What Does It Feel Like to Be Empathetic in the World Today?

Carol A. Hand

Have you ever felt a deep sense of kinship or overwhelming revulsion upon meeting someone for the first time? Seen someone’s face change as you gazed at them, like the layers of an onion dissolving to reveal deeper layers of light or darkness? Felt the weight of too many conflicting thoughts and emotions as you looked out at an audience when you lectured or entered a crowd? Been the person in the crowd whom strangers gravitated to in order to seek help or share their stories and troubles? How can you deal with this level of unwanted sensitivity in a household, organization, or world that is too often filled with chaos, unkindness and violence?

crouching child

Drawing: Carol A. Hand

We are told by religions that compassion is essential for a world at peace, that empathy – “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings” – is a crucial foundation for compassion.

“Being an empath is when you are affected by other people’s energies, and have an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive others. Your life is unconsciously influenced by others’ desires, wishes, thoughts, and moods. Being an empath is much more than being highly sensitive and it’s not just limited to emotions. Empaths can perceive physical sensitivities and spiritual urges, as well as just knowing the motivations and intentions of other people. You either are an empath or you aren’t. It’s not a trait that is learned. You are always open, so to speak, to process other people’s feelings and energy, which means that you really feel, and in many cases take on the emotions of others.” (Source)

compassion greatergood dot berkeley dot edu

Photo: Compassion ( Source )

But what happens when you don’t understand what’s happening to you or how to shut it off when you need to listen to your own heart in order to balance? It has been helpful for me to learn more about what it means to be an empath and admit to myself that this is something I was probably born with – as both a strength and a weakness.

“Empaths may be excellent storytellers due to an endless imagination, inquisitive minds and ever-expanding knowledge. They can be old romantics at heart and very gentle. They may also be the “keepers” of ancestral knowledge and family history….

“The downside is that empaths may bottle up emotions and build barriers sky-high so as to not let others know of their innermost thoughts and/or feelings…. Without a doubt, this emotional withholding can be detrimental to one’s health, for the longer one’s thoughts and/or emotions aren’t released, the more power they build. The thoughts and/or emotions can eventually becoming explosive, if not crippling.” (Source)


Photo: A View Through the Fence, Bushes, and Trees – June 11, 2015

I do genuinely want to like and see the good in everyone I encounter. It’s what has helped me be a good teacher, public speaker, program and policy developer, and qualitative researcher. But it also has its downsides. Perhaps, like me, you overemphasize your analytic abilities and try to ignore and control emotions. You hide out as much as possible in your free time, building barriers to control interactions with others or create ways to focus your attention on a clear sense of purpose for every planned encounter. You avoid reading depressing or violent news or watching violent or insipid movies or shows. (Something that’s impossible to do when you teach classes about social policy.) But what happens when your boundaries are unpredictably breached in ways that make you too vulnerable to others’ negative energy? I’m still trying to find an acceptable answer to that dilemma. Breathe, meditate, garden, focus on doing something motivated by love, refuse to engage with people who seem to be stuck in negativity, and resist the inclination to isolate oneself even further?

I welcome your thoughts and ideas…

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

43 thoughts on “What Does It Feel Like to Be Empathetic in the World Today?

  1. I don’t really consider myself an empath but I am sensitive to people with negative energy and of course, love to be around those with positive outlooks. I just can’t be around negative people as it is so draining. We had to distance ourselves from some relatives because it was exhausting to have them over. My husband and I are not reclusive but keep mainly our own company. It can be very difficult to have empathy in this world in trying to understand why people act the way the do or refuse to help themselves. I dislike watching the news with all the terrible things you see and hear about. I struggle because I don’t want to bury my head in the sand, either. We should all operate from love and then things would be different. Many blessings to you, Carol, and your ever thoughtful posts!

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  2. I have found really having a strong connection with my center.. knowing who I am and being connected with my experiences (inner and outer) and staying with what is right in front of me to be helpful.. When it gets to be “too much” I focus right in front of me and kind of don’t take in anymore… Sometimes simple visualizations… like drawing the shades down on the outer world for a bit.. I keep my focus in the calm in my heart.. accepting all that shows up… I’m writing a new little book called “Heart Space” to share a little of what has been helpful to me. It is definitely a challenge to be sensitive and awake in the world right now… but I am honored to be in the world in this way and have so much gratitude for sensitive souls… This world needs us! ❤ Laurie xx

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  3. A Buddhist, paradoxically, sees encounter with negative persons or situations as opportunity to practice the philosophy and are thankful for them. Albert Einstein had a way of cutting through to the essence of things:

    “There are two ways that you can live your life: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

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  4. I believe I understand your context, but I’m not sure the meaning of negativity. Is it just a general feeling of contempt, cynicism, or contrariness that some emit. Or, is it the awareness of injustice and suffering? Is it negative to be an empath? Is it negative to speak of injustice or never letting it far from your mind? Of course it certainly can be, but I think it doesn’t have to be. Conversely, is positive to be oblivious?

