What does Being Empathic Really Mean?

Google says it’s: showing an ability to understand and share the feelings of another. “an attentive, empathic listener”

Makes sense, right? Yet, the processes that underpin empathic listening can be very diverse.


HSP Empathy


First, there is HSP-empathy. This is essentially sensory attunement: you pay attention to the other person with your eyes and ears (and even hands, e.g. as a massage therapist or just in a friendly hug).

hand drawn illustration illustrating hsp empathy by one person literally trying on the other person's shoe

When you pay attention and you imaginatively put yourself in the other person’s shoes, this can lead to a lot of understanding. When you empathise like this, you share someone’s feelings because you make an effort to understand where they are at. You give them your attention and you infer what their experience must be like for them based on your own, similar experiences.

You are essentially making an informed guess based on what you imagine something would be like for you in that situation. In this way, your empathy improves with life experience. The more you have felt yourself, the more you can empathise with others going through something similar.

However, you also may misunderstand what someone is going through. You may make assumptions based on your own experiences. You may get puzzled when someone else’s experience doesn’t match your own at all. Your basis for relating to others is – in the end – still you.

So, when you see someone’s sad face, you understand (because you know what sadness feels like). When you imagine their circumstances, you can really start to feel for them because you think “if that happened to me, I would also feel…” Yet, you may also get tricked! If someone puts on a good show, how are you to know whether it’s sincere or not?


How HSP Empathy works…


HSP Empathy is created by means of attention. When your attention is truly on someone else, you can start to empathise with them (By comparison, this is where very narcissistic people fall short. Their attention is exclusively on themselves and how everything is impacting them, so they don’t register the other person’s reactions or presence much. Either they are so self-absorbed that they don’t notice at all, or they do notice something but immediately make it all about themselves again: “you are yawning, how dare you be bored by my monologue!” Instead of: “You’re yawning, oh, it got late for you last night didn’t it? You must be tired!”)

So this is the first, most common form of empathy. You do not literally share someone’s feelings. Your feelings and their feelings are different, but you can replicate their feelings quite well by imagining their circumstances, listening to their story and paying attention to their voice and body language. You may not know exactly what they are feeling, but you can get pretty close.


Empaths and Clairsentients


The second kind of empathy is more woo-woo. There are people who are sensitive and attuned in a psychic way. This means they sense other people’s emotions in a more direct way (that is difficult to explain to people who don’t have this ability).

In this psychic form of empathy, emotions are more life wafts of perfume that can float around a room.

Imagine people like perfume dispensers. Emotional perfumes can come from a particular person, and to those with the intuitive sense for it, those wafts can be picked up quite directly. So an emotion from someone else can be wafting through a space in a very subtly tangible way.

Now, there are a few different ways that energy sensitive people can pick up on these perfumes.

  1. Some people stretch themselves and reach out to actively get a sense of someone’s emotions. They have made it their business to know what other people are feeling and – because they have the ability to sense this – when they want to know badly enough, they pick up on that info.
  2. Other people are more passively receiving these wafts of emotional perfume. They don’t go looking for it, but when it floats into their space (because someone is very loud, or upset or anxious or chaotic etc) they notice it very acutely, to the point where it can get overwhelming.

Some energy sensitive people who are receptive in this (second) way only sense other people’s emotions when those other people are around. When they leave the room, everything goes back to normal. For others, the emotional sensations stick around and can take days to shake off – if ever.

Obviously, you can also be a “mix” of different types.

As I tell my clients, my goal is not to create endless boxes and labels for all kinds of different sensitive people just to give you a label. The labels are just decoration. What matters is whether it affects your peace of mind, your health, your ability to focus and work etc. So for any and all kinds of sensitivity, the key question is: is it messing with you? If it is, it’s worth figuring out what exactly is going on, so that something can be done about it.


So, what can be done?


For people who empathise in an HSP-way (by being able to imagine what someone is going through), emotional overwhelm tends to come from actively putting yourself last and running around trying to make sure everyone else is o.k. In that case, self-care is key: creating lots of daily habits that are about making sure you are o.k. before you run off to try to put out other people’s fires. (Not sure how to do this? The HSP Comfort Kit will get you on the right track).

