TikTokers have had it with empaths. But are empaths even a thing?

A psychologist tells us what the term actually means.

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Empaths are all over pop culture right now, and #empath is trending on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. But even though the term “empath” has become ubiquitous (to the point of mockery), is it a legitimate identity marker?

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As you might guess, “empath” is derived from the word “empathy,” and used to describe a person with deeply empathetic personality traits. People on social media often tout “empath” as a psychological term, but it’s actually not.

The term “empath” actually comes to us from fiction, more specifically science fiction.

Empath, as we use it today, was coined by Scottish science fiction author J.T. McIntosh in 1956. His short story, called “The Empath” is about a group of supernaturally empathetic beings called, you guessed it, empaths.

In the story, the powers of empaths are exploited by an oppressive government to maintain control over the working class and prevent them from unionizing.

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The idea of empaths as individuals with a sort of emotional superpower was popularized again in 1968 after an episode of Star Trek — also called “The Empath” — came out with a main character who could feel the pain of others.

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“‘Empath’ is colloquial,” explains Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychotherapist. “It’s a way people with high empathy are defining themselves,” she says.

But even though “empath” isn’t a psychological term, that doesn’t mean that psychologists don’t utilize it. There are even psychogists who self-define as empaths, Daramus says.

So, then, how do mental health professionals think of empaths?

“Someone with high empathy is naturally tuned to others’ emotions,” says Daramus. But although we tend to think of empathy as universally positive, being an empath isn’t always good. “Empaths can get overwhelmed by the strong emotions they feel when they’re around others,” Daramus says.

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Right now on TikTok, there’s a wave of TikToks made by self-proclaimed empaths and a counterwave of people roasting them.

Full disclosure, all of these TikToks feel really cringe to me. On one hand, most of the empath vids come off as superior or self-righteous. On the other, the vids making fun of them feel petty and judgmental.

Daramus says she can see both sides of the empath issue. “Empathy is a normal human function, so I think some people are put off by making it sound like a spiritual-sounding title for something people are supposed to do,” she says.

In other words, empathy is actually just the natural human response one human has to the pain of another human and it should be neither vilified nor glamorized.

#normalizeempathy maybe?