Over 3 years ago I described my understanding of empaths and acknowledged that I fit the description. I reluctantly admitted that there was something more to the empath experience than just being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Today I revisit the Empath label, and explain why I can no longer identify with it.
Firstly, in recent years Elaine Aaron has been very clear that HSP is a trait, not a disorder, disease, schema, error in thinking, acquired preference, or anything else obtained through conditioning or experience alone. Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) is the more accurate academic description of the trait. There is new evidence to support it from brain studies and a growing mountain of qualitative evidence in the form of interviews, surveys, and clinical observation. See the Highly Sensitive Person Website and Esther Bergsma’s website for research details. Drs Begsma is a Dutch expert on high sensitivity, and while her website is in Dutch I find Goggle Translate does a good job converting it into English. Check out her blog on work stress here: https://hoogsensitief.nl/onderzoek-hsp-en-werkstress-in-nederland/
Second, SPS, has a few highly correlated attributes usually referred to as DOES or DOES DS.
DOES: Depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional sensitivity and empathy, and sensing the subtle.
DS: Differential Susceptibility: SPS children who did not receive the engagement from adults that would cultivate a sense of safety, validation, and encouragement are more likely than others to be depressed, anxious, or shy, whereas those who received the necessary engagement as children do better in life than those who are not so sensitive. They are more confident and less likely to be depressed or highly anxious.
Thirdly, SPS seems to be a neurological pattern in about 20 percent of the human population, and this percentage seems to make up a sensitive cohort in other species including many mammals.
Lastly, SPS occurs in both introverted and extroverted individuals, as well as in individuals who seek sensation deliberately. This is important as there has been a stereotype that HSP are shy, retiring, people who avoid stimulation and seek solitude away from people.
Empaths, and why I’m not one.
More and more empaths are distinguishing themselves as peopled who are not just highly sensitive but actually feel other people’s feelings and know what people are thinking.
They talk about energies that they pick up on and are influenced by and suggest that there are energy vampires. These are people who actually take energy from others and are generally negative and manipulative. Energy vampires are divided into subgroups such as narcissists, victims, rage-aholics and so on. If these were understood to be metaphorical vampires, I might be less troubled, but many people who call themselves empaths say that there is an actual tangible energy that moves out of an empath into an energy vampire. Well-known advocates for the Empath designation who use this language include Judith Orloff and Anita Moorjani.
The people who are called Energy Vampires by these Empaths are, as noted by Christiane Northrup, MD, coequal with “cluster B” personality disorders. These are people with antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders, among others.
While I often find people with these disorders difficult to be around, I think labeling them as energy vampires is unhelpful, and one of the main reasons I can no longer identify with the generally understood definition of Empath.
Websites such as Empath Evolution openly talk about the metaphysical nature of this energy saying, ” The Empath believes the metaphysical world that says everything is energy! The Empath knows we are energetic beings. Most Empaths feel the energetic body; others can see it. The Empath knows that in every interaction with another, there is an energy exchange beyond shaking hands or saying hello. The bottom line here is that the Empath is affected by energy seen and unseen. The Empath is an intuitive with higher sense perception. This gift allows Empaths to feel and know things about people on a more intimate level. The gift of knowing and feeling goes hand-in-hand with an Empath’s ability to help others heal.”
- Energetic beings
- energetic body
- Energy exchange
- Energy seen and unseen
- Higher sense perception
- Ability to help others heal
Again, if these folks were talking in general terms about effects that are understood through an analogy or metaphor of energy, I might not be making this post, but a growing number of empaths insist that it is not metaphorically, but actual energy that flows through them bringing healing.
My Current Understanding
Reading their books and spending time discerning my own understanding of these experiences has convinced me that the belief in “energy” does not add anything useful to the scientific understanding of high sensitivity, but in fact creates confusion and implies something almost supernatural is going on.
I think a better explanation is that people who identify as Empaths are highly sensitive people who have strongly felt experiences that seem almost supernatural in nature to them, and for this reason they are drawn to shamanism, spiritism, and other isims to validate their experience.
What I believe is going on is that they have a strong unconscious ability to sense subtleties in the the environment because of their sensory processing sensitivity, so it seems to them that they are picking up on some “energy” flowing around them. If there actually was energy flowing around them, then it should be measurable. When I suggest this, I’m told that it is psychic energy, or subtle energy, or some other kind of energy that is not part of the gross or physical world.
This response seems to be a form of self-deception, and because of this I can not entertain it without more evidence.
Since 2013 I have been engaged in a process of sorting out what elements of my personality and behaviour are a result of biological determinants such as SPS and what are a result of experience and conditioning.
I now believe that as a highly sensitive child the adults in my life were not able to provide the engagement I needed to cultivate a sense of safety, validation, and encouragement. Consequentially I adopted beliefs and patterns of thought centered around the things that I knew were different about me, things such as sensitivity, performance anxiety, slowness, and other characteristics common to highly sensitive people. I considered these things to be weaknesses and defects and I have lived my life with the shame and anxiety generated by believing this to be true.
In 2013 I began to unpack these beliefs and examining their validity. 9 years later I’m still working out my understanding and re-learning ways to be my true self in the world.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity and the inability of adults in my early life to recognize it and provide attunement set me on a path of suffering with maladaptive schemas.
While I had hoped that embracing the empath label would provide more confidence and stability for my beliefs about myself, it has not been the case. Instead the focus on energy has been discouraging and seems to me to also be maladaptive.
Therefore, I have renewed my commitment to uncover the truth about myself and the world around me, as carefully as any individual can. I will use my sensitivity to tease out the healthy and unhealthy aspects of my belief system so that I can leverage the advantages of my SPS trait, let go of unhelpful behaviour patterns, and express with confidence my natural personality.
I am working on a post related to the beginnings of my schemas, and look forward to publishing that soon.