Difference Between Empathy And Empaths


Over the last couple of years, there has been a groundswell of articles written about empaths. Much like their polar opposite-the narcissist-empaths have been anecdotally defined-often in a manner that is misrepresentative. Therefore, it is imperative to accurately explain the characteristics and etiology of the empath.

What does empathy mean?

Firstly, let’s define empathy: Contrary to popular belief, the definition of empathy is NOT feeling someone else’s feelings. It is the phenomenon where-despite it not being your experience- you can IMAGINE how someone would feel if you were in their situation. I like to call empathy “Moral Imagination”. It is the capacity to extend one’s thoughts, feelings and consideration to realms outside of your personal experience and scope of understanding.

How is an empath different?

Neurobiologically, empathy involves the ventral vagal nervous system, the mesolimbic dopamine channel and the mirror neurons of the premotor, supplementary motor, primary somatosensory, and the inferior parietal cortex. These are all the hard-wired biocircuitry of secure attachment–and secure attachment, affiliation and bond is the primary blueprint for survival in nature. However, for an empath, others’ feelings are experienced directly through ones body, as a means of survival. Empaths have a direct, visceral experience of the emotional states of others. They have a neurological adaptation made in early attachment that allows them to co-regulate as a warm-blooded animal would with their offspring.

What causes someone to become an empath?

One might ask, “What is the etiology of an empath?” Although it has not been confirmed or longitudinally studied, empaths are likely raised in an environment with narcissists, where the neurobiology of warm-blooded animal bonds is not present. Empaths have been exposed to annihilating energy and have withstood the structural collapse that their narcissistic parent(s) succumbed to. Neurologically speaking, the empath achieves a sort of structural integrity that helps them to maintain the capacity to earnestly consider others. Perhaps it goes without saying that the narcissist has lost this capacity in their severely self-centered preoccupation with their own survival. Narcissists lose the neural net of ensuring the well-being/survival of others. Paradoxically, as their means of survival, an empath orients so astutely to the safety and comfort of others that their neural net is cast out to ‘catch’ the feelings and states of others. I describe this empathic capacity-preserving phenomenon as ‘fracking’ for the biology of empathy. Well before childbearing age, the empath somehow utilizes the stress hormones produced in the insecure/threatening attachment field to access the latent physiology of caring for young.

Effects of Being An Empath

While this is an exceptional adaptation, it certainly comes at a high price for the empath: Autoimmune disorders, “codependency” and other environmental sensitivities that can make life challenging.
Fortunately, the empath also has some extraordinary intuitive talents that are rooted in a nervous system and brain whose span reaches from the instinct to the archetypal realm. This wide spectrum capacity affords the empath a sort of biopsychospiritual integrity that often results in healing abilities. These abilities are a key element of Somatic Psychology’s healing function.