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    1. These are such important questions, Peter. I’ll try to explain this.

      I have worked with people who appeared “nice,” or reasonable on the surface, but whose behavior toward people who were vulnerable was actually extremely cruel. (In fact, the words malevolent or “evil” are more accurate descriptors of the harm they seemed to knowingly inflict on others. Some resulted in suicide.) In their presence, I often felt a strong sense of unease, that something was off balance, dissonant, discordant. Sometimes the dissonance between the surface appearance and their primary essence revealed itself in ways that I found “trippy.”

      And I am always thrown off-balance when I feel an initial sense of repulsion when I meet someone for the first time. It’s not based on any physical characteristic (age, gender, ancestry, etc.) It’s a feeling. My logical, analytical approach helps me step back and give people a chance to show me who they are through their actions. But honestly, I can’t remember a time when my initial sense of repulsion was wrong (self-fulfilling prophesy?). But I can remember many instances when my initial sense of kinship was not what it seemed. Just give people a little power …

      Is it negative to be an empath? It can be if you misuse it, and it’s damn painful. Until you learn what’s going on you really wonder who you are. You wonder what reality is.

      In the instance of social justice, it’s the behavior that I witness, the attitudes expressed and the patterns of words and behaviors across time, not the feeling, that sometimes force me to speak up and take action. So I guess you could say feelings are a warning of what might be beneath surface appearances. It’s a prompt to be careful and watchful.

      All people do have unique abilities – and there have been many times when I was not grateful for this one… It’s disconcerting and painful to put it mildly.

      I hope I’ve answered your questions 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      1. You have answered my question.

        And I might say, I think yours a gift however painful the experience may be at times. This gives you advantage, yes? Mine is more of an analytical assessment. More right than wrong I like to think, and sometimes I do sense things, I think.

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    2. After more reflection, Peter, I wonder if you were asking if I saw committed advocates who point out the evils in the world as negative? The answer is “it depends.” I don’t ever have that feeling when I read your work, although I’m careful about making sure I am sufficiently balanced to bear the sorrow I suspect I will feel. I admire your passion and am grateful for all that I learn from you. Your kind and wounded heart shows in your genuinely caring work.

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      1. Your post spoke to me personally, Carol, in that I felt a sense of guilt as I read it that I might come across as a negative person, being that I focus much on negative aspects of existence. However, I don’t believe I am. I’ve still a wee sense of humor, and animals love me and babies always smile at me. That should say something. I’m not sure what though. Babies and animals are bad judges of character, maybe? 😉

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        1. I think babies and animals are the best judges – they read hearts and it’s clear to me that yours is kind and loving. You just seem willing to live with the burden of empathizing with the suffering of animals and speaking truth – not a pretty truth, but an honest one that many don’t want to hear. That’s not what I mean by “negative.” The negative ones are the ones who carry out and profit from the abuse and murder you protest.

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  5. I believe I am an empath. I didn’t understand my shifts in feeling when I was around certain people. It took me years to discover this whole empath thing. I try and remind myself that my feeling around someone is not usually my own. I am actually feeling what the other person in the room is feeling. It helps me react differently or more positively than I might if I don’t keep this whole concept in mind. Limiting interaction with certain people helps but sometimes they are family members and distance is not an option. Great post and it helps to know there are others who share this problem as well. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and the observations and insights you shared. It is challenging to figure out to deal with some of the people who are in our circles of family and friends, isn’t it? Thank you for sharing your experiences and kind words.

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  6. Oh, I really needed to read your post today! Funny how when one is a bit low suddenly a message arrives and balance is restored. This is what your post did for me, Carol. I am for sure an empath, and try to be open to the goodness in each being I encounter, and to let the negativity that is at times present wash over me. But sometimes the weight of sorrow or crazy dancing is overwhelming, like this morning. I felt so deflated! So unempowered to affect change. That’s when I headed outside, meandered through the black spruce, the white birch, and there they were: wild roses, dwarf dogwood and Alaskan bluebells packed together in the forest like waves of bouquets to bring me back to my center. Thank goodness for Mother Nature, and for your blog, dear, Carol. ❤

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    1. I was just reading your most recent post, Susan! (I’m just at the beginning 🙂 ) It’s always uplifting to hear from you – your always kind and thoughtful comments are heartwarming. I also love to read about your discoveries in the northwest. Thank you ❤

