I recently finished reading Judith Orloff’s “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” and, wow, I have some very strong feelings. First off, it is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is written by an MD (she’s a psychiatrist), so it’s got some science along with a healthy dose of woo. (And by woo, I mean magickal/energetic/New Age material.) A lot of the strategies she shares will be familiar to most magickal practitioners, but she presents them from a perspective that isn’t rooted in a particular magickal tradition, and she never uses the word “magick.” These were okay (and honestly a lot of it I was already doing or knew how to do), but what really hit home for me were the descriptions of different types of empathic abilities, and the self-assessments that went along with them.
As I wrote in Adventures of a Struggling New Empath, I believed that my newly discovered empathic abilities were a result of the spiritual work I had been doing, and particularly my initiation as a priestess. This certainly opened up a whole new world of sensations and experiences for me, and while they were difficult to process at the time, I put some tools into practice and I’m thriving now. (Yay!)
What I did not expect from this book was for it to show me how wrong I was about my new empathic abilities.
Let me explain: Most of the things I said in Adventures of a Struggling Empath are still true. I am still going through a new experience of other people’s energies and feelings. It waxes and wanes, somewhat unpredictably, but it is slowly getting stronger and more reliable. I still project more energy than I receive (typically). However, Judith Orloff’s book showed me that this was NOT the start of my empathic journey.
Throughout “The Empath’s Survival Guide,” there are many self-assessments to see where you fall in the different types of empathic abilities, how you cope with being an empath, and in general, the degree of your empathic nature. I was going through these assessments thinking that my answers would stem from the past few months. It turned out my answers came from my childhood, teenage years, and beyond. And I answered WAY more “yeses” than I ever would have imagined prior to starting this book.
The short answer is: I’ve been an empath all along. The slightly longer answer is: I’m a very weird kind of empath, so the traditional methods used to measure empathic abilities and traits don’t fit me well. The even longer answer is: the rest of this blog post.
I’m an extroverted, projective empath who primarily feels things as physical manifestations. To avoid sensory overload, I developed the defense mechanism of projecting all of my feelings outward so loudly that I couldn’t feel other people’s emotions coming in at me.
That’s a lot to unpack, and I’m sure it will take me at least a few blog posts to cover these aspects in more detail as I learn more about how they relate to me. I’ll start with more of an overview, and expand on individual topics in subsequent posts as I see fit.
I am an extrovert. I love talking to people. I love being around people. I’m okay with crowds (though my OCD doesn’t like them much) and I enjoy talking to strangers. I’m comfortable in pretty much any social situation, regardless of how well I know the people around me. (Of course, I feel better around friends and can share more with them, but I don’t have social anxiety around new people.) I’m generally an open person and I’m usually pretty easy to get to know. I process emotions and events in my life by talking about them with friends. I recharge from social interactions with those I hold dear.
All of this pretty much flies in the face of anything I had heard about empaths (and even, to an extent, a lot of the content in Orloff’s book). I had heard that empaths need alone time to recharge, they don’t like crowds, they often experience social anxiety, they are difficult to get to know deeply, and they will withdraw when overwhelmed. And I’m sure a lot of that is true for introverts, or even ambiverts, but it was not true for me. So, I counted myself out of the empath group fairly soon after even learning what an empath was. However, one of the things that Orloff mentions in her book is that introversion and extroversion are just personality traits, and that empaths can be either.
That blew my mind. I was forced to rework my definition of empath. While my brain was still mushy from that small paradigm shift, I got hit with a much bigger one: That, despite everything I had learned or been told, I was in fact, an empath.
This revelation came through the many self-assessments in the book. In the beginning, Orloff talks about Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs), and I hit almost every single checkbox for that. So, I was highly sensitive. That was nothing new. I’ve been what most people call “overly emotional” my whole life. I am also particularly sensitive to sounds, light, and smells. What was new, was that there was a scientific and even spiritual basis for this. There was a reason I cry at the drop of a hat that has nothing to do with me just being an emotional basketcase.
I was so relieved! From the time I was a child, I always experienced very intense emotions. My feelings were hurt very easily, and I had no reservations in expressing how things made me feel (usually by crying, but occasionally shouting). No one around me seemed to be experiencing this. My parents and teachers told me to “get a thicker skin” (a phrase Orloff uses verbatim in her book) or I would be hurt by every little thing in the world. Obviously, I never developed a thicker skin, and I have been dealing with the repercussions of that my whole life.
