By Madelyn Jones
Do you feel particularly in tune to people’s motives and usually find it easy to tell when someone is lying? Do you take on other people’s emotions like they are your own? Do people often reach out to you when in need of emotional support?
If your answers to these questions is a strong yes, then you might be an empath. Judith Orloff M.D., expert on the subject and an empath herself, has described this identity in a sentence: “We can sense subtle energy… and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into our own bodies,” in Psychology Today’s article “The Differences Between Highly Sensitive People and Empaths.”
It wasn’t until last semester that I learned the word “empath,” and many still do not believe it exists outside of science fiction. The most discussion around it that I have seen is in spiritual communities, and it does not yet have a large presence in mainstream conversation.
When I started research on the term, everything I saw lined up with my experiences and feelings and explained parts of my personality that I failed to understand beforehand.
Throughout college, as I have gotten more emotionally aware, I started to realize I would sacrifice spending time with many of my close friends because there would be a person or two invited to the same event that I did not feel comfortable around. I couldn’t be in a room with someone who I thought problematic and be happy. I was so confused as to why this affected me so much and not the people around me until I started looking into what it means to have high levels of empathy.
The defining feature of an empath, which was briefly discussed in Orloff’s explanation, is how they absorb energy, from people and their environments. This fact comes with many advantages and disadvantages that are not often talked about. Lately, there has been a movement to make classrooms more accessible for introverts and people with different learning styles, but there has yet to be conversations open to how to exist as an empath on campus. I will speak to my experience in hopes to get the conversation started.
It’s no secret that the average Willamette student is often stressed from academic work or their personal lives. As an empath by the end of the day, I have not only dealt with my deep well of emotion, but also the people that I have talked to, the people that walk past me on their way to class.
For any one, it is important to release emotions, decompress and participate in self-care. For an empath, it is constantly necessary. However, on a college campus the amount and type of self-care that is needed can be hard to come by.
Empaths cannot turn off their tendency to absorb emotions from people and environments, so living in a dorm setting can be difficult since you are never too far away from other people. With a roommate, someone could enter your space and alter the energy at any time, or you can hear people’s voices from the room over or footsteps down the hall. Even with a wall seperating an empath from other people, their energy can still be affected. This makes it hard for empaths to truly have a break from people in order to stop taking on excess emotions.
With schedules full of classes, homework and extracurriculars, it starts to seem like campus is not a place that allows for emotion. Self-care for empaths often consists of letting themselves feel emotions so they do not build up, but it can be hard for students to find that time, especially since this can lead to exhaustion. I often find that I have to choose either emotional self-care or getting a good grade on an assignment.
However, the amount of natural beauty on Willamette’s campus gives empaths healthy and comforting energy. Many empaths feels a strong kinship to nature and find solace in being in beautiful places. With the Millstream, Botanical Garden, Zen Garden and Star Trees, there are many places to go on campus to spend sometime feeling revitalized by nature. Even seeing the green of the quad or flowers growing next to sidewalks has been helpful to me on my way to class.
With all of the aspects that make being an empath hard, it has enhanced my life in beautiful ways. It has given me more of a connection to my creative self, helped me establish strong, intimate bonds with people and has given me an appreciation for the small things. Hopefully, in years to come, conversation about empaths and their needs will create a more comfortable campus for anyone to feel and cope with emotion.