Inserting ‘empath’ or ‘highly sensitive people’ into your favorite search engine and the resultant 7 million bits of information floating in the ether can lead to hyper vigilance, overwhelming irritation, and the desire to never leave the house again.
About eleven years ago, when I was searching for words that would explain my experiences, I Googled the word ‘empath’ and I knew, just knew, that nothing I was reading was true. The lot of us are repeatedly labeled as introverts, overwhelmed by everything, taking on other people’s emotions as our own; are always ill and intuitive, constantly fatigued, addicts or mentally ill, have their feelings easily hurt; are creative, love nature and animals, like adventure freedom and travel, know another’s emotions, are lucid dreamers intolerant to narcissism (except when they are drawn to them) and can’t tolerate violence, will not buy antiques and be moody. Lists and clickbait seemed gathered to further isolation and to perpetuate fear of being psychic or unique and to, without evidence, connect empath to paranormal experience to cheap horror-movie witchery. None of which are actually connected to the truth of the matter. I just didn’t understand how it was I was knowing what I was.
To help bring you to my understanding of things now, I need to be clear on how I’m defining things. For my purposes here, the definition of empathy is this: the capacity to understand what another is feeling by feeling it. It’s basis is from the Greek empatheia, ‘feeling into’ another, not taking a perspective from another person’s shoes. I really like Theodore Lipps’ definition, too. In 1903, he was trying to find a word to express the sense an audience shares with a performer, in this case, the collective gasp as a high-wire acrobat steps out on the wire and called it an “inner participation of a foreign experience”, a sense of ‘feeling myself in him’. His notion of “projecting oneself onto the object of perception” is directly connected to my idea that most empaths don’t know that they’re actually projecting onto someone else their own feelings, not feeling what another is actually feeling. Vastly different experiences but entwined physiological and emotional responses.
Also, for clarity, the definition of an empath in these pages is an individual who has the capacity to feel–not just another person, mind you–using all sensory processes, many or all energies that others cannot see; both potential and kinetic. An empowered and healthy empath–the goal I’m striving to get you to– also feels the emotions and physicality of others and responds to those energies appropriately. The last twelve words are key to this definition because these are the people this is for. Those who can physically and emotionally feel others and appropriately respond. This definition is based on bioelectromagnetics, nanomedicine, photosynthesis, psychology, sociology, and universal themes found in spirituality.
The energies I refer to above include magnetic, sonic, gravitational, chemical, thermal and electric—all of which are environmental and also associated with ours and another’s emotional (and physical) state. They’re included on purpose and connected to the idea that emotion is a sense (referring here to Katherine Piel Kauffman’s work) and that “empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attain and instead adopt a double-minded focus. And it follows that ”empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to response to their thoughts and to respond with an appropriate emotion.” (see Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil) As we move through this exploration, you will see how and why I push the response to include appropriate action as well as emotion.
Knowing what I know now, I can identify myself as an empath far back into my early childhood. However, the language available to an adult to describe what they experience is vastly different than that of a toddler, tween and teen.
I only learned in my late thirties that the childhood episodes of violent vomiting and equally violent headaches as well as other uncomfortable contortions were my body’s way of understanding (or not) and processing as best it could energies I was being affected by. Until then, I was just feeling things as I felt them and working under the assumption that everyone else did, too, perhaps without the intermittent projectile vomiting.
The intensities of my experiences as a young person were compounded by two things; one that I was glaringly aware of and another that I hadn’t the foggiest about.
The first was an awareness that my family was not normal (not that I knew exactly what that was, mind you) and that something was not right. I grew up in an especially abusive household that I began attempting to escape via suicide when I was four years-old. No one could escape my mother’s wrath. The time in our family was spent divided into thirds; one third of the time was being in her crosshairs, one third of the time was spent waiting to see in which direction she was aiming, and one third of the time was spent trying to be something that resembled normal.
Looking back it is hard to how much of knowing when my brother or I were going to be beaten was connected to my empathic and precognitive nature or if there were patterns that I was accustomed to and could read. And, maybe, it was an all together different sense that traumatized children develop as a survival mechanism.
It is, however, now clear that those physiological responses I experienced were connected to my mother’s own energy. There were times when I would be ill and she, a physician, would identify it as ‘psychosomatic’. What I internalized then was that she was telling me I was faking it, that what I was in the midst of was not real. How could my real not be real? (Which took on a different meaning in the community.) Little did she or I understand my ‘somatic’ was connected to her ‘psycho’.
The physical, mental and emotional abuse—and the impacts on those physical, mental and emotional bodily systems—were also compounded by my empathic nature as well as synesthesia. For those who aren’t familiar with the phenomenon, synesthesia is most simply defined as ‘cross-wiring’ of the physical senses, where involuntary and automatic associations between multiple physical senses occur. Some examples of it include people seeing numbers or letters and hearing music as colors. For those who see letters as colors, it’s been reported that vowels have different tones than consonants. Youtube is filled with videos of people ‘painting’ music and the like. There are many recognized forms of the phenomenon and the types I have now are, as far as I can tell, the same I experienced as a child. I experience what is called auditory-tactile, visual-tactile, misphonia and mirror-touch synesthesia.
The first two are fairly easy to understand; sound and things seen visually are connected to touch. So, as a child verbal abuse was not just verbal and art was not just art. I was not just hearing vitriol, I was feeling it physically; words do cut, sometimes quite literally. When I looked at art, it was soothing or sharp. That’s oversimplifying it but may give you an idea of what it is like. Mirror-touch synesthesia is similar to that of the auditory-tactile. The difference is, using childhood experiences again, that when my brother was being hit, I was being hit as well. I can’t say with certainty any more that my perceived protection of my brother then wasn’t simple self-preservation. Misphonia is similar to auditory-tactile synesthesia however, rather than there being a touch-related association, it is one of negative emotion. Essentially, for those with it, sound can trigger negative emotion. It’s not entirely unlike how we respond to fingernails on a chalkboard and, blessedly, it is the one I’ve grown out of. Now, many sounds open me into tangible, tactile experience of God.
There’s not yet definitive scientific explanation as to how synesthesia develops and, looking back, we can’t know if the abuse was a trigger for my brain’s mechanisms to interpret what was happening or if it was a natural state, connected to genetic predisposition, I was born with that exacerbated responses to the abuse. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, this way of experiencing the world has also opened my understanding to how the non-medical healing I do works and how experiencing the world as an empath can be understood.