Call them psychics, mind-readers, hacks or just particularly sensitive, but empaths such as David Sauvage believe their uncanny ability to sense the emotions of others isn’t simply a hallmark of compassion, but a unique trait that merits scientific research. Sauvage, a New York-based self-proclaimed empath, used to work as a commercial director, branding videos for clients such a Sprint. Now, he builds a business around his heightened empathy by helping others navigate their emotions—a one-hour, one-on-one session with Sauvage costs $250. He also teaches classes for aspiring empaths, and offers corporate consulting on empathy training.
Recently, Sauvage workshopped a biographical play-cum-audience-reading, aptly titled “Empath,” at a theater in New York City. The experience, he said, was exciting in its boundary-pushing melding of performance art, theater and spirituality. “When I do readings in front of an audience, I’m taking something from one realm—let’s call it the spiritual realm—and bringing it into another realm—let’s call it performance art or theater—in a direct way that I think is fresh and alive. I am serving as art…I’m making some kind of semiconscious statement around the spiritual meaning of art,” he says.
Despite his foray into performance, Sauvage is quick to stress the authenticity of his work as an empath. “I would love for there to be one serious scientist out there in the world putting real research into figuring out how some people feel the emotions of other people,” he says.
A typical session with Sauvage begins with him clearing out any pre-existing emotions he’s feeling, independent of his client. He then removes a necklace he wears to protect himself from “people’s stuff,” and crosses his legs (“I don’t know why, it just happens instinctually,” he says). He closes his eyes, and begins to work.
Though its unclear what exactly Sauvage experiences during a reading, it’s clear that something is happening—his body twists and contorts into different shapes as he feels his client’s emotions. “These shapes that I go into, I have no control over,” he says. “I just surrender to it and my body takes me in a certain direction. I’ve learned over time to read what my body is telling me; it’s like a language.” He also advises his clients to let go of any statement he makes that feels inaccurate. “There’s a real risk that if someone hangs onto something I say that doesn’t feel true, they start to spin,” he explains, pointing out that despite his talents, a small margin of error does exist.
Whether or not you believe in the scientific validity of Sauvage’s work and the term empath, the concept is intriguing, similar to the allure of tarot readings and horoscopes—who doesn’t love hearing or reading about what makes them unique? We sat down with Sauvage and chatted about his journey as an empath, how he responds to critics and his varied experiences reading client’s emotions.
Can you define the term “empath?”
The way I use the word is someone who feels the emotions of other people. The leader in the field, Judith Orloff, defines it as someone who is a sponge and absorbs other people’s energies, emotions and sensations. The other definition floating around is somebody who’s really empathetic or cares a lot about other people’s lives so intimately that they’re affected by it. That’s a popular way the term is used, but not how I use it because it’s too vague for my taste.
Is there a difference between being an empath and being psychic?
Culturally, there’s a huge difference. Psychic conjures up all kinds of things. A psychic is someone who knows information in ways we can’t explain or ways we don’t believe in. An empath is somebody who’s experiencing the emotions of others—it’s true we don’t know how that happens, but it doesn’t seem to have that “no way, how is that going on, this must be bullshit” connotation. You can be an empath but not a psychic, a psychic but not an empath, or a psychic empath.
I was reading up the term empath and came across recent research regarding Highly Sensitive People. What would you say is the connection between being an empath and a Highly Sensitive Person?
Highly Sensitive Nervous System. A Highly Sensitive Nervous System encompasses different aspects, but [the terms] would probably tend to overlap. I’m definitely an empath, but I’m borderline on whether I’m Highly Sensitive or not. So a Highly Sensitive Person would be really overwhelmed with too much noise, or too many people on the Subway, or too many stimuli. I’m like that, but I’m not extreme. You could be way more sensitive than I am and not be empathic, not feel anybody else’s emotions. Also, Highly Sensitive People have been more scientifically [researched] and empaths haven’t.
How did you come to realize that you’re an empath?
I was really depressed, and as I was working through my depression, I discovered that a lot of my own misery was because I was carrying other people’s feelings in my body. The only way to work through my depression was to process emotions that weren’t mine…in processing, I had the realization that I was very sensitive to other people’s emotions.
You did a workshop of a play you created, “Empath.” How did that go and what inspired it?
I did this show at ABXY Gallery where I just did readings in front of an audience. I loved it. A lot of people were asking me, “What’s your story? Where did you come from; how did you learn how to do this?” And I thought, “well, that’s a good story; I could tell that,” and it occurred to me that theater would be a way to do that. I had the idea of enacting my story as a narrative, on stage, and then ending the play with readings of the audience. Somebody appeared from the sky to finance it and it happened!
