Walking a mile in someone else's shoes isn't just an expression; practicing empathy is one thing, but for empaths, it's a deeply ingrained way of life. Though empathy (the ability to understand a person's feelings) is vital in today's modern, complicated world, many people take this emotion a step further—in fact, it's in their nature to do so.
"It's often said that an empath is not only keenly aware of the emotions [of others] around them, they [also] experience these emotions as if they belonged to them," explains Adolph Brown, a clinical psychologist, speaker and educator. "Empaths are also known to have exceptional abilities to nurture and heal."
As it turns out, the world is packed with empaths. Research suggests that 15 to 20 percent of the population is classified as "highly sensitive," or empaths. Being an empath comes with a lot of positive traits. For one, Brown says, empaths are "highly intuitive and emotionally intelligent," so they can read the room, pick up on other people's energy, and be very aware of their own emotions too. The catch? Taking on everyone's feelings can be a lot. Unfortunately, "[m]any empaths become overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, anger or resentment," he adds.
Fortunately, being an empath doesn't mean you have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. To help, a few experts share their best coping mechanisms for empaths.
You Must Take Care of Yourself
As an empath, you can reimagine and internalize other people's emotions and experiences as your own. But how can you be there for other people if you don't put yourself first?
"There's a lot of suffering in the world, and empaths can feel the weight of their environment—especially when times are tough," says Ben Fineman, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and the co-host of the Very Bad Therapy podcast. "It's hard to simply turn down your empathy, and that might leave you feeling exhausted at the end of the day."
It might be challenging to put yourself first, but self-care is a must for any empath. Or, as Fineman puts it, "you can't pour from an empty cup." To help, add activities (or time without activities) that bring you joy or fulfillment to your schedule. These could include a nap, a good workout, a walk, reading to your kids, cooking, dancing to your favorite playlist, or taking a luxurious bath. Although the terms aren't literally interchangeable, many empaths are also introverts. If this sounds like you, prioritize carving out alone time for a more satisfying battery recharge.
"Use your deep self-awareness to reflect on your sensory needs and create a list of activities that help you feel rested and at ease," says Nicole Villegas, OTD, OTR/L, QMHP, a doctor of occupational therapy and resilience coach. "Keep the list handy for when it's too hard to remember the options." For example, while scrolling your Instagram feed can be pleasurable, it can quickly turn into a bombardment of visual and emotional stimulation—media outlets sharing troubling news or friends posting concerning images. The seemingly harmless social media activity can overwhelm anyone emotionally (almost subliminally), but empaths in particular. So, you might designate some pockets of no-phone or no-social-media time throughout your day, or choose to leave devices in the other room while practicing self-care.
When you spend more time and energy taking care of yourself, you're able to be there for your community as your full, empathetic self. Rest and recharge so you can show up.
Set Emotional and Physical Boundaries
Very often, being an empath means getting all-consumed by the constant news cycle and your loved ones' stress. It can feel like you're diving head-first down an emotional rabbit hole, and have no idea which way is up.
"A challenge of being an empath is to practice boundaries between the physical and emotional experiences of others and yourself," Villegas says. "It can be easy for empaths to take on, and even physically experience, someone else's discomfort or exuberance."
While we give you full permission to feel your feelings, it's OK to set healthy boundaries. How do you do it? Start off slowly by setting smaller boundaries throughout the day. For example, if the non-stop news cycle is a common source of distress, leave your phone in another room while you work. (Or, challenge yourself to refrain from logging onto social media.)
Eventually, you can set some boundaries with those who drain your energy. For instance, if your friends or siblings always come to you to vent their feelings because they know what a good and compassionate listener you are, you can practice saying, "I'm not able to chat about this right now, but can I call you back soon/can we talk about this later when I'm more ready to listen?" If the people in an empath's life tend to emotionally unload on their empath friends, empaths should feel empowered to encourage those people to check in first to ask if "now is a good time" before they unload. This can save them a lot of emotional weight-lifting and give them back some control.
Many experts often link being an empath to being a people-pleaser, so establishing boundaries is a lot easier said than done. (After all, you never want to let anyone down.) However, by preserving your energy, you're able to show up for your loved ones and, above all, yourself.
Feeling too many feelings? Well, you might want to head outside. "Nature is consoling for all humans, and especially for empaths," explains Amber O'Brien, a psychologist at Mango Clinic. "Either an empath can visit a beach or a park where [they] can connect [themselves] with the natural setting."
O'Brien explains that since empaths absorb the painful emotions of others, it can be easy for them to feel emotionally drained. However, being in the great outdoors gives them an opportunity to heal and recharge.
Of course, going outside won't do you any favors if you're glued to your phone, doom-scrolling or texting your friend. If you want to make the most of your time, put your phone on silent and focus on the moment. Whether you're watching waves crash onto a sandy beach or snowflakes daintily drop from the sky, you'll give others' often-negative feelings less power.
Learning how to be mindful—whether through formal mindfulness meditation or simply by cultivating a better sense of awareness of yourself, your thoughts, and the present moment in everyday life—can be an excellent tool for empaths. The practice of mindfulness helps you tune into the radio channels of your mind; you can start to observe and notice thoughts and feelings (without judgment) and then recognize where they come from. You'll gradually become aware of thought loops and emotional patterns—positive patterns as well as those that aren't serving you. As an empath, being more mindful might help you discern the source of your emotions and compartmentalize the emotional overwhelm: Are these my feelings, or am I bummed out because I saw a terrible disaster story on the news—or because my partner is in a foul mood from work? How is it affecting me and why? Do I need to feel responsible for this other person's emotions and healing them? Or can I separate myself enough to remain present and balanced?
At first it's counterintuitive, since mindfulness meditation requires you to sit with your emotions—the pleasurable and the uncomfortable. But eventually sitting with them helps you understand them, unpack them and master them a little bit more, day by day.