Human beings vary in their degree of sensitivity, by which I mean that there are some people who are highly sensitive and who feel emotions very intensely, whereas there are others who display little sensitivity towards others and who also do not seem to be as affected by their environment or the people around them. Empaths are people who are empathetic and sympathetic towards others, and also experience the world as a highly sensitive person.
From Sociopaths to Empaths
There appears to be about 3-5 percent of the human population that fall under the category of sociopathic, which does not mean that they are all murderers, but does mean that they operate their lives in a way by which their primary concern is always about themselves, and they do not have the ability to see things from the perspective of others. They may feel very little true guilt or shame about doing harmful things to others. Another 1 percent is considered psychopathic, with higher percentages of both sociopaths and psychopaths found among criminal populations.
There is another end of the spectrum though, who are rather the opposite of the sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists, which is those who are highly sensitive individuals, sometimes referred to as Empaths. Interestingly, highly sensitive people comprise about 20% of the population. Empaths are a kind of highly sensitive person that extends their ability to experience the feelings deeply of others as well as themselves. Empaths are people who identify with and feel intense empathy towards others. This does not mean that they are inherently fragile or overly-emotional. It means that they feel things deeply, think about things deeply, and take on the emotions and experiences of others as their own.
Who Are the Empaths?
Being highly sensitive is a temperament trait, not a disorder or a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, it is a trait that likely has some benefit as a survival trait, because high sensitivity exists in over 100 different species of animals as well. For example, certain dogs may be more sensitive and empathetic, which makes them amazing companion animals and also great therapy dogs. These animals, as well as highly sensitive people, are very responsive to small changes in their environment.
Empaths often find themselves worrying not only about their own problems and experiences, but the problems and experiences of their friends and families, people they may not even know, and the problems of the world at large. While many people do think and care about these things, empaths tend to have a more intense personal emotional response to these things, and may find themselves exhausted at caring so much about everything. Both men and women can be empaths, and highly sensitive individuals exist in similar rates in both men and women.
Empaths typically have the following characteristics as part of their general personality and constitution:
- Highly emotionally responsive, ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others
- Easily empathize with animals
- May cry easily, even at seemingly innocuous moments, commercials or movies
- Tend to be creative and curious, with a desire to learn about and understand the world
- Susceptible to over-stimulation, such as crowds, loud noises, or over-work
- May be inclined towards caring professions, such as nursing, mental health, or teaching
- May burn-out easily and need reclusive time to recover
- Tend to observe quietly and take things in
- Mentally process information deeply and thoroughly
Empaths may often feel different than others, feel misunderstood, or have a hard time understanding why others in the world care so little compared to them. This can lead to a tendency towards introversion, although not all empaths or highly sensitive people are introverted. Many empaths have been told throughout their lives that their way of perceiving the world is wrong, or that they need to “get over” their feelings. However, recognizing that you are a highly sensitive person or an Empath may help you to understand more about what your unique needs are by learning to value the traits that you have and use them as a strength.
What do Empaths Need?
Empaths tend to work well independently, and also work well in settings that are one-on-one with another person. Workplace environments with a lot of people, or that are very noisy and simulating may leave empaths feeling drained rather than energized. Socializing may lead to similar experiences. Knowing that certain environments will feel over-whelming and lead to feeling unwell may help empaths make decisions about career paths and socialization choices that will lead to more fulfilling experiences.
Empaths also may need to have down-time in between experiences that are overwhelming. For example, after going to a party one evening, an empath may need to make sure they schedule time for solitude in order to recover and regain energy. They may similarly need to schedule down-time after situations that require a lot of emotional energy, such as caregiving for others, volunteering for charity work, or even engaging with friends to support them.
Knowing if you are an empath may help you understand how to express your needs more assertively. Empaths may often have difficulty asking for help or even saying “No” when others request help from them. Their tendency is to try to solve problems for others, but this may sometimes result in the empathic person neglecting their own needs. Learning to say no to some obligations or requests for help, and learning to schedule time for yourself in order to recover your sense of energy can have a positive effect on your overall mood and improve your ability to interact with the world.
As an Empath, recognize that your highly sensitive qualities are a strength, both to yourself and your community. Sometimes, you may wish that you could not care as much because of how deeply everything affects you. However, the world needs highly sensitive people who are attuned to others and who care about how others think and feel. Empaths have likely long been the healers and the nurturers in human communities, and have been valuable to the societies they live in. However, empaths can also learn to care as much about themselves as they do others, which they certainly deserve due to the value they bring to other’s lives.
