What is Empathy?

What is empathy? It is a social imperative that allows a community to share grief or fear or to celebrate joy. It works through a memory of a similar experience or communicated through speech or body language. We know how someone should feel if they experience success, so we clap to express our recognition of that feeling.

 Body language is a major part of the way we read people. When a baby slaps its mother, she might enclose its hand in her own to prevent another similar action, and she might make a sad face and say no. Just as a baby might recognize a smile and returns it, it learns that a frown is a bad thing and to avoid an action that would bring it about.

 I write about a character in the Ysabet series who experiences other people’s emotions or physical reactions such as pain as though it were her own. This is empathy carried to a psychic level, and I can’t believe it truly exists in the world. It certainly would be an extremely distressful gift that would have horrible consequences for the receiving empath. Unless she could avoid other people or learn to block their sensory output, the cumulative consequences would lead her to physical or mental stress of the greatest degree. Ysabet’s struggle to overcome her gift is one of the major conflicts in the story.

 By my definition, a true empath is one who can not only read the emotional levels of other individuals, but also translate their complex patterns and then enhance or disperse a certain emotion as she chooses.  The highest level of empathy is a healer, though the healing is done with a combination of psycho-kinetic telepathy and empathy.  The healer is generally a compulsive individual.  If someone has a physical pain or emotional pain, the empath feels compelled to help him, and in doing so shares that pain with him.

 Over the course of the novels, Ysabet learns more and more of her psychic powers. She has both empathy and telepathy, but she always defines herself as an empath. That’s the way that she relates to people. I’m afraid that as an author I am a little cruel to her, pushing and pulling her into situations where she must use her psychic powers, often at great risk. I admire the way she accepts those challenges.

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