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In an interview during the second episode of this season of The Bachelor, Victoria, the season’s recently ousted villain who showed up on night one in a queen’s crown, described herself as “an empath.” After stirring up drama out of thin air with another woman and calling her “toxic,” Victoria goes on to explain that as an empath, being around “toxic energy” is overwhelming and has the tendency to take over her entire state of being.
The concept of being an empath—or an individual who has “the ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation,” according to the r/Empaths subreddit—has become popular online and in pop psychology in recent years. R/Empaths, created in December 2013, has nearly 80,000 connected users and appears to be extremely active, with a constant stream of posts lamenting the difficulties and joys of being an empath. (One recent post, titled “Being an Empath in this cruel world can be crippling,” distills the subreddit’s vibe well.) Beyond the subreddit, there’s an American Empath Association, which charges dues ranging from $5 per month to $320 per year. Some empaths, as previously reported on by VICE UK, charge for “empathic readings,” in which they tell someone what it is they’re feeling deep down. If, unlike Victoria, you aren’t sure whether you are an empath, countless online lists offer traits to help you figure it out. (One list linked on r/Empaths includes vague, disparate signs like being a lover of animals and nature, an inability to do things you don’t like, and having an “eclectic taste in music”). There are also countless online empath tests, all dedicated to helping one figure out if they are an empath; each asks variations on the question, “Do you often feel the pain of others?”
Feeling the pain of others is a normal component of human development, and is described in psychological terms as “empathy.” But empaths online find community in feeling so much empathy for people, animals, and even the earth that it can be draining and debilitating. A core tenant of being an empath seems to be a need to safeguard one’s energy, because being in large crowds or near toxic, negative, or generally downer energy can be deeply distressing. From the language offered online and in empath communities, it’s hard to discern whether being an empath is a gift or a burden. What is clear is that being an empath isn’t a concept that appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or elsewhere in psychiatric literature, at least not as of this writing. (The lack of mention in the DSM-5 is a point of contention among empaths; Judith Orloff, the preeminent psychologist of empaths and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, has said that empaths are often misdiagnosed with social anxiety.) While the ability to pick up more intensely on someone’s emotions may be real—some people are more empathic than others—the powers associated with being an empath as described online appear to be bogus pop psychology.
“I did a literature search on empaths and I could only find one paper,” Amy Canevello, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, told VICE. “It’s really a pop culture thing; it’s not really a psychology thing.”The idea of being an empath, in fact, doesn’t stem from psychology, but originates with a season three episode of Star Trek from 1968, in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter a woman who has the uncanny ability to take on the pain of others. In one scene from the episode, the woman touches Kirk’s face and a gash he has on his forehead disappears, and then reappears in the same place on her face. “The wound is completely healed; she must be an empath,” a stunned McCoy responds, as the woman falls faint onto the floor. “Her nervous system is so sensitive and highly responsive she can actually feel our emotional and physical reactions, they become part of her.” Empaths also appear in the Marvel universe, though usually as villains who manipulate others by reading and altering their thoughts and emotions. The duality of empaths as they appear in Star Trek and Marvel comics encapsulates the grueling dichotomy that empaths online say they struggle with. The three central tenets of being an empath, as listed on the r/Empaths page, include a responsibility to obtain consent before invading another person’s thoughts, avoiding explaining other people’s feelings to them, and avoiding draining your own energy at the expense of someone else.
John Moore, a psychotherapist, acknowledged that while all of this may sound very “woo-woo,” the degree to which some people can pick up on the emotions and feelings of others falls on a spectrum. Some people are more sensitive to feelings and energy than others, and for highly sensitive individuals, that awareness can be overwhelming, he said. (It is funny, and perhaps even sort of touching, to think of fans of a hard sci-fi TV show like Star Trek holding up “the ability to empathize with others” as an otherworldly superpower.) But he clarified that empathic ability isn’t some sort of clairvoyant, mind-reading superpower, as some self-identified empaths claim.“I’ve worked with people over the years—and this may sound woo-woo—who can sense when some tragedy has happened in the world, and sometimes they’ll write or talk about it,” Moore told VICE. “It’s not like they’re mind reading, they’re just picking up on an intense emotion that’s happening somewhere.”Moore also mentioned that many therapists keep a book titled Self Care For Empaths in their offices. “They may hide it, but it’s there,” he said, adding that while being an empath may not be widely accepted, some of the ideas behind it—being more sensitive and attuned to peoples’ feelings–are. The perceived burden, in other words, feels very real to those who identify as empaths, and Canevello said that pain is a likely reason why empaths form such tight bonds in online communities. “It sounds like there’s this inherent difficulty in being an empath; if you have a piece of your identity that’s kind of a painful thing, then it makes a ton of sense that you would look for support,” Canevello said. “There may be some perceived stigma, as a result. Maybe feeling like you’re not understood because you’re an empath and you have these experiences and people can’t really relate to them, and it might feel lonely.” Feeling misunderstood also appears to be a key component of the empath identity. When people have asked on Quora, for example, whether empaths are real, inevitably, a self-identified empath steps in to explain that the idea of “feeling other peoples’ emotions in your body as if they are your own… might sound made up” to someone who is neither an empath or a highly sensitive person. Part of that frustration may also be spurred by people like Victoria, throwing the term “empath” around with abandon as they stomp on the feelings of others on a reality TV show. Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.