In today’s world, we hear the word “empathy” a lot. It is said that we need to be more empathetic as a society, and people who are labeled as “empathetic” are praised. Though there are many positives to this character trait, being an empath – someone who is an “emotional sponge” for others – comes with many challenges. (1)
If you are an empath, then you know how exhausting it can be. Here is how to overcome it.
Why Being An Empath Is So Exhausting
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives empathy these two definitions (2):
- the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner,
- the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
Essentially, empathy is the ability to feel how others feel, despite never being in that situation yourself. Being an empath, however, goes much deeper. With empathy, your heart goes out to that person, be it happy or sad emotion. Being an empath means that you feel their joy, sorrow, pain, anger, or sadness in your actual body. (1)
“Being empathetic is when your heart goes out to somebody when they feel joy or sadness,” explains Judith Orloff, MD, psychiatrist, and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide. “But being an empath means you can actually feel their happiness or anxiety in your own body.” (1)
As you can imagine, feeling everyone else’s emotions on top of your own can be rather tiresome.
How To Know If You Are An Empath
Not every empathetic person is an empath. You can have a great capacity for empathy and show it often without it manifesting itself physically the way it does for a true empath. But how do you know if you are an empath versus an empathic person?
Thankfully, Dr. Orloff has developed this 20-question quiz to help you figure it out (3):
- Have I been labeled as “overly sensitive,” shy, or introverted?
- Do I frequently get overwhelmed or anxious?
- Do arguments or yelling make me ill?
- Do I often feel like I don’t fit in?
- Am I drained by crowds and need alone time to revive myself?
- Am I overstimulated by noise, odors, or non-stop talkers?
- Do I have chemical sensitivities or can’t tolerate scratchy clothes?
- Do I prefer taking my own car places so I can leave early if I need to?
- Do I overeat to cope with stress?
- Am I afraid of becoming suffocated by intimate relationships?
- Do I startle easily?
- Do I react strongly to caffeine or medications?
- Do I have a low pain threshold?
- Do I tend to socially isolate?
- Do I absorb other people’s stress, emotions, or symptoms?
- Am I overwhelmed by multitasking and prefer doing one thing at a time?
- Do I replenish myself in nature?
- Do I need a long time to recuperate after being with difficult people or energy vampires?
- Do I feel better in small cities or the country rather than large cities?
- Do I prefer one-to-one interactions or small groups rather than large gatherings?
Go through each question and record your answers. (3)
- One to five ‘yes’ means you are a partial empath
- Six to 10 means you are a moderate empath
- 11 to 15 means you have strong empath tendencies
- More than 15 means you are a full-on empath
Knowing where you stand on the empath scale can help you determine how best to manage your emotions with others. From there, you can better take care of yourself and set your own boundaries.
How Being An Empath Can Lead to Physical Fatigue
Have you ever felt exhausted after a tough day, hard conversation, or a tough break-up? This is what we call emotional exhaustion, and it often manifests itself physically. Not only are you expending more energy, but the stress of those situations can affect your sleep, making you even more tired. (4)
For empaths, this is even more challenging because they aren’t just feeling their own emotions; they are taking on others, as well. Being an empath is wonderful because it allows you to connect with others in a much deeper way. It also allows you to help them through their problems and be a good listener when they need an ear and some comfort. (5)
The issue is that, unlike most other people who have the ability to block or filter those emotions, so they don’t affect them so much, empaths can’t. They then feel the intensity of their friends, family, and even stranger’s emotions all the way down to the physical level. (5)
Being empathic can make being in large groups tiring and spending too much time around big personalities down-right exhausting. (5)
Empaths require a lot more alone-time to recharge than most. They also are the ones finding it hard to sleep at night due to a racing mind in a world that requires you to be “on” and “connected” much of the time, carving out enough r&r time can be tough.
How To Protect Yourself While Still Being Empathetic Toward Others
Of course, as an empath, you don’t want to lose that ability. It is part of what makes you who you are and can be highly beneficial when used well. You do, however, need to make sure you are taking care of yourself. If you don’t, you will run yourself down to the point that your own health is suffering. On top of that, if you don’t be careful, you run the risk of draining yourself so low that your empathy turns into apathy. (4)
If you are an empath, even moderately, make sure you are taking the following steps to protect your energy, health, and heart.
1. Make Your Home Your Safe Space
Empaths need quiet, calm, relaxing spaces to go to where they can tune out the rest of the world and turn their focus inward. They need a sanctuary where they can completely relax.
“Be sure to have a sacred place at home where you can take deep breaths, calm down, and connect to yourself,” encourages Dr. Orloff. “Being alone can replenish an empath.” (1)
Make this space your own: Use plants, candles, pillows, and blankets, art, gentle music, or nature sounds – whatever you need to help you relax.
2. Get Outside
Nature can be incredibly rejuvenating. Go for a walk in the woods, find a secluded spot on the beach or even just a quiet area in a park.
“Nature has so much positive energy that when empaths are around it, they start to feel better.” says Dr. Orloff. (1)
While you’re out, be sure to pay attention to what you are hearing, seeing, smelling, and feeling—breezes, trickling water, chirping birds, fragrant flowers and grasses, all of it.
3. Set Boundaries
This is probably the hardest part for most empaths. Setting boundaries and knowing when to say no or remove yourself from a situation is really tough. Set time limits on conversations with others when they are just looking for someone to vent to. If you are feeling particularly exhausted, let people know. (1)
Tell them that you want to help them, but that you are feeling drained and don’t have the capacity to help them properly. Let them know that you will call them back, you just need some time to rest first.
Also, know what people in your life you find most exhausting and limit how much time you spend with them. This can be hard, particularly in the workplace, but it is well worth your sanity. Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell people that you need some space or alone time.
4. Practice Meditation and Create Alone Time
Meditation can be a great resource for empaths. (1) If simply sitting down and meditating is hard for you, there are learn-to-meditate programs out there. That being said, yoga, going for a run, or other types of solo exercise where you are unplugged and doing your own thing can also help you to decompress.
The Most Important Person To Take Care of Is You
Feeling everyone else’s emotions – even the good ones – is very overwhelming. Because empathy is so praised in today’s society, learning to prioritize yourself and your own emotions is challenging, especially for empaths.
It is important to remember that you need to monitor yourself and your own emotions above everyone else’s. You can’t be of help to others if you are drained and exhausted yourself. Just like they say on an airplane, make sure you put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else.
When you’re taken care of, you can then create space to also give others the support they need.
- “How to Tell If You’re an Empath—Plus 3 Self-Care Habits You Need If You Are.” Health. Anthea Levi. December 05, 2017
- “empathy.” Merriam
- “Are You an Empath? 20 Question Self-Assessment Test.” Dr. Judith Orloff
- “The surprising downsides of empathy.” BBC. Richard Fisher. October 2020
- “You have a lot of empathy.” Healthline. Crystal Raypole. November 24, 2019