As part of my ongoing series about cognitive distortions, I’m going address Emotional Reasoning in this post. Emotional reasoning refers to the mistaken belief that everything you feel must be true. In this way, we can sometimes trick ourselves into believing that our feelings are facts. To the contrary, sometimes our emotions cloud our judgement, and we don’t always read the situation correctly when we allow our emotions to affect our interpretation of the situation we are in. Sometimes we need to step back from our emotional response to a situation and try to see if our emotions are taking us to a conclusion that may not be really true.
Here are some examples of emotional reasoning and thoughts that may occur when you might need to think twice about whether or not what you feel is really true:
- “ I feel rejected and hurt, and therefore you have rejected me”
- In this case, someone may or may not have rejected you. A person may have been trying to set boundaries with you by telling you not to call repeatedly when they are unavailable. Your feelings of rejection may be due to insecurities you have, but you also need to respect the boundaries other people set in their own lives and relationships. Or perhaps you were passed over for a job offer, and you were one qualified candidate in a competitive position, but fell short of the final cut. This doesn’t mean the company didn’t think you would have done a good job or that your skill set wasn’t valuable.
- “I feel like a bad friend, therefore I must be a bad friend.”
- Sometimes you may judge yourself too harshly for making a mistake. Being human, you’re bound to do things you regret from time to time, but this doesn’t make you a terrible person. When you do make mistakes, try to own up to them and repair the damage when you can, but don’t believe that you are defined by every mistake you’ve ever made.
- “I feel lonely, therefore no one cares about me”
- It’s hard to face problems on your own when you don’t have much support from others. However, sometimes we can get to feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of reaching out to others when we feel vulnerable and need support. Oftentimes, it’s easier to sit with our feelings by ourselves than acknowledge that we need help. However it’s important to reach out to your support system when you can. Sometimes, your friends and family may not know that you are struggling, but would want to be there for you if they could. It’s important when you feel this way to step back from your emotions and try to account for the support that you DO have, even if it’s not in the most likely places.
- “I’m angry with you, therefore you must have done something wrong.”
- Anger is difficult to step back from, but it’s very important that you understand where your anger is coming from and how much control you have over it. Sometimes we get angry with others for things that cause us distress, but often times anger is really a reflection of how we’re feelings about ourselves. For example, you may feel angry at your partner for not doing something you expected from them, but you never actually verbalized what you needed. You feel angry that your partner didn’t anticipate your needs, but you may not recognize that it was your responsibility to communicate your needs to your partner.
- “I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless.”
- Self-esteem can be a struggle if you have been suffering from a mental illness or have experienced trauma in your life. It can be hard to separate your feelings of low self-worth from your outlook on life, but this is where it’s important to take stock in what your values are. Sometimes we give other people more courtesy than we give ourselves. Whenever you find yourself struggling with negative thoughts about yourself, ask yourself who gave you those messages about yourself and if you would say those things to someone that you cared about. If you wouldn’t tell someone you care about that they are worthless, than you shouldn’t say those things to yourself. Feeling down or struggling with the situation you are in at this moment doesn’t mean that you have to listen to thoughts that make you feel worse about yourself.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our emotions that we choose to ignore evidence that goes against how we feel. So maybe your friend sent you an invitation to an event on Facebook, but because she didn’t reach out personally to make sure you were coming you still choose to believe she doesn’t really care if you come hang out or not. Or perhaps you become overwhelmed with a presentation you have to give at work, and take this to mean that you must be in over your head and you’re not cut out for the job, despite the fact that your supervisor picked you for the project.
If you think you might be engaging in emotional reasoning and you want to make sure you are not letting your emotions cloud your judgment of the situation, ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I overlooking my strengths?
- Am I discounting evidence that would lead me to reach a different conclusion?
- Am I basing my conclusions on my emotions or facts?
- What would you say to a friend that was in your situation?
- Am I struggling to give myself the same advice that I would give to my friend?
These questions will help you evaluate your situation with more clarity and determine if emotional reasoning is getting in the way of your progress. Emotions are important, and we shouldn’t just ignore them. But keep in mind that relying on our emotions to guide us doesn’t always give us the full picture of what’s happening and what all of our options are. Don’t forget that you are in charge of your mentality, even when it gets overwhelming.
For more on Cognitive Distortions, check out the other posts in this series:
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
Social media has changed our lives in so many ways, including how we communicate with our friends. There have been many positive things that have come out of the rise of social media, such as reconnecting with old friends we haven’t seen or spoken to in many years, maintaining ties with people when you’re no longer living in the same area anymore, the ability to quickly connect and communicate with new friends you meet, and even connecting and communicating with people you haven’t met yet. It’s been a great platform to share information, vocalize your views and opinions, or keep up with new happenings in the lives of people you care about. However, social media can doubtlessly be problematic too. With the rise of social media came the rise of cyber-bullying, the spread of fake news, and the virtual version of Un-friending.
