Empath – (chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend (or perceive) the mental or emotional state of another individual.~New Oxford American Dictionary
empath – one who experiences the emotions of others; a person who has empathy for others~Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Is there such a thing as a true Empath? Or is this just another word that has been turned from a common noun (empathy) or an adjective (empathic) into a proper noun? In seeking a true Empath, it’s important to get the semantics out of the way first. There appears to be a new form of usage emerging where people are declaring themselves “Empaths”. The word Empath dates to the 1950s and rose chiefly out of science fiction, but now it’s being used in a manner similar to the word “telepath”.
Look at some memes on the internet about being an Empath, and the ideas seem to run astray. Many of them refer to reading body language, facial expressions, and interpreting behaviors to figure out what a person might be thinking or feeling. This isn’t empathy, and it’s not what an Empath would do. Empathy does not involve ‘reading’ other people or figuring things out consciously. It’s about connecting and feeling something on a deeper level.
True Empaths are primarily a science fiction idea, and they typically fall into two opposing categories. One is the child who can magically sense the feelings of others—possessing a natural paranormal ability—and as they grow older they lose the ability. Sometimes the loss of the ability is linked to having sex, and this type of Empath is often female. The second type is a person who learns how to perceive the feelings of others through physical contact—like the Vulcan Mind Meld from Star Trek. These Empaths are often male and achieve the ability once they come of age. It’s nice to believe in things we first saw in film or TV, but in real life it’s not so easy to know the thoughts and feelings of others.
Perhaps television is to blame for this idea that we can read others through their expressions and behavior. Using facial expressions to relate inner feelings is the purview of the actor. When learning acting for the stage or screen, a person spends many hours in front of a mirror or in workshops trying to perfect a ‘take’ that relates a certain inner emotion. There are some tropes and facial expressions in acting that belie the actual emotions a person is feeling inside. Character actors have a face type that gets them cast as the ‘good’ sheriff or the ‘bad’ gunslinger, but that’s only because they ‘look’ the part. With all the screen acting that the modern person sees, might it be that we’re all developing a false sense of being able to ‘read’ the thoughts and emotions of others?
Ordinary people aren’t acting out their lives. Awareness of body language and facial expressions usually develops in the early teens, and people start to control the messages they might be sending out. Some people are naturally stoic or have faces that belie their inner workings…poker face…resting bitch face… still waters run deep…? Also, studies in human communication show that people can read faces of their own family or ethnic group better than faces they weren’t familiar with at a young age, and they attach more negative ideas and emotions to other ethnic groups.
If someone tells you they’re an Empath who knows your feelings before you figure them out for yourself, consider they might be stuck somewhere between sensory processing sensitivity and borderline personality disorder. Empathy and compassion are great qualities to learn and possess. It seems they are in short supply these days, and that politicians and business people want to exploit the ability to ‘read’ others for profit.
The idea of becoming a “true empath” is a being sold, but is empathy really being learned? The true empathic teacher isn’t trying to sell you anything, and they don’t know you better than you do. The key to knowing what someone else thinks or feel is listening to them, not ‘reading’ them.