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  7. It is a problem – I majored in psych, but specifically avoided social work because I had friends in the field and was aware how frustratingly heartbreaking it can be. But, that said, I’m really not a terrifically empathetic person – and I do not envy the few true empaths out there. I am compassionate, I sympathize, I do care, but my wiring is very much toward the logical. In fact, I deviated into information technology for a career (& there are very few psych majors among my coworkers).
    Pragmatism is my curse (& it can be one).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your important perspective about empathy and pragmatism, Carol. All of the gradients on the continuum of empathy and pragmatism are essential. Like all “tools,” what is important is how they’re used. Pragmatism guided by caring and compassion is essential. 🙂

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  8. One new wrinkle in the empathy debate is the alarming increase in Asperger’s Disorder and autism spectrum disorders over the last decade (vaccine-related heavy metals, fluoride, household toxic chemical exposure and cellphone/Smart Meter microwave radiation all have proven links to autism spectrum disorder). One of the most prominent feature of these disorders are social skills deficits and the inability to experience empathy. In my view, this has extremely dire implications for society.

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  9. I think that because you were removed from your traditions – and your mother’s traumas – you lost some of the knowledge and protection that would allow you to deflect or transform negative energy. Your empathy derives from what you did inherit from your family and traditions, though. And you have dealt with negative people well in that you’ve managed to retain your empathy and kindness. For me, I believe that my Buddhist practice protects me and helps me move through and around negative situations and people. You’ve received many good suggestions above. I think what’s important is for you to recognize your sources of strength and protection. To call upon the traditions and teachings of your people and the spiritual teachings that support you. And yes, sometimes you just have to stay away from people with negative energy.

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  10. I’m not a practicing Buddhist but I must say what I have read about dealing with negativity is quite valuable. As an empath, I’m still learning how to deal with this. In this world. particularly in some work environments, empathy, or emotional intelligence, is quite devalued.

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    1. I am still learning, too, Shery and wonder if I’ll ever figure out how to deal with all of the diverse nuances. When I think I’ve found the answer, someone else comes a long and shows me how little I really know.

      I agree that empathy is devalued by those who don’t have it, and they do tend to be the ones in charge in many work environments.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Short Story: I worked with a woman who was so negative, it overwhelmed me. I felt like I picked up her energy standing next to her! It was extreme and not helpful to have to work with her. So I went into the bathroom and shook my hands like they were wet and released what was not mine. I silently repeated (“I release this”) four times, saying to myself, this is not my (sickness, energy, anger, etc.) blowing out four times… It worked with other people who seemed to leave “stuff” on me, Carol. What a beautiful mystery just being alive but it can definitely be a challenge as we awaken and be the empath. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  12. breathing in, i’m aware of my body
    breathing out, i smile
    that it is still here,
    along with my feelings, perceptions & thoughts, Carol!
    but I understand
    empathy & compassion
    are challenged by
    overwhelming suffering.
    may you be well
    today 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. It’s hard being empathetic when most people aren’t. It’s hard to be sensitive when most people are selfish. My father was very sensitive and so is one of my daughters. I read that hyper-sensitivity is a new field in psychology. Hyper-sensitive people feel other people’s pain and emotions. They are also sensitive to their environment. Music makes them feel better and calmer. Excessive stimuli can be disrupting, like too many people talking in a room. I don’t know what I am but it’s better to be sensitive than insensitive, no matter the degree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such thoughtful comments, Susan, It is hard to feel other’s emotions and still function in the real world. It’s interesting that you mention the calming effect of music. I’ve found that music also conveys strong emotions. But I do find that the classical music station I have on during the day to help my parakeets feel safe does actually provide a calming environment.

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  14. Hi Carol. Great post…and I understand completely!! I have had the hair from every pore in my body stand on end in response to total strangers!! It is a relatively scary phenomenon and I have had it several times in my life. Other things may have slipped under the rug as to what they meant…but I never questioned that visceral response…I always know what it means…and I honor it! I am learning to live with a very high degree of empathic ability. I am grateful to be learning what it all means…to sort these feelings out and learn strategies to deal with the sometimes disabling information onslaught. The years I had no idea what it was were difficult to say the least. I view it as a blessing most times…a curse occasionally. Thank you Carol 🙂

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    1. Hi Lorrie 🙂

      Thank you for such thoughtful comments. I appreciate hearing that you have had similar experiences and insights about empathetic sensitivity and the challenges it poses when learning how to deal with the disorientation it sometimes causes. I’m also glad to hear that you now view sensitivity as mostly a blessing.

      It’s interesting to me that writing this post actually inspired me to begin experimenting with ways to remain “centered” when surrounded by others. The results have been fascinating and positive thus far.


      1. Congratulations!! That is a wonderful benefit to a post that greatly benefited others, and I sincerely hope that you will post about your experiences 🙂 Many blessings ❤

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