I Am an Empath, and No, I Don’t Need Tougher Skin

empathThere is an old Star Trek Episode called (appropriately) The Empath. In this episode, Spock, McCoy and Kirk discover a woman from a race that has the empathic ability to take on another’s injury and heal it within themselves.  In this episode, the woman is so generous and loving, she must take on an injury too great and sacrifices herself for McCoy.  It is a fairly cruel episode, as she was being experimented upon to see what she would be willing to do for another.  But that episode stayed with me for a long time.

I am particularly sensitive to people’s emotions and energy.  I have had many people say that when they talk to me, they feel as if I can see into their soul.  Through out my life, I have been able to see the truth of a person, even when they have not.  It can become difficult when that person is not far enough in their journey or self exploration to see what I see.  It is not unusual for personality and soul to be two different expressions.  The more closely I  know a person, the more difficult it is for me to handle the disparity between what I see in the soul and what is being expressed.  If there is high integrity, I engage in a very intimate relationship that allows soul connection.  If there is high disparity, I find I have to leave.  This is not because I don’t love the person.  And it wasn’t until recently that I understood why it is difficult for me.

There is an emerging personality trait called the Highly Sensitive Person, or Empath.  “A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it[1][2]). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who comprise about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women), may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.[3] This is a specific trait, with key consequences for how we view people, that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, social phobia and innate fearfulness,[4][5] and introversion.[6] The trait is measured using the HSP Scale, which has been demonstrated to have both internal and external validity. ” Wikipedia

When I took the HSP assessment, I was clearly identifying with the characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person.  Some questions include:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as  sensitive or shy?

My answer to all of the above was Yes.  I do not know how many times I have had someone tell me I needed to develop a tougher skin.  In fact, I spent most of my life developing personas that gave me that thicker skin.  In order to get some space between me and the emotional energy of others, I binged and gained unnecessary weight (which has been falling away as I learn to release more emotions).  I did develop a persona as a leader that was that tough skinned person.  Tough enough that I managed to fire over 400 people in 5 years in my last job and not have a break down while I did it.  Or so I thought.  In the end, I had such high anxiety it was clear to me that I had to leave.  And since I no longer have anxiety attacks, it can be reasonably assumed that the anxiety was from the disconnect in the persona and the truth of my own being.  That integrity thing again.

hspBeing a HSP makes it easier to understand a few things about what I look for in relationship.  The research shows that “on the average HSPs’ relationships in general are  less happy–implying that relationships HSPs are in are less happy, at  least for the HSP. Why? HSPs have nervous systems that pick up more on subtleties in the world and reflect on them deeply. That means, for  starters, that they will tend to demand more depth in their relationships  in order to be satisfied; see more threatening consequences in their partners’ flaws or behaviors; reflect more and, if the signs indicate it,      worry about how things are going.” Elaine Aron   With regards to sex, Dr Aron tells us “compared to  others, HSPs are more likely to find sex to be mysterious and powerful, to  be turned on by subtle rather than explicit sexual cues, to be easily distracted or physically hurt during sex, and to find it difficult to go right back to normal life afterwards.” And of course, “highly sensitive people are naturally more open to experiences of bliss, ecstasy and spiritual awakening.” Edward Mills

Would I change anything? Absolutely not.  My ability to read people and to feel as deeply as I do are among my greatest gifts.  It is helpful to put it all into context and to see this trait as a truth of who I am as opposed to being “too sensitive”.  It is likely the root of my spiritual devotion and is most certainly the key to my ability as a healer.

So to all those who told me not to be so shy, or who believe I need to have tougher skin, my answer is “Come here and let me give you a hug.”




9 thoughts on “I Am an Empath, and No, I Don’t Need Tougher Skin

  1. Jessie says:

    It is important for HSP’s to practice mindfulness and validate and care for themselves properly or this can become BPD, as I found out the hard way in university. Interestingly, some of these symptoms fit descriptions I’ve come across of shamanic awakening as well. It can certainly be used as a strength, though it’s sure something formidable to wield. I enjoy your articles a lot! Very explorative and insightful :).

  2. ruth says:

    Hugging you back 🙂

  3. Line says:

    Thank you so much for this! I am a highly sensitive person, and I have wanted to read Elaine Aron’s book for a very very long time, but it is so expensive here (in India) and I just can’t afford it, so thank you very much for giving me an insight into the book and her teachings here on your blog! 🙂

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