At a fairly young age, we learn that the world around us is not entirely safe. In some cases, people are well protected by their parents, and their layer of protection is fairly minimal. In other cases, people are raised amidst violence, abuse or with a wild lack of consistency, and create a stronger layer of protection.
For some people, the solution to the unsafe environment they were raised in is to heighten their capacity to read people emotionally. If their parents are in a bad mood, they develop the ability to discern this early, and can then modulate their own state to ensure they don’t further set their parents off.
Effectively, these people attune their emotional or social antenna.
Over time, their antenna becomes more and more sensitive, until it can pick up on the slightest cue. The merest raise of an eyebrow and they can perceive anger. The slightest quirk of a lip and they feel sadness.
The nom-de-vogue for these kinds of people is “empaths”.
There’s a counterpart to empaths — these are people, who, growing up, found emotions themselves overwhelming and unsafe.
Imagine a child who has a big heart and is quite sensitive. When they fail to live up to their parents’ expectations, they feel their disappointment to a great extent. When they do something that upsets their friends, that upset lands deeply in their heart, taking them out for days.
In a world where the lack of safety comes from the emotions of those around them, rather than violence or abuse (etc.), these people learn to detune their antenna.
By turning down the volume of their hearts and desensitizing how much they feel, they discover that they can get through their days much more effectively.
The best way to detune our antenna is to retreat from the heart, up into our head. By thinking about emotions, rather than actually feeling them (eg. “I wonder WHY I feel angry?”), a buffer of safety is created.
Over time, their antenna becomes less and less sensitive, until they can operate largely free of the burden that comes along with empathy.
These people are capable of making challenging decisions — like letting an entire department of their company go in the midst of challenging financial times — without it obliterating their capacity to continue working.
We don’t really have a name for these kinds of people, so I dub them “apaths” — the antonym for empath.
Being an empath is not better than being an apath, nor vice versa. You may have a preference, given wherever you find yourself, but they are both simply coping strategies for a challenging childhood.
Empaths are better able to read people, but because of their overly-sensitive antennae, tend to hit a lot of false positives.
Empaths generally insist that they are feeling what the other person is not yet aware of in themselves, without realizing that their own antenna can lead them astray.
(Ever had this kind of experience with someone, where they’re insisting something is up with you and you’re like “I’m fine, yo”?)
Apaths are better able to function free of emotionality (and thus tend to thrive in business and corporate environments) but because of their detuned antennae, tend to hit a lot of false negatives.
Apaths will think about whether they need to be more considerate, and then conclude that they’re doing fine, without being aware of the emotional impact they’re having on people.
Rather than rank these states or try to avoid them, it’s best to simply acknowledge which side you’re biased toward, and then consider that whichever kind of error you are prone to will often fall into your blindspot.