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Empath? Maybe. Trauma-Survivor? Probably.

Maybe you are born with it.  Maybe its unaddressed trauma.

This is going to immediately anger a lot of folks who identify as empaths. First, yes I do believe that there are some folks who are truly empathic. However, I also believe that a huge number of folks identifying as empaths are people with unaddressed trauma and not actual empaths.

What is an Empath?

An empath is someone with the ability to gauge another person’s mental and emotional state without communicating in any traditional sense with the individual. A true empath can “feel” another person’s emotional and mental state without the aid of speaking, reading body language, or other forms of communication.

While most of the discussion about empaths occur in science fiction (e.g., Diana Troy in Star Trek), there is some evidence that certain people can pick up on energetic fields surrounding people and interpret that energy.

Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. has published several papers on the electromagnetic fields generated by the heart and brain of humans and how these fields impact the bodies of people near them. His work along with others strongly suggest that some people can sense the differences in EMF of individuals and correctly attribute “feelings” of the individual to these EMF fluctuations. This is what many people mean when they say they “sense” someone’s energy.

While science fiction empaths can “read” someone else’s thoughts, there is no evidence that this is possible for humans. What we can do (or learn to do) is interpret personal energy signatures. At least there is a bit of evidence for this.

So why, if I know that there is some version of sensing a person’s energy and interpreting it correctly, do I doubt most people who call themselves empaths are actually doing this?

Understanding Trauma Reactions

Trauma, recent and distant, short and long-term exposure changes the way people interact with their world. We know through research on adverse childhood events (ACEs) that the more bad stuff that happened to us as kids, the more likely we are to experience negative health outcomes as an adult.

As adults, we also experience traumas. This may be single significant occurrences (e.g., sexual assault) or chronic bad experiences (e.g., repeated medical gas lighting). Like ACEs, the impact of these experiences alter the way we move through the world.

Increased personal vigilance is a common characteristic of traumatic stress. This means that someone who has been traumatized constantly monitors their environment for potential dangers or threats. We look for cues from others to judge if they are safe. Everything from someone’s body language, to their proximity to our bodies, to verbal cues become clues to their threat to our safety.

Sometimes we are not even aware that we are reading these cues. Instead we will feel the message about a person’s potential safety or threat in our bodies. We get a “gut” feeling

Trauma survivors become keenly aware of cues to someone’s emotional state. This response, developed as a personal safety technique, is often misinterpreted as empathic abilities. So, maybe you are born with it. Maybe its just trauma.

Does the Distinction Matter

I would argue knowing where your capacity to interpret someone’s emotional state comes from is important. Calling yourself an “empath” and never exploring the possibility that this “gift” comes from trauma allows trauma to reside in the body and mind without healing.

I am not saying dismiss the messaging. Too often, women are taught to dismiss our physical discomfort with someone else. This can result in subjecting ourselves to danger. It doesn’t matter if the tingling on your neck, the tug in your stomach, of the undefined sense of disease comes from empathy or trauma, you need to honor it.

In the long run it is healthier to explore the origins of these feelings. Identifying what caused your trauma allows you to heal it. This can help release the trauma held in your body. It can create healthier methods of relating and dealing with stress.

“I Don’t Have Much Trauma”

Yay! But, is that really true. Or did you go through something and think it was normal?

There are now voluminous amounts of research showing that living as a minority in the United States is traumatic (called Minority Stress). The attacks on trans and LGBTQ+ folks create ongoing trauma for those who have a sexual minority identity. Research shows chronic unemployment and financial stress can create forms of trauma.

The following things may have created trauma for you:

1.      Feeling your safety or life were threatened.

2.      Intimate partner violence.

3.      Verbal abuse.

4.      Sexual abuse.

5.      Being a victim of a crime.

6.      Feeling the safety or life of someone you care about is threatened.

7.      Being involved in a natural disaster.

8.      Being raised by a parent with mental health issues or disabilities.

9.      Chronic gaslighting.

10.  Chronic financial stress, homelessness, or regular unemployment.

This is not a full list.

If you want to explore more about your physical and emotional reactions to previous trauma, a list of resources is below.



Alexander, Annely. Trauma Bonding.

Taylor, Sonia Renee. The Body is Not an Apology.

Jimanekia Eborn’s

van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. (disclosure, I have several articles published on this site).


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