“Coming out” is never easy: just ask anyone who has ever struggled with admitting their true nature to those around them.
We’re fortunate, at least, that acceptance toward different sexual orientations, genders, and relationships has improved exponentially over the past decade or so.
After all, with the exception of certain closed-minded types, it’s difficult to argue with a person when they tell you that they’re attracted to someone of the same gender, or that they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
These are very tangible issues that countless people face, and are – hopefully – drawing more support and understanding on a daily basis.
It’s a bit different when you tell them that you can feel what they’re feeling, even at a distance.
This is a more intangible and abstract concept, and most people have difficulty relating to circumstances they haven’t experienced firsthand.
Let’s delve into what it means to be an empath, and how to explain our experiences to those in our social circles.
Hopefully, by starting a dialogue and trying to dispel fear and skepticism, we can work toward a greater degree of understanding and acceptance.
What Does It Mean To Be An Empath?
In simplest terms, being an empath means that we have the ability to feel other people’s emotions.
Now, the empath spectrum is a wide one, so different people will have different abilities.
For example, one person might just have a “gut feeling” when someone they’re talking to is upset, even if they’re acting normally.
Another might be slammed with an overwhelming sense of sorrow or rage and not know where it’s coming from – just that someone near them is experiencing extraordinary emotional pain.
…and everything in between.
Some experience such empathy that they take on what they’re feeling as though they’re their own emotions.
This is one of the reasons why many empaths work from home, or tend to be loners who don’t leave the house too often.
Think about how many people you might pass on the street, or may crowd around you on a packed subway car. Or bustle around you when walking through a shopping mall.
Now imagine feeling almost all of their emotions as they pass you by. Hundreds, even thousands of emotions, hitting you from every direction, in overlapping (and incredibly confusing) waves.
You might sense fear from one person and elation from another. You might get pings of anxiety or anger that then crash against excitement or unbridled love.
It’s basically the emotional equivalent of thrashing in the ocean, trying to keep your head above water while winds lash all the waves around you so you can’t catch your breath.
Intense empathy can also manifest physically. Taking on other people’s emotions means that you might also take on their anxiety, depression, or even psychosis.
Some empaths get so overwhelmed by everything they feel that they develop autoimmune conditions from sheer exhaustion and physical/emotional taxation.
As such, most empaths require a lot of decompression time and self-care. Quiet spaces, solitude, healing foods, and time spent out in nature are all absolutely vital – not just helpful.
This all makes being an empath sound really awful, but that’s far from the case.
There are also many benefits to such intense empathic abilities. Many are gifted counselors, especially if they’ve learned how to shield themselves so they don’t get overwhelmed.
Being an empath is also of great benefit when it comes to communicating with one’s partner, children, and even animals.
Those who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally may find themselves instantly understood without having to say a single word, simply because the other person can feel what they’re feeling, and respond in kind.
What’s The Best Way To Approach People With This Information?
Drawing from my own experience, the best time to talk about your empath nature seems to be when you experience some emotion sharing in person.
This works especially well with people who are normally very skeptical about the topic.
I’ll give you an example.
Years ago, I worked with someone who was utterly skeptical about anything even remotely spiritual.
In fact, he went beyond skepticism to contempt and even mockery whenever someone brought up a topic he didn’t believe in.
He was very stoic, and it was almost impossible to tell what kind of a mood he was in from one day to the next.
On this particular occasion, we chatted briefly during our lunch break, and I could tell something was troubling him deeply.
Superficially, he seemed fine: his normal, detached self… but I went ahead and asked him if he was okay.
He seemed a bit surprised by the question, said he was fine, and asked why I’d inquired.
I told him that he was giving off waves of anger and despair and I was there if he felt like talking.
His response was to get very quiet, and then he walked off without a word…
He avoided me for a few days, and finally sent me an email letting me know that he and his fiancée had split up shortly before he and I had spoken.
I had unnerved him greatly by asking him, since he prided himself on being able to maintain a calm facade at all times.
Since he was mired in the breakup, he didn’t have the energy to process the experience and try to make sense of it through a scientist’s eyes, and I respected that.
We kept to small talk and even avoided each other to minimize discomfort, and I left to take another job shortly afterward.
It took years for him to reach out to me about that experience, and although he still had difficulty believing in empathic abilities, he couldn’t deny that it had shocked him into reconsidering his stance on a lot of things.
I’ve discussed empathic abilities with many people over the years, and it has always gone better when I can raise it based on a tangible experience, rather than blurting it out randomly while having coffee. (That can just be taken out of context and get really awkward.)
One thing that should probably be mentioned is that there are great, and less-than-ideal times to talk about being an empath.
Calling someone out when you know that they’re lying to you falls into the latter category.
It can be very difficult to bite your tongue when you know someone’s lying to your face because you can feel dishonesty coming from them in waves, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach that.
Saying “I know you’re lying to me because I’m an empath and I can feel what you’re feeling” will likely result in defensiveness and hostility.
An approach that’s more like, “I get the sense that you’re saying that to spare my feelings, but I hope you know you can always be honest with me, even if it’s difficult” is less accusatory, and allows them space to step up.
When in doubt about how to discuss these things with someone, draw upon your experience with them thus far, and try to get a sense of how they would prefer to be approached.
