Empaths are people who are highly attuned to the emotions of the people around them. This can be an incredibly powerful gift, but it can bring some significant challenges as well.
In this article, we’re going to look at what triggers an empath and how you can take care of yourself.
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Empathy is an important skill for anyone in a relationship, but what does it mean to be an empath? An empath is also known as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), which gives a good clue as to what makes them special1. They’re exceptionally sensitive to the feelings and needs of others.
There is a spectrum of empathy, with empaths and HSPs on one end and narcissists on the other. Researchers typically define approximately the most empathetic 20% as being HSPs2.
But how can you know whether you’re in this group?
Here are the main signs that you’re an empath.
Empaths feel other people’s emotions strongly. Sometimes, this is strong enough that they find it difficult to tell the difference between others’ feelings and their own. This is known as emotional contagion.
Being able to feel other people’s emotions as your own can be a superpower. You’re able to understand those feelings and how they might affect someone. The downside of this is that you experience other people’s strong emotions, such as fear, heartbreak, and grief.
Being an empath means that you are constantly aware of what other people are feeling. If you’re spending a lot of time with other people, you can feel as though you’re being bombarded by their emotions3.
All of this comes at a cost. Spending so much energy focusing on other people and feeling their feelings is exhausting. If you’re a natural empath, you might be able to put up barriers against these emotions, but that takes energy too.
You might not always feel drained by other people’s feelings. If someone is feeling relaxed and happy, they probably won’t be as draining to be around as if they were experiencing very strong emotions. Positive emotions might also be less draining than negative ones.
You might also be more closely attuned to people you know well and care about. This sometimes means that you’re more exhausted after spending time with close friends than you do in a room full of strangers.
Lots of people recognize a natural empath, even if they don’t realize it. If people open up to you about difficult experiences in their lives or turn to you for understanding and support when they are struggling, you might be an empath.
Empaths have typically experienced this for much or all of their lives, which might mean that you don’t realize that this is unusual.
Most people can go on a train journey without the person next to them talking about their relationship problems with their parents. Their boss doesn’t tell them about their marital issues. Their real estate agent doesn’t open up about a recent health scare.
If the people around you do share those kinds of details, they might have realized that you’re an empath… even if you haven’t.
Being highly empathetic gives you insights into other people’s experiences. It points you in the right direction and helps you pay attention to what is important to the people around you.
If you’re the person who says “I wonder what’s wrong with Sarah. She seems really down” or “I think there’s something between Anja and Jacob” only to have all of your friends look at you blankly, you might be an empath. You’re able to pick up subtle cues and interpret them correctly to understand others.
So, what triggers an empath? Firstly, let’s be clear about what we mean by a trigger for an empath.
We’re not using the term trigger in the most restrictive, technical sense, where it refers to a stimulus that sets off a PTSD attack. Empaths can develop PTSD from the strong emotions they encounter, but that’s not what we’re talking about here4.
Instead, we mean something that is going to make it difficult for an empath to cope or leave them overwhelmed by what they are experiencing.
Here are the most common triggers for empaths and what you can do to protect yourself.
One of the overwhelming triggers empaths experience most often is when the people around them are having strong, intense emotions. This is worst when those strong emotions are negative, such as grief, hurt, betrayal, or anger.
Experiencing someone else’s strong, painful emotions can become overwhelming quickly, especially because you have no control or influence over them.
If you experience your own anger, you can confront the person who has hurt you or make a decision to understand and forgive. As an empath sharing those feelings, you don’t have anything you can do to change the underlying emotion.
Coping with other people’s strong emotions also becomes more difficult over time. Most empaths have a certain amount of resilience which allows them to cope with strong emotions5. When this is worn down, you will probably feel much more vulnerable and exposed.
The best way to deal with this trigger for an empath is to work on your self-awareness. Being able to notice when you are feeling someone else’s emotions, as opposed to your own, can help create a sense of distance and allow you to reconnect with your own feelings.
Journaling is often suggested as a helpful tool for promoting self-reflection and improving self-awareness. It’s especially valuable for empaths who are trying to understand the difference between their own emotions and those of others.
Journaling allows you to talk about how you are currently feeling and explore where those feelings might have come from6. You can look back over previous months, or even years, to see patterns. This makes it easier for you to recognize times when you are experiencing other people’s emotions as your own.
Empaths feel a wide variety of emotions coming from other people, but expectation and disappointment can be especially difficult to deal with. This is when being especially observant and in tune with others can be a curse. You might notice other people’s disappointment even when they try to hide it.
This makes it difficult for an empath to ignore those expectations. If other people notice that the empath consistently fulfills their expectations, this can create a vicious cycle. The empath works hard to meet others’ expectations (often putting their own needs last to do so) and the people around them develop higher and higher expectations.
