How do you know if you're an empath or sensitive?

Updated: Aug 7

Are you an empath or a sensitive? If you were, how would you know? How can you discern if your psychic experiences are genuine or are being stimulated by something else—like, say, mental illness or chemical imbalance?


Over the years as a school psychologist, and later beyond that arena, I frequently got that question from concerned teachers, parents, teens, and adults. Something unusual would happen or there would be heightened emotional expression or experience, and they feared that it meant something was wrong...perhaps a psychic or emotional breakdown, or mental illness was showing itself. On occasion that was true, but more often than not in my experience, there was something else surfacing—namely, psychic capacity and energetic sensitivity.


I've heard story after story of kids seeing spirits, ghosts, or entities in their room at night, not from nightmares but just because they could. Or having allies that no one else could see, not only invisible friends, but others. Or communicating with things they were told couldn't talk back, like animals or trees. Or hearing voices in their head.


Perhaps you've had experiences like that. Most people who do, don't talk about it much, for fear of being judged in a negative way. We have to remember that it wasn't all that long ago that intuitive, psychic seers and healers stopped being crucified in some horrific manner.


When I was a kid, I talked to trees, animals, birds, bugs, frogs, lizards...you name it, I talked to it in my head. I didn't do it out loud because I learned quickly that I would be made fun of, embarrassed, and chastised for it. I had a sensitivity to life and a yearning to protect it, no matter what "it" was—a tree, a flower, a cat or dog, a gerbil, a rabbit, a butterfly, a bird, a doodlebug, a frog...whatever.

I've been called many things for this sensitivity—a baby, overly emotional, too sensitive, too serious, a puritan, too picky, weak, pollyanna, arrogant, a bleeding heart, a mush, a softy, a liar, or been told my expectations are too high. None of this is true. The truth is that I honor my sensitivities as best as I can in a world full of harshness and cruelty, and I honor the mystery and sanctity of life above anything else.


The challenge is that here in the U.S. (and I could argue all over the earth) we've rapidly grown into a culture of greed, convenience, and comfort over value, integrity, and sanctity. That is a BIG problem. We've lost trust and faith in ourselves, in each other, and in life itself. We've become a culture of competition and division instead of compassion and collaboration. We've separated ourselves out from nature as if we aren't a part of it. And we are dying for it, quite literally.

All that aside, it is my belief that we are all born with psychic capacity and energetic sensitivity. Why wouldn't we be, when we come straight from the all that is, infinite life force or Source? If you think about it, as newborns we can't see clearly and don't have structured language or thought, so we are basically one big eating, breathing, peeing and pooping lump of magically mechanical psychic matter!

The Buddhist tradition addresses this beautifully when it speaks of existence as a mystery. It points out that for some unknown reason, a wave of energy rises up out of the infinite field of all that is and expresses itself as something in this reality, and then eventually descends back into the infinite field from which it came. No one knows why or how this happens. It just happens. It is the mystery of life.


So if all existence, including humans, is born out of the same energetic Source, it makes sense that on some level, we share a psychic connection with the rest of life. I believe that we do, that we are born with it. And I also believe that this connection or wisdom is socialized and conditioned out of us as we grow up, by virtue of it being ignored, neglected, judged, and/or feared and punished.


Yet believe it or not, accept it or not, it is a part of who we are. I've heard so many stories from women in particular who tell me things like, for example, they know a call is coming before the phone rings, or that someone they love is in trouble or has died before it's confirmed, or that they are going to encounter something specific in their environment before they do. Women have also told me they hear others' voices in their head, talk to the deceased, see shadowy figures lurking about, and feel in their bodies when something is "off," like a warning signal that something big and/or unsettling is happening or coming. I've experienced these things myself over the years.


We tend to brush off these inner knowings for all the reasons I've already mentioned, but they are actually pointing us back to our true psychic nature and our energetic sensitivity. These are helpful, intuitive gifts, not things to be ignored, dismissed, or shunned. All we need for them to flourish within us is a bit of TLC and some skill in knowing how to manage our bodies as the energy flows through, and what to do with the insights that come to us, like how to sort what is relevant, real, and sharable from what is simply for us to know.

Ask yourself, have you ever felt that something more was going on beyond the scene or seen? Have you had psychic experiences that you keep quiet about, or innocently brush off, or fear mean you're crazy, or fear you'll be judged for? Most of us can point to something from our childhood or lives that was beyond the ordinary, that awoke us to the larger, infinite arena of life and energy that we participate in.

And most of us know on some level that our intuition, sensitivity, and psychic capacity is real and strong. It's just a matter of owning it, honoring it, and growing our relationship with it rather than hiding it. There are ways to set boundaries for ourselves around our capacities. We don't have to spend our lives feeling overwhelmed by what we feel or experience, or afraid to speak about it. I've learned that ignoring it or pretending it doesn't exist only adds to our inner stress, pain, and struggle…