An investigation into the internet’s mass empath awakening
Two years into a pandemic, we all need a bit more empathy – both towards each other and ourselves. It’s commonly accepted that most people possess empathy and the ability to empathise, but for self-described “empaths”, their relationship with empathy goes a little further. According to Dr Carla Marie Manly, a practising clinical psychologist based in California, the term “empath” refers to the ability to “tune into” another person’s energy, feelings and experiences. If you’re an empath, she tells Dazed, it apparently means that you have “perceptual abilities” which are “experienced on a continuum”.
People defining themselves as empaths isn’t new, but in recent years, more and more people have adopted this identifier, and interest in empath culture has consequently skyrocketed. While the r/Empaths subreddit – an online forum designed for people who believe they have these “perceptual abilities” – has existed since 2013, its membership dramatically spiked from the end of 2019 onwards, increasing from approximately 20,000 members to nearly 100,000 members in the past two years. Membership spiked during the pandemic, with over 60,000 people joining the subreddit from March 2020 onwards. (Data from Google Trends also shows that there was a rapid increase in people searching for the term “empath” throughout 2021.)
At the same time, the past year or two has seen a new wave of empath-related content on TikTok. Related tags such as “empath”, “empaths of TikTok” and “empath awakening” have an enormous presence on the app, drawing in 1.2 billion, 170.6 million and 6.9 million views respectively.
The timeframe coincides neatly with the spread of COVID-19 and our subsequent isolation – and according to psychologist Saul Rosenthal, this is no coincidence. He explains that it’s possible the “growing conversation” about empaths has risen from people’s “reflection of the ongoing chronic stress related to the pandemic”. According to Rosenthal, “chronic stress raises sensitivity and decreases tolerance.” As a result, “it may well be that more people are ‘feeling’ other people’s emotions even more strongly than usual, and having a harder time managing that.” This, Rosenthal tells Dazed, could be why so many people are drawn to the label. “The concept of the empath provides an explanation that many people will experience as positive,” he says.
But not everyone feels that way. In fact, the term garnered widespread attention this year after a TikTok sparked an anti-empath movement. In the clip, which has since been deleted, TikTok user @lillunah describes herself as an “empath” who “meets the person everyone speaks so highly of”. In the video, she casts herself as the empath, who uses her high levels of “perception” to deduce that the person everyone liked wasn’t exactly how they seemed.
@youknow.julia #duet with @lillunah just in a silly goofy mood #fyp #empath #WhenRiftanSays ♬ The Time is Coming - Aery Yormany
Unfortunately, while this TikTok definitely blew up, it probably wasn’t in the way @lillunah wanted. Between December 2021 and January this year, countless stitches and duets renounced the user for “pretending” to be an empath. A lot of users called the video “cringe” and mocked it with parodies – many of which went viral, morphing the TikTok into a meme known only by an infamous catchphrase: “Me, an empath.”
The “me, an empath” meme did not begin on TikTok, and has been appearing sporadically on Twitter since 2017. But the format still more or less follows the same structure: a hyperbolic and oftentimes absurdly obvious “bad” situation – such as meeting a serial killer – is followed up by the “empath” saying that they sense “bad vibes”. Or, in another example, the “empath” does an action that unsurprisingly upsets a person – such as killing their dog or punching them in the face – and follows this up by saying that their heightened perception makes them “sense” the other person’s distress. While the meme takes various forms, a consistent cynicism underlies it: the belief that self-proclaiming “empaths” are either faking their abilities, or confusing the basic ability to perceive people’s feelings with some kind of superpower.
When it comes to empath-mocking, cultural theorist Matt Klein says that it is a reflection of the “cyclical, ironical nature” of online culture. “Like Newton's Third Law of Motion, in culture it can be argued that for every action, there’s an opposite and equally strong reaction. The ‘me, an empath’ meme is a reaction,” he tells Dazed. “You have people mocking those who are choosing not to mock but instead care, as a response to all the mocking which already exists.”
In all fairness to those who mock empaths, it’s not like they have the best high-profile role models. The term appears to be reserved for people who frequently occupy online spaces: for example, YouTubers like Shane Dawson and Trisha Paytas, who have respectively faced accusations for racism and anti-Semitism, among many other controversies, are both notorious for self-identifying as empaths. However, according to Rutledge, a true empath wouldn’t be inclined to engage heavily online. Many users of the r/Empath subreddit claim that they actually suffer quite badly as a result of their heightened empathy, often finding themselves feeling drained from the negative nature of social media and feeling inclined to delete their account as a result. “If you were interested in managing emotions and protecting yourself as a true empath, you would cut down on your consumption of media (both social and news) and limit exposure to emotional triggers,” Rutledge says.
So is this the start of a mass #empath #awakening? There’s no way to be sure, but what we do know for certain is that, according to experts, the term is just the latest in a long line of online trends. “Like many psychological terms, there is an ebb and flow in interest for certain concepts,” Dr Manly tells Dazed. “For example, terms such as narcissism, love-bombing, and gaslighting come into vogue for a spell and then interest flattens, only to resurge later.”
Jamie Cohen, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Queen’s College in New York, agrees, saying “these TikTok trends” are a cycle: “It’s something that, for a brief moment, becomes a meme because several videos go viral and inspire copycat (ie meme) content.”
“Sometimes I think TikTok just finds the decaying content forests of Tumblr and gives them water again and replants them on TikTok,” he adds, finally. “It’s old cycles on a new platform.”