This is, in no complete terms, the journey of an empath. You fill in any number of empath diagnosis questionnaires. You will find out again and again that yes, you have this unique identity. You begin to practice shielding techniques from the internet, imagining a force field of light around you with emotions of others bouncing off. You become stronger, moving through the world in your bubble. You learn about energy vampires, lingering at every turn to prey on your vulnerability. You quit your job because going in and sitting near sociopaths and narcissists makes you feel physically toxic, each day spent there harming you. You cut ties with the "friends" that fit those categories. You eventually move out of the city to avoid the energies of others.
But most of all, you have to find other empaths in order to survive. You’ll be very lonely without them.
When the idea for our new empath documentary was floated in the office, I reminded myself what I already knew about them. I’d long heard the word “empath” in spiritual circles. At a friend’s 18th birthday, her boyfriend’s healer mother grabbed me, beaming, and whispered that I was one. My vegan friend considers herself an animal empath – able to feel the pain of creatures – and has to change channels if noises of animal cruelty are played in a news segment. I once had an American empath housemate who communicated with angels and ate a lot of organic gluten-free corn chips because they provided good energy. As more people – women in particular – turn to spirituality via the internet, eventually you’ll meet one too.
A simple definition: empaths feel others’ “stuff” as if it’s their own. Imagine someone with a thin emotional membrane through which energy – others emotions, pain, energy – will like a virus travel into the host’s sensitive body. Without training, they’ll be unable to distinguish what is theirs and what has come from the outside. These people are affected greatly by TV, news, violence and suffering of other beings; they need to communicate and talk issues through; are a magnet for people looking for help or to offload and "just know" things beyond a gut feeling. They can clock every time someone is not being honest and cannot bear those who don’t consider the opinions and feelings of others.
I thought I knew who empaths were before filming. I believed in them. The producer, Grant, was more cynical. As, unsurprisingly, were many VICE readers. But the more we met, the more confused I became. When I tried to ask inoffensive but probing questions in the empath Facebook groups and forums in order to understand more, my posts would be deleted, ignored or removed by admins. It rapidly transpired that getting to the heart of what an empath truly was would be complicated.
Since they embody your feelings, every empath – we couldn’t feature them all in the doc – had the ability to tell me I was angry and had anxiety over a core of depression or deep sadness. The first time it happened I was astonished that someone could read me. It became a joke before each reading: how miserable were they going to say I was today? But how else can you read an anxious teeth-grinder with a black and red wardrobe, who swears a lot. I thought again about how many women in their twenties I know aren’t pissed off, anxious or have been depressed at least once. The empaths also all said I was likely an empath. The plot thickened.
When empathy itself becomes a brand, it says more about the capitalist world we live in than the existence of higher gifts.
Our understanding was complicated by the fact that some reported having other gifts like telepathy or mediumship. Ryan Cropper, who features in the doc, genuinely managed to pull one of my thoughts from my brain and left me screaming on the sofa I interviewed him on. He even claimed to have engaged in out-of-body sex with creatures that sounded a lot like the aliens in Avatar, a leap of faith for anyone who hasn't spent a weekend in LA chugging ayahuasca. Some said they were technically empaths but identified as other things – starseeds, indigo children, lightworkers – and through demonstrations of power, we suspected that charlatans were everywhere and empath "strength" was, like everything else, a sliding scale.
Before you write this off entirely, it’s important to know that psychologists don’t. They're starting to research "Highly Sensitive People" (HSPs) in earnest – a less sexy research prospect than their evil cousin the narcissist. “With people who are very sensitive, they can’t not feel empathy,” Dr Michael Pluess at Queen Mary University told us in the doc. “If they are surrounded by people they will pick up on their moods.” Empaths believe that all of them are HSPs but not all HSPs are empaths – empaths are HSPs plus.
