4 Reasons Why People Become Empaths: From Trauma to Genetics


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Empaths Survival GuideWhy do people become empaths? Is it temperament? Genetics? Trauma? Neglectful or supportive parental upbringing? As a psychiatrist and an empath, I’ve seen that the following four main factors (which I expand upon in my book The Empath’s Survival Guide) can contribute to heightening one’s sensitivities.

Reason 1. Temperament. Some babies enter the world with more sensitivity than others—an inborn temperament. You can see it when they come out of the womb. They’re much more responsive to light, smells, touch, movement, temperature, and sound. These infants seem to be empaths from the start.

Reason 2. Genetics. Also, from what I’ve observed with my patients, some forms of sensitivity may be genetically transmitted. Highly sensitive children can come from mothers and fathers with the same inborn traits. Therefore, it is possible that sensitivity can also be genetically transmitted through families.

Reason 3. Trauma. Childhood neglect or abuse can affect your sensitivity levels as an adult. A portion of empaths I’ve treated have experienced early trauma such as emotional or physical abuse, or they were raised by alcoholic, depressed or narcissistic parents. This could potentially wear down the usual healthy defenses that a child with nurturing parents develops. As a result of their upbringing, they typically don’t feel “seen” by their families, and feel invisible in the greater world that doesn’t value sensitivity.

Reason 4. Supportive Parenting. On the other hand, positive parenting can help sensitive children develop and honor their gifts. Parents are powerful role models for all children, especially sensitive ones.

In all cases, however, we empaths haven’t learned to defend against stress in the same way as others do. We’re different in that respect. A noxious stimulus, such as an angry person, crowds, noise, or bright light can agitate us since our threshold for sensory overload is extremely low.

Healing is possible for all sensitive people. Even if you’ve experienced early trauma or have been raised by abusive parents, it’s important that you learn to feel safe enough to embrace your sensitivities now. Part of this involves learning to set healthy boundaries with others and choosing positive people in your circle who can be supportive of your sensitivities. In addition, protection and centering techniques and meditations can help to strengthen your core so you can be both strong and sensitive. In The Empath’s Survival Guide I outline numerous techniques that you can use in your life to feel safe and secure as an empath.

The goal is for empaths to be empowered and use their sensitivities to be loving to themselves, their intimates, and create love in the world.

Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff’s The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” a guidebook for empaths and all caring people who want to keep their hearts open in an often-insensitive world.



23 thoughts on “4 Reasons Why People Become Empaths: From Trauma to Genetics

  1. I have always felt it is a blessing and a curse being an empath. The people we love and care about the most in our lives , not even knowing it disappoint us the most by the true feelings that we take away from them. I try to help people but it’s very draining at times, it’s very spiritual for me have experience a out of body experience amazing. I know I have an amazing gift should write a self help book. The world is incredible and there are good people and evil people in it. Sincerely!

  2. I am 55 been this way my whole life clairsentient /empath.lately I have become more sensitive and feel crowed every where I go. a preteen girl gave my grandchild stuffed animal toys and I had a really hard time with the energy from them,I have always felt energy from people animals and objects,but this was such sadness i felt it for weeks.however I did make a point to speak with the child and she informed me he dad who has raised her alone had drank her whole life and he never did nothing with her and she felt left out cause his drinking was so bad they never left the house all the money was for beer.so I will try to be her friend.I love being able to help someone but lately I am more sensitive and it causes me alot of stress.

  3. I carried my mother’s fear and my father’s shame. Carrying these two emotions for my parents in addition to raising their kids; hijacked me emotionally. I was already born with the sensitive mindset. What made it worse that rather then embrace that, I was overloaded with their emotions and my own and taking care of my bros and sisters. So I never really got a chance to understand what was going on with me. Then when the maladaptive behavior started; drinking etc., it was like everyone was miffed. “You had it so good”, etc. What they forget is that our home was in a continual upheaval due to their deliquent behavior; which i was also taking in. Listening to the endless beatings, my parents fights and tension all over. It is too much to bear for any child. The real sadness is they put the hamster in the wheel and watch this then they point fingers as to why the hamster acts so erratically and becomes dually addicted.

