I want to talk about a matter close to my heart. It’s something I’ve felt, you’ve felt, we’ve all felt together: it’s called empathy.
I’m hearing the word “empath” being thrown around a lot at the moment, from Buzzfeed’s ‘This is What it’s Like to Be an Empath’ to quizzes on whether you are indeed an empath or actually a narcissist in disguise, wreaking havoc on the new age scene with your fake smiles and crocodile tears – oh the horror!
According to the internet (yep that’s a legit source) an empath is someone that picks up on people’s feelings and energies much more strongly than your average joe, psychically even, and the so-called empath traits range from becoming overwhelmed with other people’s problems to experiencing stomach ache more than everyone else, and everything in between.
Well if these traits are anything to go on, I should be queen of the empaths. I cry at old ladies and homeless people and I’m a prime target for charity muggers. I’m the self-appointed agony aunt to anyone who needs it and I experience the stomach type of agony that is coeliac disease on the regs.
But I’m not an empath, and I don’t like that term, I don’t like it one bit, and I’ll tell you why (I know you’re desperate to find out).
When we describe ourselves as empaths, we’re singling ourselves out as different, separating ourselves from the herd, and that’s the exact opposite of what empathy actually is.
I’ll expand on that.
Remember that good old word empathetic (ahh so that’s where they got it from!) it comes from the Greek word empatheia, meaning ‘in feeling’. It describes the ability to see from another living being’s perspective. To put yourself in their shoes if you will. It’s something that we all do to varying extents and there’s actually a very good reason for it.
In the BBC series, ‘The Brain – A Secret History’, Michael Mosley took part in an experiment where he plugged his brain into an fMRI while watching videos of other people being physically hurt. Sounds erm… fun? The scientists found that the same parts of the brain light up when we see someone in pain, as when we feel actual pain ourselves. This, dear readers, is the physical and scientific explanation for empathy and it’s a vital function in human society.
Humans are designed to work together, we need each other. Due to our physical and mental makeup, we are far more likely to survive in a group than we are solo, so it makes sense that we would have a built in function that ensures we stick together.
Warning, extended metaphor approaching:
Let’s imagine you’re a cavewoman back in 2,000,000 BC. You’re hanging with your cavegirls down by the watering hole when one of you is ambushed by a horny rival tribesman and knocked to the ground (yeah this shit probably happened back then too). As your hairy BFF hits the deck she knocks her head on a rock and you feel it. You physically cringe with the impact as if it were you that got hurt. You rush forward without thinking, you’re angry as f**k. You and your cavegirls whip out your clubs and chase that lowlife subhuman back to the hovel he came from. Cavegirl’s crying, you feel that too, so you group hug it out and everyone’s ok. You’re safe. You’re tight. You’re a unit. But most importantly, you’re safe (This metaphor could just as easily be held in a nightclub or bar minus the bludgeoning… or not).
Empathy is what protects us as a group, it’s the magical glue that binds us together and keeps us from turning on each other in a world full of woolly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers (or rapists and politicians).
Fascinating stuff eh? But that wasn’t all Michael Mosley and his merry crew of BBC scientists discovered. They also found that not everyone experiences the same amount of empathy. Some of us are much better at feeling other people’s feels, and some of us, well not so much.
Apparently we experience empathy on a scale; at one end you’ve got your sociopaths, the other end is, oh look it’s our favourite again, the empaths.
If you take the internet’s definition of an empath it makes it sound like they’re some rare and magical creature who know what you’re thinking at all times, cry at TV adverts and never hesitate to give you their last Rolo. They’re the people that notice when you’re down, even if you haven’t noticed yourself. They’ll listen to your problems then go home and worry about it themselves. They’ll pay for your drinks and hold your hair while you vomit. They’re like… your best friend?
We all have the capacity to be “an empath”, we do it every day with our nearest and dearest, and many of us with complete strangers. Picking up on other people’s feelings and experiencing their pain doesn’t make us special or unique, it makes us human.
The fact that in modern society empathy has taken a back seat to individualism and competition doesn’t lessen the fact that we are all capable of caring for our fellow (wo)man, and that if anything, we should be praising the extra sensitive givers in society, not labelling them as some sort of paranormal freak.
So I guess what I’m trying to say here is, you are not “an empath”, we all are (except the sociopaths). We’re all glorious, sensitive, loving, feeling creatures, that don’t like to see others in pain. It’s just some of us are better at it than others, and hey that’s ok, cos at least we’ll be the ones to survive into the next ice age together.
Featured image: Shae Dtar
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