The world can be a cruel, unfeeling place. Just look at our national response, or lack thereof, to homelessness, gun violence and a years-long pandemic. It’s easy to decide that in the grand scheme, no one really cares — and unless people experience pain for themselves, they’ll never understand another person’s suffering. We are atomized, unable to share in any emotion.
Unless you happen to be an “empath.” In that case, you have an almost supernatural capacity to receive moods, auras and energy from those around you, and to manifest them internally. You may even understand a friend’s mental state, or thought process, better than they do. And, in all likelihood, you find yourself overwhelmed by any type of negative vibes.
How did I learn of this phenomenon? The same way we get all information these days: from randos on TikTok.
To be clear, “empathy” is a thing, and you’ve no doubt had “empathetic” reactions in your life, but there is no basis for claiming that “empaths” are a verifiable category. It’s not like one day you realize you belong to a particular tribe and get to enroll in Hogwarts or join the X-Men. To have empath status literally just means you log on and claim that you’re exceptional because you once noticed a co-worker crying in the breakroom and were a little saddened by the sight. It’s such goofy pseudoscience — such an exaggeration of a common ability — that skeptics have turned it into a meme about privileging our most basic observations as powerful insights.
Don’t enjoy funerals, hospital visits or stressful work meetings? Congratulations, you have a pulse and at least a few functioning synapses. Diagnosing yourself as an empath instead isn’t quite as woo-woo as some current internet fads, such as reality-shifting and past life regression, but it’s unmistakably in the same spirit. It also follows in the tradition of trying to bridge the spiritual and psychological — if you’re not ready to go out on the limb and boast of psychic talents, you can use less contested words to describe your social sensitivities. You’re not a mind-reader, you’re just an empath, or the “intuitive” type. Even a homebody can be magically rebranded as a precious “introvert.” All of it is geared toward subtle demands for special treatment — these anointed ones are so finely tuned that they can’t deal with ordinary stimuli.
If there is a reason to identify as an empath besides clout-chasing in a niche community, or justifying certain quirks, it’s the need to define oneself in opposition to destructive archetypes. Not only is our culture humming with accusations of toxic, problematic, abusive and gaslighting behavior, it’s also terribly cavalier when it comes to lobbing “sociopath” and “psychopath” — meaning those completely devoid of empathy — as insults. That imprecise overuse left the door open to aggrandizement on the other end of the spectrum: “As an empath, my compassion is more intense and authentic than yours.” Some have even tried to legitimize the concept by tying it to past trauma. But in an amusing reversal, this has come to be seen as a red flag indicating weird grandiosity and self-centered thinking. The “empath” may attempt to control relationships.
Nobody would tell you to quit being empathetic — it’s a useful fact of our neurology. Contrary to the empath’s belief system, however, we do have a choice in when we exercise this potential. In other words, these TikTok gurus aren’t flooded with thousands of different emotions when standing in a crowd, and they’re not helpless to maintain boundaries with acquaintances. They just want to belong to an in-group, and I can certainly empathize with that. There comes a point, though, when you have to separate what makes you unique from what makes you just another member of your species.
Don’t worry, I bet the next fake personality trend will be here soon.