What is an Empath?

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

~ Laura Rowe, Empath

“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, referring to how brains interpret stimuli from the senses, such as social interactions.

Empaths are Neurodivergent

Neurodivergents include various neurotypes that are considered by society, not neurologically typical, 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. 

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. Meaning 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 making their bodies more susceptible to feelings of overwhelm and/or fatigue when interacting with people and spending time in busy places.

Since empaths and neurodivergent people 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 is 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:

  • 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, become angry with you, become sad about something, etc
  • they feel or know the emotions the person they are talking to or near are feeling, even if that person never tells the empath how they feel
  • 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 for typical empaths–meaning this is what empaths are known to experience. 

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 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 extraversion
  •  Thick-skinned – letting harsh words roll off them
  • Takes life at face value–doesn’t need to know why
  • Rugged Individualism

These are 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 self-oriented person and still be an empath.

What is important about 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 expectations they learned from society about what is 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 themselves–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 experience. And because it is unseen and our culture, being overly rational, the idea that anything unseen is real is dismissed, most empaths decide what they experience is coincidence or just strangeness.

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, cause it is, really.

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 and the other beings and information that is for you in the unseen world, deepens your experience of life. Makes 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.

And if you are ready to change how you feel about being an empath–change the curse into a blessing–check out my article on working with an empath mentor.

You can explore the services I offer here and finally you can schedule a 30-minute consultation to ask your questions and discover if we are a good fit to work together.

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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. Explore How We Can Work Together