“Okay,” I mused. “So maybe I’m a highly sensitive person. But does that mean I’m an empath?”
“Surely not,” I thought. “Even Orloff clearly states that not all HSPs are empaths. So, I’m just an HSP.”
Also wrong. Several assessments later, my head was reeling. Things I never thought were empathic abilities kept popping out of my past. The fact that I always got physically ill at violence on the news or on a TV show. That I always had migraines growing up, just like my mom, and that after moving out, they just sort of… stopped. That I was extremely connected to the Earth and could feel plants and animals. That I have to wear earplugs at the movie theatre, and can’t tolerate background noise. That I became a vegetarian at age 12 because I couldn’t stand animals suffering in factory farms. That I am super sensitive to artificial ingredients in food. But, mostly, that I feel and express with all of my being.
My brain hurt from rewiring all of my memories of the past as potential empathic events (rather than me just being a weirdo or a basketcase). It was liberating! In re-examining these events, I had another big discovery: My projective abilities (as I had been thinking of them) evolved, at least in part, as a defense mechanism to emotional overwhelm and sensory overload.
I love my mom, but she is a very, very loud person. Loud personality, loud talker, everything. She is energetically the biggest person in the room. Always. When I was younger, if I wanted to be heard (or hear anything over her), I had to be even louder, at least energetically speaking. I was also an extrovert, so retreating to my bedroom for alone time was not an option. So I became loud. Very energetically loud. I became so much of “me” that I drowned out anything else, so I didn’t have to deal with the sensory overload from other people.
I got very good at being energetically loud. Even though I was a well-behaved child, I still commanded attention. I was drawn to the performing arts – I sang, I acted, I danced. I rocked oral presentations and captivated friends with my stories. And I felt ALL THE THINGS. I laughed constantly, I cried at sad things but also at moving speeches and sappy movies, and once I learned how to be angry, I was a fucking volcano.
All of the emotions moved through me and out of me, almost magnified upon exit. I felt like I had to express my full range of emotion. At the time, I thought it was because if I didn’t, I was being disingenuous. Now, I think it was for protection. If I’m bigger and louder, no one else’s feelings or energy can hurt me. After making these revelations, I asked one of my close pagan friends (who also happens to be a super-empath) what I felt like when we first met, before I went through years of therapy to tone my emotions down. She said I felt like a pulsar, sending out blasting waves of energy and feeling. I laughed, but I recognized it as true. When I was in that heightened emotional state, I felt it coming off of me in waves, and apparently others could notice it, too.
After aforementioned years of therapy, I learned to tone things down, and that’s when I started picking up on some of the more traditional empath experiences. I was no longer blasting everyone in a 20-foot radius whatever I was feeling at any given moment. I could now receive things. I could sense others. One of the plus sides of being a projective defender was that I always knew what was mine and what was the other person’s. After years of intentionally flooding myself with my own emotions so I didn’t feel others, I know very well what my emotions feel like. That has definitely been a benefit.
It also came with some other, more mundane realizations – like, “no wonder I’m so exhausted all the time!” There were also some potential situations to be explored, like my chronic health issues for which no doctor can find the cause. It was a very emotional few days, and honestly my brain still hurts a little. I’m so happy, though, to have found a reason for why these things happen in my life.
I’ve still got a long way to go and a lot to learn. Despite Orloff’s assertion that both introverts and extroverts can be empaths, most of the book is geared toward introverts, and that side of things is heavily played up. I’m doing some more reading from different sources to see how they treat the introvert/extrovert dilemma, but so far most material is introvert-centered, even if extroverts get an occasional shout-out. Once I reach a better understanding of how extroversion plays a role in empathic abilities, I plan on writing another post about it.
This also means that my coping skills are wildly different than what is listed in most empath books. Some of that stuff is still helpful, sure, but some of it would hurt me more than it would help. I’m in the process of discovering what works well for me.
That’s where I’m at right now! If there happen to be any other extroverted empaths reading this, please give me a shout-out in the comments or through the contact form on my website. I would love to hear about your experiences.