In many ways, social media has complicated our friendships and other relationships. Whereas you used to only have to hear your Uncle Fox ranting about politics once a year at Thanksgiving, now he may be blowing up your newsfeed with fake news every day. Or worse, your best friend from high school hasn’t grown up much since then and is now engaging in unnecessary mudslinging and stirring up drama online, publicly hashing out her grievances and causing friction and conflict in front of everyone you’ve ever met. Sometimes it’s easy to know when to un-friend someone online, such as in instances of cyber-bullying or malicious interactions with people you don’t really know that well or care much about. However, at other times it can be more difficult, because you will still see this person in your real life at least sometimes, or because you actually value your relationship with that person and don’t want to lose them as a friend.
There are a few considerations you can use to determine if you should un-friend someone on your social media pages, and how you can continue to be friends in real life without having to lose a relationship that you value. Ask yourself a few questions first to find out if you need to restructure your contacts or rethink your online relationships.
1: Do I interact with this person in my real life on a regular basis, or is this someone that I only see sporadically when we happen to be around a mutual acquaintance?
- If you don’t have a relationship with a person in your real life, and your interaction with them is mostly online, you don’t really need them bringing negativity into your online social scene. It’s usually fine to un-friend this person without further ado and not worry about it, because you’re not really going to see them much anyways, and you both will probably benefit from less interaction with each other. If you do engage with this person in real life regularly, you may choose to use a different feature to reduce their impact on your page. On many social pages you can mute or hide the person so that you remain “friends” online, but you aren’t subjected to seeing their posts anymore. Check your platform’s settings to see how you can utilize those tools.
2: Does this person typically make my day better or worse when I see their posts on my page?
- If someone is constantly posting things that annoy, enrage, offend, or otherwise sour your mood, you most likely don’t need them on your page. See the above reference to determine what the best course of action is in this case. However, even if you don’t interact in-person with someone on a regular basis, if their posts generally make you happy because they are full of positivity, and you like keeping up with them and seeing what they’re doing, then it’s obviously fine to keep them in your feed.
3: Do I believe this person actually cares about me and/or my family, or are they someone who wouldn’t be there for me in my real life if I needed some support?
- Needless to say, if someone is making your day worse by being annoying, offensive, negative, or disrespectful, you probably don’t need them in your online life. However, if regardless of those things, you still value the relationship and believe they value it as well, then a careful approach is necessary. You still have the option to mute or hide their posts. If it doesn’t seem to be beneficial to have them on your page at all though, and you still want to preserve the friendship after removing them from your page, you can take steps to ensure the relationship isn’t damaged by the change in status.
If you want to remain friends with someone after un-friending, un-following, or blocking someone on your social media pages, then in person or phone contact is sometimes necessary afterwards. This doesn’t mean you have to bring up the subject of un-friending them, but actually seeing each other or hearing other’s voices will reassert that the friendship is still valuable and you want to remain friends. If there has been some kind of a significant conflict that played out in the social media world, particularly if it was public, then you may want to discuss the conflict and hash things out in person before writing the relationship off for good. The important thing is that you make the effort to engage with the person after un-friending so that you both can recognize that you still care about the relationship. If you are one who un-friended, it should be you that reaches out first.
There are times when this is unnecessary. First, they may not have even noticed that you un-friended them. There’s no point in making a big deal about something if you didn’t often engage in each other’s posts. They may just think you haven’t been online much lately or didn’t notice that your posts weren’t showing up in their feed. If they did notice or they bring it up, try not to make personal attacks. Make a more general point about why you made that decision. For example, if it was about politics, you can say “Listen, I just made the decision that it was healthier for me to reduce the political chatter on my feed because it was stressing me out”. Or, if it was about because there was a public spat online, you can say “Look, I value our friendship and I didn’t want to continue to hash out our problems in front of everyone online, so I’d rather us talk things through in person”.
What if you’ve been un-friended by someone else? First of all, don’t freak out or get offended. If the relationship is meaningful to both of you in real life, you can still be friends or acquaintances and you don’t have to run in the other direction or escalate a conflict. All of the above advise still applies, and sometimes the best way to repair a damaged online relationship is to make more of an effort to get together in person and/or via phone and focus on building real interactions instead of virtual ones. If it wasn’t a very meaningful relationship in the first place, then it’s no loss and everyone can go about their business feeling better about the online friends they do have. You can still see your uncle at Thanksgiving and seat yourself at the opposite end of the table like you always do. Don’t let social media ruin important relationships that you value, but keep in mind that you certainly don’t have to allow people or posts on your newsfeed to make your day worse for no identifiable reason. Now go adjust those settings!