Like any other highly personal piece of information, whether you do or don’t admit your empathic abilities to others is entirely up to you. There’s no obligation for you to do so.
If you feel uncomfortable about the prospect of telling people about this aspect of yourself, then don’t.
There are no rules about whether or not you should tell people about what it is you experience: everyone’s story is their own, and it’s your choice as to how you’d like it to unfold.
There are, of course, pros and cons to telling others versus keeping this information to yourself.
A lot depends on whether you’re in an environment that has the potential to offer you support and understanding, or may ostracize you for your honesty.
You may discover that others in your social circle are empaths as well, since now they feel “safe” enough to open up to another about shared experiences.
A greater degree of understanding from those around you: now that they know what you feel on a constant basis, they’ll be in a better position to offer support as needed.
Greater courtesy in the workplace. Your employer might be able to give you your own office space, and your coworkers may refrain from dumping on you emotionally without asking first.
Having others recognize and appreciate your abilities.
Opening up new levels of intimacy and companionship in your personal relationships.
Having your experiences trivialized or brushed off as just you being over-dramatic or attention-seeking.
Potentially alienating those who won’t be able to understand you, and prefer to distance themselves from you “just in case” you pry into their personal lives.
Being considered emotionally or mentally unstable by those who don’t believe in empaths or refuse to even acknowledge the possibility that you’re telling the truth.
You may choose to only tell a few, trusted people that you’re an empath, or you might prefer to keep that to yourself for the time being.
There may be a situation in which you get the strong sense that you should open up about it, at which point it’s good to follow that instinct.
Others only express such things anonymously, in blogs or Twitter accounts, and that’s okay too.
It’s taken me over 40 years to open up to *most* people about my own abilities, with full knowledge that there are some people who won’t ever get it.
I understand and respect that.
Ultimately, it comes down to how comfortable you are with most of the people around you knowing this very personal – and potentially divisive – truth about you.
What If They Don’t Believe Me? (Even Therapists?)
I’m not going to lie to you: there’s always a risk that they won’t believe you.
The key here is to negotiate a healthy line between accepting/respecting other people’s disbelief, and ensuring that you’re in a space where you’re taken seriously.
If your therapist doesn’t believe your empathic experiences, the answer is quite simple: find another therapist.
There are few things that are as demoralizing, even heartbreaking, as a healthcare professional who doesn’t believe you.
You deserve to be heard, and listened to, and have your experiences validated.
Your therapist might be awesome, but if they’re invalidating your truth or trying to make you think that you’re wrong because your experiences don’t fit with their perceptions, then you have likely outgrown their care.
There are many counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists who believe in empathic abilities.
Although it might be tempting to try to convince and educate others about your experience, it’s really not your job to do so.
It’s utterly exhausting to try to get others to understand if they’re unwilling to put energy into doing so.
This goes for therapists, family members, partners, friends, coworkers, and just about everyone else you may interact with on a regular basis.
What If They’re Not Supportive?
To expand upon the previous point, there’s a very real possibility that some people will not be all that sympathetic to our cause.
We may have to accept that some of the people closest to us, whom we care about the most, won’t be able to provide us with the support we need, when we need it.
This is often due to their own biases, and even fears. When someone can’t relate to a situation, they’ll often try to silence others or push them away so their comfort zones aren’t put into jeopardy.
Yes, this is extremely frustrating, but it’s important to also have compassion for what they might be going through.
Those who have difficulty accepting your empathic abilities might be going through some intense spiritual turmoil, or have countless other personal issues going on that we’re not privy to.
If faced with this scenario, the key is to find your tribe.
This might mean finding new groups of friends to interact with, new healthcare professionals who will take you seriously, and even a new job if your employer is one of those people who can’t/won’t believe you or support your truth.
It’s difficult enough to struggle through a day at the office when you’re dealing with overwhelming emotions from all directions, never mind also having to defend your exhaustion to a boss who thinks you’re making everything up.
Some people whose families are very conservative or religious may be afraid of not only being disbelieved, but accused of being wrong, misguided, or even evil if they come forward and express what they’re feeling.
In those instances, it might be a good idea to speak to a trusted advisor who knows that you’re an empath, who believes and supports you, and ask their advice on how to approach your loved ones in a way that won’t frighten or alienate them.
If They Do Believe Me, What Can They Do To Be Supportive?
If they accept what you’ve told them, they’ve already taken a huge step toward being supportive of you, and that’s wonderful.
Now some real growth can happen on all sides.
First and foremost, reassure them that – despite Sense8 – you’re NOT feeling them having sex, nor are you reading their minds as though sifting through email.
Remember that those who haven’t experienced the kind of empathic connections you do may not really understand what you are (or aren’t) capable of.
Although they might have difficulty relating to empathic abilities, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a line of support and defense for you. This is where clear communication comes into play.
Every empath has different needs, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. It’s important for you to determine what you need from whom, in order to feel calm and secure.
For example, one person might need their partner to be a line of defense to help screen them from negativity or cruelty in films, TV shows, or books.
Another might need their friends or family members to help take care of their kids when they’re overwhelmed by everything going on around them.
Determine what your sore spots are, how you can cultivate self-care, and how those who love you can help.
Then let them know.
Remember how eager you are to help those you love? They undoubtedly feel the same about you.
Give them a chance to be awesome, and they might just surprise you.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.