Empathy and Empaths


Most people are empathetic toward babies and small animals like kittens.  Merriam Webster has a definition of empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”  A few years ago, a University of Michigan study of 14,000 students over 30 years showed empathy had declined by 40% in college students.   An article link is here  Social media, growing up with video games, information overload and less social interaction have all been sited for this decrease.  Some people feel empathy should now be taught in schools.  Have you seen a decline in empathy?

Some people see narcissism being extreme selfishness, grandiose view of the self and craving for admiration, as the opposite of empathy.  In fiction, think of Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street.  He said if you want a friend, get a dog.  For comparison, think of narcissist Scarlett O’Hara vs the empathy of Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind.  Charles Dickens wrote the character Scrooge who goes from one extreme to the other in the timeless story A Christmas Carol.

An empath goes beyond just having empathy.  “Having empathy means our heart goes out to another person in joy or pain,” says Dr. Judith Orloff. “But for empaths it goes much further. We actually feel others’ emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our own bodies, without the usual defenses that most people have.”  I just read her book the Empaths Survival Guide.

My mother was an empath.  She could not stand to see animals hurt even on television.  I would say it is just a show but she would have to turn the channel or leave the room or would get ill.  She had a lot of compassion.  She was always bringing home stray animals and befriending those others rejected.  Being so sensitive was hard on her.  Seeing her pain, I decided to become tough, for a while.  Now as I have more years on the planet, I have let the empath come out.  I understand it is actually a physical reaction to suffering.  I like my mother can’t watch or hear about any violence of mistreatment of people or animals anymore.

There is an upside too.  Empaths can feel the joy of others more than some people.  I was taking a folk dance class in college and felt the joy of being alive while dancing.  Years later at a festival, I felt the same way just by watching others dance and feeling their joy.  At the start of one of my ten mile races I just started crying (not because I had to run ten miles which would have been reason enough) but for joy.  I could feel the awesome energy and excitement of my 9,000 fellow runners and again felt the joy of being alive.  Sometimes teaching yoga I get the good chills as there is such an awesome vibe in class.

I am learning a lot as I further research this topic for my presentation in September.  Empaths especially need to avoid drama kings and queens, be around positive people, know when to say no, rest when feeling depleted and keep their personal boundaries.  I think this is good advice for every one.