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What is an Empath?

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Sensitivity is an empath's navigation system, let it light your way!

“What is an empath?” you ask. An empath is someone who experiences the world they live in deeply: they have heightened senses and perceptions allowing them to perceive people and situations with great detail. 

An empath is a neurotype that would be considered neurodivergent–or not neurotypical.  A neurotype is a type of brain, refers to how brains interpret stimuli from the senses, such as social interactions.

Empaths are Neurodivergent

Neurodivergents include various neurotypes that are not neurologically typical in our society, such as ADHD, Highly Sensitive Person, autism, dyslexia, etc. The brains of empaths simply read and process information transmitted from the senses differently than most people. These differences cause empaths to have atypical reactions to stimuli and develop behaviors not considered normal (or typical).

As a part of the neurodivergent family, empaths perceive the world deeply. Empaths notice details that neurotypicals don’t because our nervous systems are highly sensitive or highly attuned. An empath’s brain can pick up very subtle changes in speech patterns, breathing, body movements, and more.

Sensitivity to Input

This level of awareness and interpretation means empaths are taking in more information or data to be processed. Therefore their bodies are more susceptible to feelings of overwhelm and/or fatigued when interacting with people and spending time in busy places.

Since empaths are only 20% of the population, they have been made very aware of their sensitivity. As it is the sensitivity that causes them to react in ways that are outside of the norm. It is important to remember that it is our culture that is toxic and interacting in it when you are sensitive means you will stand out for pointing out things that are harsh, insensitive, or mean-spirited. 

Having a highly sensitive nervous system means the empath’s experience of their  sensitivity looks like this:

  • their feelings are hurt more easily 
  • loud noises are experienced as a physical concussion
  • they notice slight changes in behavior and speech and can pick up on what those might mean…the person talking to them is–hiding something from you, becoming angry with you, becoming sad about something, etc.
  • they feel or know the emotions the person they are talking to or near is feeling, even if that person never tells the empath how they feel or is concealing their true feelings beneath smiles and laughter
  • flavors and textures of food are sharper and impact them more
  • being hugged or embraced may feel like pain or perhaps like they are being suffocated
  • and many more

World Views and the Challenges of Being Different

Empaths develop some different values and perspectives because of their sensitivity. For instance, their world view is more connective than neurotypicals, empaths think as a we instead of an I or me.

They inherently feel the interconnectedness of all things and naturally take the group or whole into account when they make decisions and plans. This doesn’t mean they can’t be selfish at times but their selfishness often arises out of a resentment at not being thought of by their peers and family.

It is more difficult for empaths to say things or take actions that go against the group norm, even if they want to, because they pre-feel the reaction they may get when people aren’t approving of their choices. This means that until empaths can learn how to create boundaries (both energetic and interpersonal) they will be unhappy and dissatisfied with their life. 

What becomes obvious as empaths work to accept their differences and feel better, is that what empaths need to do for themselves to be healthy is in contradiction to our accepted social norms.

How Empaths Differ from Cultural Norms

Just a couple of notes about this comparative list, the experiences and preferences of empaths vary widely so keep in mind this list is what empaths are known to experience. 

Empath is a spectrum with a lot of different traits. Not all empaths have every trait at the same level of sensitivity. That means not every empath will experience every item listed and may in fact have very different experiences on one or two. There is room for everyone who experiences life as an empath, your differences matter and make you unique.

Cultural norms are those standards that are reinforced by people whether or not they themselves are that way or not. So not all people are extraverted but the culture is and people in the culture will enforce/encourage it.


  • Introverted–needing time alone to recharge their batteries
  • Sensitive – feelings hurt easily
  • Deep thinker/ intellectual/ philosophical–asks why and needs an answer
  • Community-oriented

Cultural Norms

  • Extraverted–our culture rewards being outgoing and social
  • Thick-skinned – letting harsh words roll off them
  • Takes life at face value–doesn’t need to know why
  • Rugged Individualism

These are a few of the more obvious characteristics that illustrate how social norms are opposite of an empath’s natural traits. There is a lot that goes into the behaviors and characteristics an individual demonstrates therefore it is possible to be an extravert or a rugged individualist and still be an empath.

What is important to understand about these differences is that in order for empaths to fully accept themselves and live a life that honors their true nature and needs, they have to let go of the many beliefs they learned from society about what makes someone normal, happy, and successful. 

Empaths aren’t wrong or broken, they are just different. And once they can accept that and learn how to take care of their energy–something most empaths were never taught–they can find peace, contentment, and happiness.

Empaths and the Unseen World

The heightened sensitivity of an empath’s senses and perceptions also makes them more available to the unseen world. The unseen world is where we all live but most of us aren’t able to perceive it. It contains spirits, energy patterns, intuition, god/God, and so much more.

For empaths, the experience of the unseen world is a physical and emotional one, instead of a thinking or imaginary experience. And because it is unseen, and our culture is overly rational, the idea that anything unseen is real is dismissed as fantasy or folly, most empaths decide what they experience is coincidence or just strangeness — and those empaths who can see the unknown world grow to fear it because of our ingrained societal beliefs that the unseen world is demonic, evil, and not to be trusted, not because what they see is actually something that is dangerous to them in any way.

However, learning how to interpret the unseen world and accept that it is just as real as the seen world, is a rarified journey. It can be helpful to think of the interactions with the unseen world as learning another language, because that’s exactly what it is. The language being learned is the language of energy. Our heightened nervous system is able to perceive the energy all around us, and everything is energy and emits an energy signature–people, animals, trees, rocks, computers, etc. 

Empaths pick up on the emotions others are emitting through their energy, not just what they see on a person’s face or hear in the worlds and tone the person uses. This can be quite confusing for empaths, what is real? What their emitting or what they are saying? This confusion can cause empaths to distrust their psychic interpretations, especially if other people react badly to an empath’s insights about their real emotions–not the projection of tranquility or joviality they are showing the empath. 

Interacting in this world provides communication with your higher self and other beings that help you be the truest and most authentic you, you can be. It takes time and feels foreign and frustrating at first but normalizing working with your intuition, the other beings, and information that is available for you in the unseen world, deepens your experience of life–making it juicier and more magical. 

So, if you have some experiences with this world that you have dismissed as mere strangeness, perhaps consider taking the time to go deeper with it and learn the language. It is open for all people, empath or not, it is just a bit more accessible for empaths. 

You're an Empath, Now What?

If this resonates for you, I invite you to subscribe to my mailing list and receive a weekly email with articles and information about and for empaths. You will also receive a free download called The Four Practices of the Empowered Path

Already on the list and ready to change how you feel about being an empath? Ready to change the curse into a blessing? Check out my article on working with an empath mentor.

If this resonates for you, I invite you to subscribe to consider taking my upcoming workshop, Tools for Thriving as an Empath. Especially if you are ready to meet other people like you and learn how to feel better moving out there is the world. Class begins March 26th. 

About the Author

Laura Rowe is an Intuitive Strategist & Spiritual Seeker at The Vital Spirit. Living in Portland, Oregon, Laura founded The Vital Spirit in 2013. She has a background in business operations, a master’s degree in organizational management, and she has spent the last 35 years studying spiritual traditions and practices, and the last 12 years training in intuitive energy healing modalities.

Laura helps empaths and sensitives who have struggled their whole life with belonging. Her approach this work through a social justice lens, seeking to help empaths explore their own power while considering the power dynamics of our White Supremacist, Patriarchal, Fourth Stage Capitalist society. Our culture views sensitivity as a weakness and my work focuses on helping empaths heal the wounds left by this world; reframing their sensitivity and focusing on their innate power. 

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