What Do I Mean When I Say "Empath"? [Dec. 9th 2022]

Content warning: Anti-PD stigma (specifically anti-ASPD/NPD) | Word Count: 369

The common idea of an empath, the one that comes to mind when I say the word, is of someone--often with a "normal" mental illness, like anxiety or depression--who believes that they feel everyone else's feelings and have a special ability to recognize others' emotions. They're (rightly) ridiculed for crossing boundaries, behaving self-righteously, and claiming that their "high empathy" makes them superior.

The other kind of "empath" that people recognize is those who use it to mean "high empathy," without making the above claims. High empathy people tend to complain about so-called empaths ruining their terminology and making them sound like New Age snake oil salespeople when they use it.

But, personally, I'd like to challenge the idea that the latter are "right," and that empath should mean someone with high empathy.

That dichotomy mainly stems from an aversion to the socio- and psychopathic. Empaths are our "opposites." The antisocial is evil, the empath is good. Ultimately, all non-antisocials fall into this trap, because it's comforting. So, of course, when the antisocial has no empathy but is otherwise "normal," and people with empathy view us as fundementally evil, they must come up with something that makes them not evil; their empathy, an inherent trait that makes them perpetual victims and saints.

That dichotomy also doesn't exist, obviously. Antisocials aren't any more evil than non-antisocials, and, statistically speaking, non-antisocials are much more likely to do harm to us than we are to them.

All that to say, I use "empath" to mean "person who feels empathy," or "non-antisocial."

The empath is only "the most empathetic" if it's the opposite of the psychopath, and that's where its moral weight comes from. But really, there's no good reason for it to mean only the highest empathy individuals. So I don't use it that way, and I'd like to encourage you to, as well.

Because, honestly, more empathy doesn't mean stronger empathy, more useful empathy, or better interpreted empathy. Peak empathy--at least, peak productive empathy--is not feeling everyone's feelings all the time with no insight, ability to detatch, or acknowledgement that sometimes your empathy is wrong. "High empathy" people don't need to be the definition of "empathic," and, in my opinion, shouldn't be.