It was in this confusion that a gender imbalance arose. The vast majority of those identifying as empaths or HSPs are women. Yet many of the successful YouTubers and spirit guides charging big money are men. Almost everyone, regardless of gender, charges for their empath services. Since rent and bills exist, some would rather use their skills as their source of income than get a nine-to-five. But to me high prices do morally muddy the work when unhappy people and spirituality are involved.
When we met David Sauvage, the New York based empath, it was in the knowledge that he was charging clients $200 an hour to enter their emotional field. He has bought empath as a domain name and during our second day he gave me an “EMPATH” t-shirt, notably in the same font as his site. On that site he’d announced a series of four hour-long group video seminars titled “How to Thrive as an empath”. The content mirrored information already on YouTube, blogs or cheap books on Amazon, but for the price of $129. When empathy itself becomes a brand, it says as much about the power of capitalism as the existence of higher gifts or desire to spread truth.
Sauvage had organised a meet-up group while we were there for empaths from all over the five boroughs. For a fee, you had a space to talk about your struggles navigating in the world, and there were plenty of struggles, physical and emotional. Women sobbed, talked about depression and anxiety, others recalled being under attack by abusive boyfriends or ”narcissists”. One had a panic attack while we all watched. If there was any moment filming that I would've believed that I was an empath too, it was sitting in on the visceral pain of so many women. It felt like a group therapy session or mass purging conducted by a leader, who, as a result of the dynamic, couldn't help coming across as messianic.
It wasn’t my business to question the truth of someone’s emotional landscape or my right to judge what helps anyone understand and heal from pain. I did, however, feel uncomfortable and deeply sad when a man closed the session and these women went off red-eyed into the dark city that felt overwhelmingly threatening to them.
My convoluted thoughts on empaths were confirmed after the video came out. My Instagram and Twitter DMs were full of messages from self-identifying empaths. Not all of the people in that doc were empaths, some warned. Some were just sensitive people who had it wrong. Some were even sociopaths in disguise. In fact, it’s you who are the empath, others said. You are in deep pain and under narcissistic attack.
It was in one of these post-doc exchanges that Alex March, an empath educator, told me that she’d struggled with manipulative people in the community in the past. “I realised how much of these people were hosting seminars, doing mediations, doing reiki, doing shamanic retreats preying on women, wanting their worship, not to actually see them heal.” Not surprising, once you've realised every scene is a microcosm of society at large.
When I questioned whether most sensitive people were really empaths, she gave me the no-bullshit answer I was looking for. “If someone is highly sensitive to energy, they will identify as an empath because there’s not enough information on just being energy sensitive. In this time, the word is being thrown around like wildfire to almost feel a sense of belonging and importance for emotional and energetic sensitivity which keep some trapped.”
One of the only men at the New York meet-up had gone out of curiosity. He said to me afterwards, “Aren’t we supposed to feel for people when they’re in pain? Isn’t that what a human being is meant to be?” He wondered whether plenty of them were fakers and just wanted to feel “special”. I understand why he felt that way but I think ultimately this man is wrong.
Take spirituality out of the question and these women and sensitive people aren’t the ones who have singled themselves out. If you feel deeply, you’ve been told all your life you’re too sensitive. You need to toughen up. You cry too much. If you’re very good at reading people – which I think a lot of women are, more so than even they acknowledge and have attuned to – you are made to feel paranoid when you call your gut feeling.
I look at the documentary through a different lens now. In the current political climate post-Weinstein, women and minorities are getting acknowledgment of the way toxic "energies" have been interacting with theirs. Women are finding that the stories of others like them mirror their own. Victims have felt a collective pain, unable to distinguish between the grief of personal experience and that of others. They're overwhelmed entirely by the news cycle, needing to retreat from social media, remembering the times they’ve been preyed on by vampires in plain sight, the times they’ve wanted to bring topics up but been dismissed.
They tell me that existing as an empath, like being the average sensitive person, can be lonely. The only remedy to that is finding similar people to validate your reality, to confirm that feeling so deeply in a world of cruelty and egos isn't just a curse, but a gift.