What it means to be an empath

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(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)
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A childhood story that sums up a large part of my character starts with my mom running down the stairs of our two-story condominium in Harbor City because she heard me crying.

In the story’s retelling, she always describes the cry as “wailing.” Her immediate thought was I had gotten hurt — I was very accident-prone child (I couldn’t help it — my curiosity would get the best of me).


Instead, she found me sitting on our couch watching Disney’s 1994 “The Lion King” with big tears streaming down my face. When she asked me what was wrong, I responded through gasps of air that — spoiler alert — Simba’s dad died.

I know, I know. It’s just a cartoon, and plenty of children cry at that scene. But I was beyond crushed that this fictional character was dead, and that meant Simba was alone! On screen or in real life, I’ve always felt other’s emotions deeply.

Hi there! My name is Karen Garcia, and I’m a reporter for the Utility Journalism Team for the L.A. Times, filling in this week for your usual newsletter writer, Laura Newberry. This week, I want to explore why some of us have what I call “the big feels,” and researchers call being an empath.

My experience watching “The Lion King” might sound a lot like empathy, but being empathetic means having the ability to understand someone else’s feelings. It doesn’t mean taking on someone else’s feelings as your own.

I didn’t realize this about myself until I noticed as an adult how I absorb others’ mostly negative emotions. Is there a name for this? How do I navigate certain situations to avoid taking on others’ emotions?


Let’s find out! *cue musical number with dancing giraffes*

What does it mean to be an empath?

One important distinction to make is the difference between empaths and highly sensitive people.

I’d heard both terms, but through reporting this piece, I learned that some people identify as an empath, a highly sensitive person, or both. The two traits aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are different.

Disclaimer: A person isn’t specifically diagnosed as being an empath or as a highly sensitive person. These are traits that a person can identify with.


Identifying as a highly sensitive person (sometimes referred to as sensory-processing sensitivity) means the person is more reactive to external stimuli, emotions and environmental cues, said Brian Torres, a Los Angeles-based therapist who specializes in working with highly sensitive people, communities of color and LGBTQ+ folks. Torres said the term was coined by Elaine Aron, clinical research psychologist and author of “Highly Sensitive Person,” and it’s not considered a disorder or condition, but rather a neutral trait (meaning it’s neither good nor bad, but just is).

He also noted that no two highly sensitive people are the same or have the same (or any) empathetic ability.

Generally, people who identify as highly sensitive are more reactive to loud noises 💥, bright lights ⚡ , smells 💨 and textures 👖. Highly sensitive people might feel overwhelmed or overstimulated by their surroundings and may need more time and space to process their emotions and thoughts. (It’s important to note that some of these traits overlap with medical conditions, and it could be worth talking with your therapist, doctor or another trusted advisor if these things are bringing you distress.)

Meanwhile, identifying as an empath takes the sensitivity aspect of feeling an outsider’s emotions to another level — an empath absorbs it.

Like a sponge, an empath takes in all emotions, sensations and energies — sad, happy, good, bad and everything in between, said Linda Yoon, founder of Yellow Chair Collective. Her L.A.-based psychotherapy practice specializes in providing therapy and support group services to people who identify as highly sensitive and as empaths.

Yoon, who uses the pronouns she/they, said there are three main types of empaths, and a person can identify as one or all of these types.

An emotional empath feels the emotions of those around them as if they were their own. A physical empath feels the physical sensations (pain, discomfort and illness) of others in their own body. Lastly, a spiritual empath possesses a deep understanding of the spiritual and energetic aspects of life.


There are many other variations and combinations of empathic abilities, Yoon said, such as the ability to sense the emotions of animals, plants or even the environment.

“Empaths possess a truly remarkable gift that can bring beauty, healing and understanding to the world,” they said.

Signs you might be an empath

Yoon, a self-identified empath and highly sensitive person, said growing up they remember feeling emotions intensely.

“When I saw or heard about other people who were suffering, I felt like I instantly felt their pain in my body and often cried as if their suffering was my own,” she said.

After hearing about Yoon’s personal experience, I reflected on my own experiences with conflict. Whenever anyone in my immediate family argues, I feel overwhelmingly hurt, even though I was not part of the argument. Their pain is mine and because I can’t fix their quarrel I feel even worse — to the point of physical symptoms, like a migraine.