  4. It is interesting to see the development of empathy. Seeing all four of these ingredients, I can see each playing a part in my own experiences.

    1) I remember a friend at my second or third birthday. I had gotten a Little Mermaid doll and the other girl was crying because she wanted a doll as well. I tried to give her my doll but our moms prevented us from the exchange. I felt sad that our moms were against it.

    2) My parents are both extra sensitive and have little skills on managing their emotions.

    3) I’m in my own healing process from dissociated traumas.

    4) My mom, while not an ideal parent, did well at comforting me when I was sad. I remember her holding me when I needed to cry and today I think it is what helped me get farther than what she could with her own experiences. I appreciate that she was able to provide me with a safe space and inherit ability to tend to my emotions as an adult.

  5. My mom is an empath and I am as well, I have always been more sensitive than other people but I grew up watching my dad be uncomfortable and dismissive with her empathy and I forced myself to hide my own. Even then I could feel how uncomfortable and annoyed he was by her struggles and because of that I went out of my way to be apathetic and dismissive as a way of avoiding conflict or misunderstanding with my father. Of course having a deep understanding of emotions allowed me to know exactly what to do and say to appear unaffected. Now I’m getting older I feel like my empathy is out of control. I went to a small private school my whole childhood and now I’m a sophomore in high school and I’m constantly on edge. I can’t handle the sensory and emotional input and my grades and mental health are suffering. While I want to enjoy school I am simply too tired and emotional to handle extracurricular activities and enjoy normal high school experiences like homecoming. Today my teacher showed a video about gun restrictions and gun rights activism that had some pretty awful topics and images in it. I’ve always been sensitive to violence in tv but today was the first time I’ve had an extreme reaction to it. I had to put my head down and plug my ears and I could still hear the gunshots, I couldn’t stop crying and the whole experience was absolutely horrifying. I’ve never experienced such a strong empathic response before and I’m scared it will happen again, what should I do to get help?

  6. I remember watching Fred Flinstone as a kid getting a knot on his head and I would hold my head and cry out in pain and get into trouble from my parents for behaving that way but I truly feel the pain, everythgs pain, even a tree being cut down hurts me. I cannot understand why people enjoy watching/playing violent sports/games or people enjoying being mean to one another. As an adult woman, I find myself crying at work when a co-worker is being treated badly and I feel this way no matter if I truly like the person or not. Nobody understands me and wants to be mean to others when they are mean to me but I just cant. I feel terrible and cant sleep or eat if I am purposely mean. Do all Empaths experience this? Ive been this way my whole life.
    I was diagnosed recently as an Empath. I NEED help to understand how others cope.

  7. At the age of two years old I let go of my mothers hand and ran back to help an old lady off of the escalator in a mall.
    Besides that I truly believe I’ve been empath my whole life. Really now about abuse and trauma maybe that just made me more intense of an empath.
    The skills I have, you wouldn’t believe
    It’s a blessing and it’s a curse because I tend to take on other peoples problems.
    I absolutely need to learn how not to do that!!!

  8. I would always hurt, when some one tell me about their illness. My Daughter explain it to me, my daughter and son are emphatic. I now understand a lot better. I don’t do crowds.

  9. I became an empath because my mother used to confide in me about her emotional problems and distress (my father was a emotional and psychological abuser/narc); so her constant confiding in me, developed an empathy in me for her and so my tel-empathy was born. I suppose this was made easier by my natural sensitivity (being a piscean and all). I wish I was a psychopath though, empathy is a tremendous burden.

  10. I’m an empath, and I’m also a synesthete. So the combination of those two have caused a tremendous sense of not being okay I don’t tell people because they’ll think I’m crazy. It takes a lot of energy to be somebody other than myself. Yet being myself gets me called crazy, weird, quirky, etc. I’m currently struggling emotionally because of an abusive relationship with my therapist that I couldn’t find the strength to get out of. Being a synesthetic empath has wreaked havoc.

