is to learn your ‘baseline’ — how you feel and what you need to be healthy, both physically and emotionally— what you like and don’t like. Your goal is to feel peaceful and calm. Once you know this about yourself, any deviation from this state can be dealt with consciously.
Breath properly, eat properly, meditate, pay attention to your thoughts. Read about how this works; study, learn, practice. Formally learn your ’boundaries’ (not those dictated by others) and practice saying “No.” Other people say “no” all the time, but expect you never to say “no”. It is difficult and emotional but necessary.
Get professional help if need be.
Write your thoughts and ideas down. Use paper, in your own hand. Writing makes it real.
Use the ninety second rule.
The ninety second rule is the time between an autonomic reaction in your body and the dissipation of the chemicals that caused it.
If you pause for ninety seconds after experiencing any change from your calm state, no matter how subtle, your conscious mind can become involved and you can decide how to move forward.
Of course still feel what you feel. HSPs and the empathic have no off switch for this. But ninety seconds later that moment is over and now you can manage.
You will be mindful.
When you limit exposure (so you aren’t overwhelmed), and when you gain in experience managing your gift, (that is, deliberately develop your Emotional Intelligence), the impact of others on your system should lessen.
You may be able to literally quick process and then ignore stimuli that before you were helpless to ignore, and thus lessen the impact you feel in certain situations. Life can still wear you down, but you will be more aware and able to manage. You might learn that much of what you feel in others, moment to moment, is actually not that important. Most of it isn’t.
Another very critical step is to park your ego.
Mindfulness means having boundaries, having a ‘healthy ego’, but at the same time setting ego aside and living in the moment. It feels very Buddhist.
Separate your ‘self’ from the complex wet machine that is your body and brain and manage your gift from that place of self-assuredness, your baseline state.
And that brings me back to my questions.
Even if I am mindful, why am I so sensitive to personal criticism?
Because it hurts so much more, each time, than a normal person can imagine.
Here is licensed professional clinical councillor Rupali Grover in 2018:
“HSPs emotional reactions — including the overload we feel when someone criticizes us — aren’t just a light switch that we can turn off.
For highly sensitive people, those reactions are wired deeply into our brains. When we receive negative feedback, we root into our “emotional brain,” which bypasses our “thinking brain.” The “emotional brain” (also known as the limbic system) is where our databank of triggers and past emotional memories are stored. This happens to everyone (not just HSPs) but, according to Julie Bjelland, a therapist who specializes in HSPs, the limbic system is activated more among HSPs than non-HSPs.
That means that a non-HSP may be able to use their thinking brain (neocortex, the part that handles logic) to not take criticism personally in the moment. But for us sensitive people, even when we logically know that criticism is invalid, we still need to process the emotions that arise. These are often past as well as present emotions; criticism can bring up all the painful comments that have been made to us in the past — and the shame that came with them.”
For the Super Empath with a high EQ, who has an enormous databank of emotional memories and feelings, criticisms are living tortures.
Why do I fail so easily marketing my art work?
Many other artists, I suspect, share some of these issues.
Part is that ‘thin skin’ of over-sensitivity to criticism. But the reality is that the art isn’t me, so criticism shouldn’t bother me.
Yes, my hands produced it, but I am just the conduit. The inspiration, the vision, the drive came from places unknown. When a work is finished it is no longer mine, it begins its own life. This is why some artists endlessly chase validation through their artwork but never really feel it, because it is the artwork that receives the praise, not the artist. There is a moment or two of satisfaction, perhaps, and then it’s gone.
This should work both ways. If the work is not liked, it is the work, not the artist who is being rejected. (For the most part.) So not that?
The other problem is that I am not a “salesman”, who is really a con artist. I am not that kind of extrovert. And if ‘the thing just sells itself’ without your manipulations, then you are a clerk. That would be nice!
I believe I have difficulty asking for money for my work because I get much greater satisfaction and emotional reward for making someone feel better when seeing my art than with making money. Money is necessary for me to live, but money is not my currency.