This type of energy transference is one of the many signs that you (and maybe I) might be an empath.


Here are others, provided by Yoon:

  • 🌆 You feel overwhelmed in crowded or busy places, which can leave you feeling exhausted, drained or even physically unwell.
  • 💆‍♂️ You have a low threshold for stimulation and may need alone time to recharge.
  • 🤹‍♀️ You have a tendency to take on other people’s emotions as your own. It literally feels like their emotions are in your body.
  • 🕵️‍♀️ You have a strong intuition that allows you to sense when something is off or when someone is not being honest.
  • 😔 You have experienced a sense of not fitting in or feeling misunderstood because of your sensitivity.
  • 🥴 You may experience exhaustion and burnout frequently due to the overwhelming nature of your sensitivity.

If you identify with many of these traits, you might be an empath — but Yoon said it’s important to remember there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what it means to be an empath.

The science behind empaths

While empathy has been studied in psychology and related fields for many years, the specific term “empath” has emerged more recently, and studies are limited.

Yoon said the limitation is because there’s no agreed-upon definition. Some people see being an empath as a spiritual or psychic ability, while others see it as a psychological or neurological trait, and thus measuring empathic ability in the scientific community is challenging.

The community is also divided on whether true empaths actually exist, added Kim Penberthy, University of Virginia professor of research in psychiatric medicine.

Penberthy said the findings from one study in 2018 could suggest empaths exist. In the study, researchers discovered “mirror neurons” in the brain that might help us mirror the emotions of those we come in contact with, she said. It may be the case that some people have more mirror neurons than others, hence the potential phenomenon of empaths.

Challenges to being an empath

All the professionals I spoke to said the biggest challenge for empaths is distinguishing the line between another person’s emotions or energies, and their own.


Yoon further explained that the constant absorption of emotional information from other people can make it challenging to discern what an empath is truly feeling and thinking. This lack of clarity can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion or feeling overwhelmed.

Yoon shared general tips on how empaths can practice self-care to avoid feeling emotionally drained. (These are also great tips for our non-empath pals.)

  • Set boundaries. Learn to say “no” when you need to and set limits on the time and energy you give to others.
  • Practice mindfulness. Take some time each day to be still and orient to the present moment.
  • Spend time in nature. Being in nature can be very calming and rejuvenating for empaths.
  • Engage in creative activities. Take up painting, drawing or writing to express your emotions and recharge your energy.
  • Take care of your physical health. Make sure you’re eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and engaging in regular exercise.
  • Energy protection visualization. Use visualization techniques (for example, taking a long shower where you imagine washing away any emotions/energy that doesn’t belong to you) to protect or cleanse your energy.
  • Connect with other empaths. Find a community of like-minded individuals can be very validating and supportive.

Feeling another person’s emotions often leads an empath to want to alleviate that person’s emotional pain. While this sounds (and can be) negative, it can also be an asset in an empath’s personal and professional life.

Yoon said empaths are often drawn to careers in fields such as counseling, psychology, social work or healthcare.

“They possess an innate ability to connect with others and provide meaningful support and guidance,” Yoon said. “In personal relationships, empaths tend to be compassionate and understanding partners and friends.”

I would add careers in journalism to the list. As a journalist, I’ve always felt it important to build trust and connection with the communities and the people I cover. Both my empathy and empath traits help me listen to the people I’m interviewing with intention and ask difficult questions with humility.

The stereotype of a grizzled hard-charging reporter has never resonated with me. That’s only one approach to journalism, and I am accepting that my approach adds immense value, too.


My takeaway

Through this reporting I’ve learned a lot about myself and others who feel deeply — it’s OK to have the “big feels.” It just means we have an enhanced ability to connect with people, and sometimes we have to learn how to set boundaries so we don’t carry others’ emotions too far along with us.

Thank you for being in this space with me,


If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources

Yellow Chair Collective’s highly sensitive people and empath support group has had more than 10 group cohorts in the last two years. The wait-listed groups offer support, self-exploration tools and skills development and building of resources. One group is specifically for Asian Pacific Islander South Asian American (APISA) adults.

If you’re looking for more resources on highly sensitive people, read “The Empath’s Survival Guide” by Judith Orloff. Orloff goes into detail about the differences between highly sensitive people and empaths; and further explores what an intuitive empath is (an individual who can sense emotions of animals).

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Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.