  11. Yes. There are reasons and yes children/babies can develop this later on in life. I only speak of this because im proof that it is possible.

  12. Interestingly enough, my dearest grandmother told me that I was born this way. She was very protective of me. I, too, had early childhood trauma. Chicken or egg? I am not sure. I am sure that today, it is just fine that I am an empath which is progress. I am grateful that Dr. Orloff decided to write a book about it! She could help millions!

  13. I know how you feel. I’ll be 39 next week and kept this a secret my whole life. I tell people I have dreams, but that’s it. And their not dreams. I go to that place. I actually leave my body and go to that place in time. It started when I was 7. The first time I was standing at my mother’s grave. I didn’t understand because I was so young and jumped in the grave on top of her casket. Then I was back in my body, I woke up sweating, crying, hysterical. I had no one to turn too. I still don’t. I medicate myself to block my mind out. I am so empathic I actually gave myself seizure’s in my 20’s. On purpose. Crazy right? But I knew I wouldn’t die.

  14. I was born different it seems to run through my mother’s side but even with them being different from most people I was more of the odd one out. There is so much we can do. We can sense things around us. Connect with nature and animals. That’s always brought me peace. It helps calms you and find a balance as long as don’t have to many near it can also get overwelming. I was never good with people unless they needed me. I was known as the freak i could pick up certain thoughts. I would always get the negative like a sponge. I had lost myself took me forever to figure out all the emotions and feelings were not my own. My family and i see spirits but the difference is the don’t get the vibes I do I can tell more then they can. A lot of my family turn to alcohol and or drugs to help cope and become mean. My youngest he is more like me with somethings since he was born people would get creeped out some would smile and say he can see your soul he is sensitive. So what I am wondering is if it’s genetic. Also why does doctors make try to medicate and make you doubt.

  15. I have a couple of questions. I know my older daughter is an empath. That was shown to me by a teacher last year. My daughter has always had a soft heart for her friends and people around her. She will always comfort and help then go home and explode so to say. Is that normal per say?
    My youngest is the bigger worry. She is the kid with a few close friends that drift in and out easily. The alone time with her is a big thing. Stuffed animals are her comfort. She is a night owl. Bed time at 9 and will come back to us by 10 just wanting to cuddle. But when her and her sister start arguing, is it because they are either both over stimulated, or one or the other? Usually over super simple things like the placement of a book or toy.

    1. My girls are exactly the same. They have just got their own rooms, and I think the youngest12yrs, is missing her sister(15yrs) already. But they argued sooo badly about really small things, hurtful comments and yelling at each other.
      Fingers crossed they become closer again now they have their own private space 🥰

  16. My whole life I was told I was autistic but just last week a psychic told me I’m an Emotional Empath. After hearing that I did some research and it makes more sense. I grew up with a mother that was always stressed out and I would always have “meltdowns” a lot but ever since I kicked her out of my life I’ve felt stress free. I’ve never felt “normal” but again i was told that I’m autistic. I would always get these feelings when I’m around people that something was wrong and just always ask if they were ok. I would also get these small V͏i͏sions at random, sometimes over nothing big like knowing who’s going to make the winning shot in a game or just a feeling of what the numbers will be. I’ve never told anyone about this because I was scared that they wouldn’t believe me or call me crazy. I’ve never accepted myself as autistic which is what a doctor told my parents when I was 3 years old but at 22 I really believe I am an Empath.

  17. Do you think early childhood traumas can create an empath? Or more just heighten a person’s sensitivity levels?

    Your first two reasons speak to empaths being born as empaths. Are there situations you know of where people become empaths later in life?

    1. At the beginning of the post it is stated that these are “four main factors (that) can contribute to heightening one’s sensitivities.” I think that means that one or more could be true for each individual, a combo that might be different from person to person.

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