By Tammera J Karr, PhD, BCHN, CNW
Words are fascinating, confusing, clarifying, illustrating, frustrating, obscure, alarming, expansive, emotional …. Ok, you are getting the idea that words, both written and spoken, are key to describing a wide range of emotions, feelings, sensations, vistas, images …. oopps, there I go again.
(Before going further: This is purely my opinion. I am not a psychologist and have minimal education in this field. I am also not a member of any esoteric alternative followings that use the term “Empath.” The following is solely based on vocabulary, dictionaries, and comprehension of the American English language).
So what started all this jabber of potential nonsense?
Over the last five years, I have been seeing and hearing the phrase “Empath,”; and dear friends and colleagues have referred to me as an Empath on multiple occasions. Every time this is said, I have an immediate and not good physical and mental response – not reaction as in feeling ill, giddy, or fear, no the response is tightening of the jaw muscles, contraction of tendons in the neck and shoulders, and “intuitive” knowledge that what is being said is false.
Following a weekend of outside enjoyable activities; my husband and I began having this conversation on “what is an empath” after I had seen yet another article, this one titled, “The Retired Empath Concept May Have Saved My Life,”; and my visceral response to the term empath. As is my husband’s routine, go to the dictionary when in doubt. Michael, the husband, initially received his first massive dictionary as a fathers’ day gift – it rated right up there with a toaster or vacuum cleaner as a gift in his mind. Yet this book has turned out to be a tool above all others when it comes to conversations, especially with his wife, me. While he was busy looking in Websters (unabridged), I went to the internet. The words that greeted me on the screen made my teeth hurt from clenching my jaw.
The article began with the following. “Dr. Judith Orloff, a pioneer in the field, describes empaths as those who absorb the world’s joys and stresses like “emotional sponges.” And “Kim Egel, a San Diego-based therapist, expands this further: “Empaths have a higher sensitivity to outside stimuli such as sounds, big personalities, and hectic environments. They bring a lot of heart and care to the world and feel things very deeply.”
Terms describing Major Empathy
Deep Caring Trouble Fitting In
Easily Overwhelmed Problem Solving Isolation
Strong Intuition High Sensitivity Boundary Issues
Love of Nature Need for Rest Unique View
Dislike of Crowds Dislike of Conflict Easily Overloaded
15 Signs You Might Be an Empath by Crystal Raypole on November 24, 2019; Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD
So what did the esteemed compilers of Websters have to say about the words empathy and intuitive?
Definition of empathy
1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
also: the capacity for this
2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
Now for the word I more closely relate to.
Definition of intuition
1: a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence: a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why
a: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference
b: immediate apprehension or cognition
c: knowledge or conviction gained by intuition
2: something that is known or understood without proof or evidence
a: quick and ready insight
While I resonate with the word Intuition; I do not view it as a label necessary or healthy to place on someone, myself included. When we put labels on people, such as “empath,” as a wise woman I know shared with me; “that person has to live up to the meaning of the label.” Labels are not only descriptors; they are constrictors, limiting a person or idea to an imperfect perspective, ability, function, or growth. Labels are not inclusive, nor do they allow for development beyond the boundaries of the label.
We are in a time where individuals …. who do not fit into a column on a spreadsheet find themselves labeled by others; those labels do not adequately reflect the person or their circumstances. Psychologists and researchers love to label and use spreadsheets. The collection of data is often stagnated; a snippet of a person’s life is an imperfect perspective. Because someone loves nature and requires rest, it does not necessarily mean they have depression, are highly sensitive, or avoid conflict. It could simply be the value and recognition of the health benefits of time in nature. There are countless reasons for any one of the previously listed words to apply to an individual, and they may be transient or lifelong. Several of the words apply to me at differing times, others not at all. My aversions to crowds have more to do with the culture I was raised in and live in than empathic labels. Equally, my love of nature does not mean I project my emotions and feelings on the trees and wildlife – I have no way of knowing what is truly involved in the inner cellular chemical reactions that make up my thoughts and emotions, let alone that of a rabbit or giant sequoia. I recognize the fanciful imaginings are not empathic but an idea planted by Disney and children’s stories.
When it comes to labels on people, they are a construct of social engineering. We don’t have to look back into history very far to see how labels have led to biases and discrimination of individuals or cultures. What could lay before us when labeling ourselves or others with terms such as empath is a new bias, consider: empaths are flaky and can’t hold down a job, empaths are trouble makers because they have no boundaries, empaths are mentally unstable, empaths are into weird esoteric stuff ….. and soon discrimination based on personality traits, cultures or lifestyle preferences takes on a very different face.
Genetic traits are affected by the environment in the form of spending time in nature – all well researched; such as better mental health, longevity, and cognition. Additionally, there are negative environmental (time in nature) associations when the label applies to pollution and contaminates linked with cancer and endocrine health. The indirect effects on our health from stress such as that experienced during COVID and the 2020-2021 fire seasons added to the avoidance of crowds. Stress hormone production is not affected only by empathy; stress is a physiological response to life, and adaptation to high stress is the topic of many research articles. Isolation, sensitivity, anxiety, and need for rest can all apply to anyone with a chronic illness, far more than the term empath.
The sensation of being overwhelmed: anyone who has had to deal with the multitude of decisions relating to the passing of an elderly family member – will understand empathy is a poor choice of words for how they were feeling. For us to grow; understanding requires more than a label; all of these conditions are affected by how we feel, cope and interact with others, yet our ability to be sympathetic and compassionate (older and more accurate words) do not separate us from others they connect us on a deeper level. The connection with others is a hallmark of longevity, sustainable health, and mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an intuitive and purposeful action that supports inclusion, not exclusion, on a vast body of subjects, creativity, health, and lifestyles. The label of mindfulness is so broad that every individual, culture, or religion can nurture a balance within the vastness of the label without insurmountable biases and discrimination.
I am not an empath – I am a person who doesn’t need labels, except in my pantry.