For people who can sense the emotional “perfume wafts” from other people, overwhelm comes from a harder to discern source.

How do you stop getting overwhelmed by something that you can’t block?

The first step is understanding that energy follows intention. That includes subsconscious attention. For some energy sensitive people, understanding this part of the dynamic is enough. People who have a tendency to “reach out” energetically (and who don’t realise they are doing this) benefit most from learning how to take charge of where they let their mind wander. (Want to learn how this works? The Energy Sensitivity Starter Kit walks you through the steps to take)

For people who receive energy “wafts” in a more passive way, the question is: how often does it happen?

If it only happens occasionally, and the whole thing goes away when you walk away, then just walking away can be a good enough fix to deal with this.

Yet, if it happens all the time, or even worse, if those emotions stick with you even after you’ve left the space and they pop up when you are by yourself, then this kind of subtle (yet intense) emotional overwhelm will just build and build over time. Not a good situation to be in obviously.

As an intuitive person, you need to have a clear inner space to be able to hear and decipher messages from your intuition. If your body feels cluttered by all kinds of “emotional perfume wafts” from all over the place, then it becomes really hard to hear yourself.

In this way, too much empathy really can be too much of a good thing.

If you’re not sure if this if happening for you (or you suspect you’re somewhere on this spectrum but are not sure where, the HSP Comfort Kit and Energy Sensitivity Starter Kit are helpful to get you started either way.)

Wait, where do you fit?


Just from reading alone, it can be really hard to tell how deep the rabbit hole goes. Is it HSP sensitivity only, or something more psychic too?

You can image these kinds of sensitivity like russian dolls. The big doll is the HSP way of experiencing the world. Most energy sensitive people have this quality too. Then within that, it’s also possible to have the other traits (smaller dolls within smaller dolls) mentioned.

The typical order is like this:

  • HSP is the shared trait (biggest group).
  • Some HSPs are sensitive to energy (smaller group). HSPs who are sensitive to energy can typically pick up on subtle energy depending on where they put their focus (this falls somewhere on the intuitive – clairsentient scale, depending on the person)
  • Some intuitive people in this group tend to feel a lot from others they are with, even if they don’t want to and are trying to mind their own business ( = still smaller group – these are the clairsentients).
  • Some of the clairsentients in the above group will still feel energy from others even when they are alone and minding their own business. Other people’s emotional experiences come to them out of the blue and tend to stick around for days, weeks, months or even permanently. (= smallest group – these are the empaths).

It’s not a perfect hierarchy or explanatory system, but it helps explain how this works for most people who are energy sensitive: there is a lot of HSP overlap, and within that there is a kind of “stacking” of intuitive abilities (and overwhelm!).

The empaths typically get the most overwhelmed (since they hold on to energy from others and this builds up over time. Empaths often do o.k. for years, until at one point, they reach that “final drop” and they just can’t cope like they used to anymore).

Clairsentients can get overwhelmed depending on how much they pick up on and depending on whether they know what is what. Some clairsentients pick up on the occasional emotion from someone else and know when it’s happening. Typically, they are just fine, it’s just an odd ability to come to terms with.

Other clairsentients walk into K-Mart and feel like they’re hit with a confusing and exhausting wall of WTF. Even though they feel better once they leave, there are just too many emotional places like that (hospitals, parties, the open office). You can’t avoid them all without becoming a recluse.

So for some clairsentients, it’s just an odd intuitive ability, while for others it’s a source of stress and overwhelm.

Do you see how even the right label doesn’t do the situation justice? The first question is not about what or who you are. The first question is about whether you are doing o.k. If you are – well, great! If you’re not o.k., then it’s worth finding out more, because depending on the exact empathy mechanism at play, the solution will be different.

I know all this can be confusing. So, speaking of those Russian Dolls I mentioned, when it comes to energy sensitivity, I put together a Kit that helps (and is a starting point) for all kinds of them. For some people, it will be all they need, for others it will be a helpful start. Either way, it’s something you can practice on your own and that will give you a better sense of how your unique abilities work. If it’s enough to help you out completely, great! If it’s not enough, then it will still bring relevant insight and relief to get you started on your intuitive learning journey and there are other steps you can take ( also in the form of working with me).

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