Perhaps an even bigger issue is simple demographics. If I don’t belong to any large demographic with whom my work ‘resonates’, and from whom my work will find collectors, I must market my work differently. Again, if I am not any large group’s voice, am not visually speaking for ‘my people’ because that’s not who I am, then my work won’t market itself.
Doesn’t mean my work isn’t good, it is. It just means my art needs to find collectors who like it. This is pure marketing, and I probably can’t do it myself.
Why do I become disassociated without a couple of hours alone every day?
I have to have that time removed from living, breathing people and their non-beneficial stimuli so that my system can jettison all the energies and influences I’ve been exposed to in the day, and reconnect with my ‘base line’ state. I can’t do it all in my sleep. I need to end the day feeling I still know who I am.
Why do I feel like an outsider?
There are few of me around to make a close community, if I am actually in that 1 or 2% of the population. And I have a decently high IQ, and I’m highly creative in thought and expression (which according to Richard Florida is only about 15% of the population to begin with), which again reduces the ‘group’ that might welcome me as one of them. I suspect, though, that this is the nature of the beast. Maybe everyone feels like an outsider at some point, in some situations. Everyone is unique, after all.
But I do feel included by the people I love and the people who love me, in the family that tolerates me and those who support me and those I help. This is where, I suggest, it really counts.
BUT STILL, in the reality of a true empath, (mindfully watching the world and myself), how can I say I am never wrong?
Because “I” am just an instrument. The body never lies, it can’t. It just is. My body does not lie, it tells me truths, and a great deal of that truth comes from other people.
Of course, what I receive from you is true because your body never lies either. But that is not my responsibility, that is yours.
So you did this, not me. I am your reflection. You constantly tell a truth, and my system, much more accurately than others, receives this information and I feel it.
If you say that I am wrong, you are calling me a liar, yet you sent me that lie.
It’s like sending receipts to your accountant who adds them up and then you say the total is wrong because you included a receipt in retrospect you now wish you had not. No, the math was correct, you are in error. You blame the accountant for successfully doing what the accountant does when the blame is on yourself; you are responsible for what you send out.
Again: the true empath is never wrong because the process is subconscious and automatic. Because what the Empath knows comes from the information your body (and you consciously) sent out. Most people don’t want to admit this is true, that your body sends out truthful information about you that you don’t want people to know, but it is.
And because emotional intelligence is a loop, the empath’s EI system is almost always one step ahead, anticipating your reactions, ready to assess what happens next and into the future, on a level deeper again than most can fathom. Some people find this intimidating, and we read this apprehension too.
This makes very empathic people well tuned lie detectors. Don’t try to lie to us; don’t be dishonest with yourself, it insults our intelligence.
For the super sensitive, if something feels wrong, it is. If you are sending negative emotions, have negative intentions, are being manipulative, or are trying to hide your real nature, then the empathic person will feel this, and with experience, know exactly what is happening.
The reality is that highly skilled empaths with well developed emotional intelligence, will, if they allow their focus to rest on you, understand you better than you understand yourself.
Good news lies here in wait. How can someone ‘monetize’ their sensitivity? Jesus and Gandhi and the Buddha were famously empathetic but poor as dirt.
The good news is your gifts are needed in many professions. Of course how far you can take your abilities, and where you take them, depends upon your character and situation.
Opportunity often depends on the society you live in. But here is a quick list where the highly sensitive and emphatic can use their talents: Police detective and investigator, diagnostic medicine, human resources departments (supposedly staffed with people who accurately understand and empathize with a company’s work force). The entire fields of psychology, psychiatry and social work need you. Motivational coaching and physical rehab, courtroom lawyers and defence attorneys (they have to understand their clients and know a lie when they feel one), and health inspectors all excel if they have a well tuned EI system. And if you have a creative yet callous side, advertising needs you to figure out the latest trends and demographics.
And lastly, any job in a large bureaucracy benefits you when you have a deep understanding of the people you work with.
Take control, develop your gifts, manage your life.
I’m an empath, and I am never wrong.