What the heck is an empath?

Inside the superhero fiction that the internet desperately wants to be true

Empaths have found an online community to connect with.
(Image credit: Gary Waters / Alamy Stock Photo)

One of the internet's most dubious gifts is the ease with which it lets us categorize ourselves. For a while, everyone was an introvert: It was easy to self-diagnose as one when you took a gif-filled quiz to confirm the fact that you, too, liked Netflix and canceling plans. According to BuzzFeed, there are a host of experiences that "will only make sense" to "ungirly girls," "cat owners," "true book lovers," and "true flag nerds," among other categories. The internet is a vast space, and crawling into such a niche offers a simple, risk-free way to find a sense of community and even identity. On the internet, we have the power to assume the persona of anyone we wish to be, but most often, it seems, we just want to find out who we are.

So it makes sense that so many people are now similarly inspired to apply another definition to themselves with the internet's help: "empath."

There are the obligatory BuzzFeed lists, but there are also articles on sites like Psychology Today, books (many of them self-published), and countless blogs and websites dedicated to surviving as an empath in an unempathetic world. At empathtest.com, you can diagnose yourself by responding to questions like "Do you often feel the pain of others?" and whether you believe "plants and animals have consciousness." (I scored 50 out of 80 — or "The Unicorn Goddess Empath.")

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But what, exactly, is an empath? The word itself is a recent invention and wandered into general usage not from clinical language, but from science fiction. The earliest instance that the OED cites is in a 1956 short story of the same name, published in New Worlds magazine. In this scenario, an empath is capable not of heightened sensitivity of other's needs, but of outright emotional telepathy.

"How exactly does the government use empaths?" a character asks.

"We can tell the level of a man's loyalty just by meeting him," the empath explains. "We can walk around a factory and sense there's going to be a strike."

The word — and the concept of utilitarian empathy — became a genre convention in the following years, but didn't cross the spark gap between genre fiction and general pop culture until it lent its name to a 1968 episode of Star Trek, in which the Enterprise crew meets a woman whose species is capable of absorbing and relieving others' pain. The episode centers on Kirk, Spock, and Bones' efforts to protect her from the Vians, an unfeeling alien race who conduct cruel experiments to test her abilities.

The first empaths may have been discovered in the outer edges of the galaxy, but they have now made their way to Earth. Here, according to blogs and diagnostic tools like empathtest.com, an empath is someone who absorbs the emotions of someone around them, someone consumed by the desire to aid and heal others, someone who intuits others' mental states rather than having to process them intellectually. An empath is kind, caring, and sensitive. An empath, not to put too fine a point on it, is good.

Here's where the trouble comes in paradise: Empaths are not just precious, but vulnerable. They are targets for sociopaths, who are everything that empaths aren't: callous where they are kind, cunning where they are artless, and evil where they are virtuous.

If "empath" isn't a word you're already familiar with, then "sociopath" (or "psychopath," with which it is used interchangeably) probably is, since it appears so frequently in prime time. On police procedurals like Law & Order: SVU, countless villains are revealed to be sociopathic. The term "sociopath" is bandied about with perhaps even greater frequency in the fictionalized world of true crime programming. It also has a slippery way of reversing allegiances: During the initial coverage of his trial, it was easy to call Steven Avery a sociopath; after Making a Murderer was released, viewers applied the term just as freely to the state officials who aided in his wrongful conviction once, and perhaps twice.

"Sociopath" is a diagnosis that is all too easy for us to make because it's not a real diagnosis at all: The closest thing you'll find to it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is "antisocial personality disorder," a diagnosis which itself refers to a set of behaviors rather than a biologically determined state of being. In the world of pop psychology, however, armchair diagnosticians — aided by works like 1993's bestselling Without Conscience — feel not just capable of identifying the sociopaths around them, but duty-bound to do so.

"Psychopaths seek out and target empathic people," one blog explains. "Most of us are caught off guard, credulous of the conning and conscienceless mindset of the sociopath, so different from our own. We walk right into their traps and are easily overpowered and crushed by the cunning betrayal and calculated, evil schemes they mastermind — and take pleasure in."

"On initial contact, a sociopath will often test other people's empathy," another site concurs. "Questions geared towards discovering if you are highly empathic or not should ring alarm bells. People with a highly empathic disposition are often targeted."

In the world of the sociopath, then, an empath is a luscious treat, delectable as a blood-gorged virgin might be to a thirsty vampire. It's a sensational image, and one that can be deeply attractive to the self-identified empath: The sociopath's evil becomes a mirror to the empath's goodness, a kind of echo chamber in which every fraction of one's worth is reflected through another's inhuman cruelty. In other words, the worse they are, the better you must be.

According to this logic, people are abusive or unkind or simply emotionally unavailable not because human beings — and human relationships — are endlessly and painfully complicated, but because they are born broken. And the greatest harm that befalls us comes not through carelessness or accident or the myriad, interlocking circumstances that allow psychologically normal people to dehumanize each other, but through sustained and malicious intent. For something awful to happen to you, someone had to want it. This is a frightening narrative, but far less frightening than the randomness, the sheer lack of narrative, that leads to many of the worst traumas we experience.

Perhaps the most dangerous result of our amateur diagnosis of "empath" and "psychopath," however, is the immutability these categories seem to impose. If I call someone a sociopath, then I am saying there is no hope for them to feel more, understand more, love more — love at all — than they can right now. If I call myself an empath, then I am claiming that my empathy is vast and inborn and immutable, not a skill I hone but a quality I possess: reaching its limits means that I am countenancing something inhuman.

Yet, according to many experts, these diagnoses are simply untrue. According to a New York Times article jointly authored by three psychology professors, "empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The 'limits' to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel." Some of us, because of our past experiences, our upbringings, or our brain chemistry, may be better equipped to empathize with others. Some of us struggle greatly with the same task.

Being more innately skilled at empathizing, however, does not make you a more intrinsically "good" person than someone who is painstakingly attempting to learn the skills you already have. Like all other abilities, the ability to empathize reflects on us most meaningfully when we demonstrate not how easily we can perform it, but what we choose to do with that power.

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