Ever feel like your best friend’s breakup is making you ache? Or that the excitement radiating off your sister because she got a promotion is your excitement? Positive or negative, highly emotional events that aren’t even yours, but those of other people, often leave you feeling exhausted. If these telltale traits of being an empath ring true to you, you probably have no problems accessing empathy so strong, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes to a startlingly realistic effect. But being an empath through and through calls upon a stronger and more continuous thread of empathy than one that’s situational for the most part.
In her book, Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, describes empaths as highly sensitive individuals who “filter the world through their intuition and have a difficult time intellectualizing their feelings.” Basically, empaths take in the emotions of others.
And, fun fact, for those of you concerned about being self-absorbent, so to speak: Being an empath is actually opposite to being a narcissist. Narcissism hinges on thinking only of oneself, with a complete disregard to empathy, whereas for empaths, this is clearly not an issue.
But what exactly should you look out for if you feel—like really feel—you may be an empath? Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, shares some clear signs below.
1. You feel like a sponge to other people’s feelings
No matter the emotion at hand, as soon as someone shines a mood on you, you soak it up and, when pressed, ooze it out. “Empaths tend to feel the emotions of others,” Dr. Manly says. “They can pick up depression, anxiety, and sadness in others, even if it’s not at all obvious to the naked eye.”
2. You’re acutely aware of when something may not be right with another person
“Empaths are sometimes more aware of the emotional state of another person than the person who is the object of the empath’s attention,” says Dr. Manly.
You can see through every “I’m fine” like it’s completely transparent and distill what the real feeling is. Your less emotionally in-touch friends might be spooked by your ability, but they also may go to you when they’re feeling sad because they know you’ll have the right words to help them heal.
3. You need alone time after a big-time event
A wedding? A funeral? Your neighbor’s sweet sixteen? If you’re thrown into a situation where emotions are running high and you’re catching all of them, leave your schedule free the following next day.
“Given a naturally ‘absorbent’ nature, empaths will often need more alone time to recover from the weight of energy collected from others,” Dr. Manly says.
4. You’re comfortable alone, outside, Yoda-style
Come to think of it, Yoda is an empath who is able to see, with almost telepathic clarity, how the Skywalkers are consumed with fear, doubt, anger, and negative noise that can lead to the dark side. And it makes sense that Yoda, having failed in his quest to keep Darth Vader all Darth-y, really needed some alone time to regroup.
“Empaths often thrive in nature, given its healing, more solitary atmosphere,” Dr. Manly says. If you’re an empath, being outdoors can be especially regenerating. Forest-bathing might be part of your self-care routine that helps to center you when you feel overwhelmed. You feel what you need to feel, and those feelings are all your own.
So, be like Yoda. Be a little more effective than Yoda when it comes to keeping your friends from falling off the deep end. But otherwise, be like Yoda.
5. General crowds and busy spaces are exhausting for you
“This is the result of the empath’s sensitivity to the energy of others,” Dr. Manly says.
You’re picking up on all those vibes, which can feel like being weighed down. Frequent breaks can help you—and so can avoiding places like shopping malls and airports when possible.
6. You’d don’t require a great deal of external stimulation
In fact, empaths tend to thrive best in settings that are quiet and predictable. So if you’re one, you’re likely used to coiling up in your favorite corner of your couch with a book or clocking time at your go-to café whenever you can snag a few stray minutes.
Want to be more empathetic without this intuitive sense? Here are four empathetic phrases that’ll help you relate to people in tough times. And here’s why toxic positivity may keep you from empathizing with others.