I don’t like being called an empath. I don’t like it a lot.
I know it’s supposed to be complimentary but it makes me feel pretentious. The label makes me sound like I’m preternaturally gifted and while I fantasize about that possibility occasionally, I’ve come to accept I’m not magic. Hogwarts will not be calling.
My doctor tells me I’m what they call an HSP. A “highly sensitive person”. I read up on it because knowing yourself is a good and necessary thing.
The description seemed to fit. My basic takeaway is that HSPs are very observant in all kinds of ways. Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t filter the information they take in all that well. This affects their behaviours and tendencies. It can make them a little high-strung. It can make them hold back from social interacting.
It’s the quality of being “very observant” that I think about when someone calls me an empath. I am not an empath. I am – or at least try to be – empathic. It’s a choice. Luckily it comes easily to me because people who are HSP are sensitive to other people’s emotions. Something to do with mirror neurons, which is when our brains fire in sympathetic response to another’s emotions or experiences, giving you a sense of what other people are feeling.
As an HSP, I observe things other people might miss, things that help me form an impression. Like body language, tone of voice, movement, the way words are put together, and the words that are chosen. Once the information is collected, it gets filtered and I get an idea about other people’s states of mind.
But it’s something I do. It’s not something that just happens. Yes, I have a tendency, and yes, being HSP makes it easier, but I make the choice about what to do next.
I don’t like labels that are nouns very much, beyond basic descriptive ones like “brown-eyed girl” (my favourite Van Morrison song and the only one I know).
This position is a shift for me and proof-positive that change is possible. For a long time, I preferred to be pigeon-holed. For a long time, I preferred labels. They’re an effective shorthand.
I’m depressed. I’m anxious. I’m bulimic.
Everything you need to know about someone in one pithy phrase. Except they don’t tell you everything. They are a piece of the whole and don’t provide complete and comprehensive pictures.
I used to love labels but I’ve come to believe they’re limiting. I thought making myself into a thing was liberating. I thought of it as owning the label. I’ve decided otherwise. People are complicated. We can’t be summed up with single words or short phrases.
Labels also strip us of our agency. They take away our ownership of our behaviours. Our lives become something that happens rather than something we direct.
Allying yourself to a label is easy but it doesn’t help with growth. It doesn’t help with recovery.
I’m not a label. I’m not an empath. I’m someone who chooses to be empathetic, notwithstanding that it’s mostly in my nature. I could choose to behave otherwise if I wished.
Although, there would probably be guilt.