The way out of this cycle is to set and enforce boundaries. This is difficult, especially when you can feel others’ disappointment. It is essential to your happiness and well-being, however.
Try to be clear and direct about your boundaries. Empaths can be very bad at dropping hints because they expect others to notice the same things that they do. This means that an empath’s hints are often too subtle for the people around them to notice.
Practice saying things like “I’m afraid that doesn’t work for me” or “I can’t this time. Sorry.” If you find others’ disappointment overwhelming in person, it’s ok to explain your boundaries in messages or over the phone.
Empaths don’t choose to be so aware of others’ feelings. It seems to be just a part of how they are wired or the result of their past experiences. Being told that you’re oversensitive or that you need to grow thicker skin hurts. It also feels like an unachievable goal.
Remind yourself that your high level of empathy isn’t a weakness. It’s a superpower. You’re able to understand others in a way that others can’t. Try to value your sensitivity and awareness.
This can help to improve your feelings of self-worth more generally. Many empaths struggle with their self-worth and self-esteem. Building these up can help create a protective layer to keep you emotionally safe from the criticisms of others.
Most of us want to spend time with the people we love, but this can become too much for an empath. Even when we love someone, experiencing their emotions constantly for an extended period of time might be too much.
This can be especially difficult during extended celebrations, such as an annual vacation or over the Christmas holiday period.
The solution to this problem is to make sure that you spend enough time alone to refresh and recharge yourself. You will need to find the best ways for you to get the isolation you need.
You might find that having a long bath or retreating to your room for a nap gives you the space you need to feel better. Alternatively, you might want to take a walk alone or take a drive and listen to a podcast.
If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, it might take longer to recover. Some empaths will need several days of peace in order to feel refreshed after a period of overexposure.
Empaths mostly respond to the people around them, especially to those they care about. Unfortunately, you might also find yourself empathizing with complete strangers. Reading the news, especially during difficult times, can trigger an empath to feel helpless, overwhelmed, and out of control.
Often, the best solution to this problem is to try to disengage from at least some of the emotionally overwhelming news we’re all bombarded with. Staying away from social media, news websites, and TV can give you the space to take care of yourself and feel more centered and in control.
You can also try to focus on things that you can control. For example, you might feel overwhelmed hearing stories about war but struggle to disengage. That’s understandable, but fight overwhelm by looking for ways that you can help. For example, you could try volunteering as part of a donations drive.
Being an empath can be extremely helpful in a relationship. You’re able to understand your partner’s feelings and you’re keen to look for ways to look after both of your needs. Your insight and generosity of spirit are incredible attributes, but they are also open to abuse.
Empaths can often find themselves in relationships with narcissists, and they struggle to find their way out7. This can turn into a physically or emotionally abusive relationship which might take years to recover from.
So, why are relationships between empaths and narcissists so common? Narcissists are attracted to empaths because they fulfill all of their needs. An empath pays attention to what their partner feels and sees their partner’s needs and emotions as important. The narcissist also sees their own needs as important and appreciates the attention.
The empath is attracted to a narcissist because they present a false self. That false self typically seems to fulfill the empath’s needs, showing emotions that the empath can deal with easily and leaving them feeling as though they are safe and loved in return.
Once the empath is hooked, the narcissist has no reason to try to leave. They have everything they’re looking for. Typically, the empath is manipulated into staying and falls into a codependent relationship.
The relationship between an empath and a narcissist isn’t a balanced one. It’s parasitic. Neither person puts the empath’s needs first. If you realize that you’re dating a narcissist (or even if you suspect that you are), it’s important to get help and support as soon as you can.
You might want to try working with a great therapist or a relationship coach who can help you to identify some of the toxic behaviors in your relationship and help you keep yourself safe.
When an empath is overwhelmed, they feel as though all of the barriers between them and others’ emotions have dissolved. They can feel other people’s feelings too intensely. They become stressed, anxious, and exhausted.
Empaths are sensitive to the emotions of the people around them, especially people they care deeply about. Different empaths will respond in different ways. Some only respond to people they are physically and emotionally close to whilst others can share the emotions of imaginary characters or strangers in news reports.
Being an empath doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t feel the full range of emotions. They can feel hurt, angry, or betrayed. Some empaths find it difficult to sustain anger because they understand where the other person is coming from, but it’s important that they focus on their own feelings first.
Being an empath can be a superpower, but it can also come with a cost. Learning to set boundaries and focus on your own needs is key to thriving as an empath.
Show you care by sharing this article with the empaths in your life. Or are you the empath in your friendship group? How do you look after yourself? Let us know in the comments below.