What was the audience’s reaction?
Amazing. Nine out of ten people said, “that was awesome, are you for real, are you crazy?” For people who are predisposed to like stuff in this realm—things that circle issues of consciousness, spiritual growth, development—it was really great for them to see a relatable story from that world. For people who are not so much thinking about that but are more interested in just great stories on stage, it made them go, “Wait a second, is this stuff for real? This really boggles my mind.” Especially more skeptical men, who think, “I don’t know, he seems authentic and real, I can feel he’s telling the truth, he’s showing me everything he’s doing, he’s not hiding anything, yet I don’t believe it.” I really like provoking that kind of cognitive dissonance.
When people come to you to be read, what sorts of things are they looking for?
They come for so many different reasons. Novelty; people want to try out different stuff. They come because they want to make sense of what’s going on inside them, and that’s the service I’m providing. I’m feeling out what’s going on inside them that they don’t have words for. I can feel it and show it back to them. They come because there’s something about me in particular that draws them. Or because [they] are generally lost and don’t what the hell is going on inside themselves and what to do about it.
Is there a community of empaths in New York City?
I did a workshop at the Alchemist’s Kitchen called Empaths Unite and about 30 people who identify with that term showed up. I wish there were a tight community. There is a meet-up group that I’ve never attended, Empath Support Group, in New York, but I don’t know them at all…there’s no coherent community that I can feel. There’s an urge towards it, but it hasn’t cohered.
Do you think you can learn to be an empath, or is it more of an innate talent you’re born with?
I think it’s akin to any other skill or proclivity. I mean, is someone born a musician? Some people are going to be naturally more gifted than others and if they work at it, they can be great. Some people have no talent at all but if they work at it really hard, maybe they can become competent. Can you train to be a writer? Yeah, within reason.
How would someone go about training to be an empath?
Well, you can take my class. I’ve been teaching a class called School for Empaths. Most of the education around being an empath starts on the presmise of, “I am an empath, i.e. I occasionally feel the emotions of other people and I don’t know what to do about it.” That’s a better starting point than, “This is interesting, I want to be an empath.” If someone came to me and said, “this is interesting, but I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I would say, “Let’s talk about empathy training. Let’s start even more basic—what does it mean to know what another person is going through, and how do we know that?”
When you go into a reading, how much time do you typically need to spend with the person to be able to read them?
Exactly zero seconds. I could read someone with just a picture. I would go further, even, though it’s not believable. I wouldn’t have to see them; you could put a blindfold on me, you could walk somebody I’ve never met before in front of me, not tell me their age or gender, give me their hand, and I could tell what they’re going through emotionally.
Does anyone else in your family have the same abilities as you?
Not to my knowledge.
What has been their reaction?
My dad’s like, “What the hell is going on; I don’t get this, maybe I’m sensitive too?” Also, the word empathy conjures up the idea that someone is really compassionate or a really good person, which is not necessarily the case. I’m doing my best in this world, but my dad and I have tension. When he sees the word empath, he sees it through the lens of the tension we have. He says, “Well, is my son really empathic or compassionate toward me?” Overall, he thinks it’s interesting but nonsensical. My mother is interested in it; she’s rooting for me, she thinks I’m uncovering new ground. She also gets more and more excited when [my work] overlaps with themes in culture—as more people are talking about empathy and the importance of being human in the world of AI. As for my sister, I don’t know. She’s a mystery.
How do you respond to critics and detractors?
Openly, honestly, with nothing up my sleeve and a great desire to subject myself to any tests or any serious scientific scrutiny. [With] a willingness to talk about anything I’m going through and acknowledging that I’m imperfect, but statistically better than chance.
Statistically, what would you say your accuracy is?
I would say three out of four people have a reaction that indicates what I said about them was meaningful and specific enough to them to feel non-generic.
How do you feel about tarot reading or palm reading?
It’s not as much my jam. I enjoy it. I play with tarot cards, but I’ve never done a single palm reading.
Do you think you’re more accurate than tarot or palm readings?
Yes, but it would depend largely on who the reader is. I believe there are certain people with uncanny abilities. I don’t have a mastery of tarot—if you said, “I really want a tarot reading, who should I go to?” I would not recommend myself. But I do think there are people who are amazing. I also think there are people who don’t believe in it who are doing it just to make a buck, and then I believe there are people who have no gift for it at all who believe in themselves and are making a buck. And other people are just having fun. Every permutation.
When you’re doing readings in a large group, say at a gallery, is it overwhelming to be in the presence of so many people and their emotions?
Yes. It’s like emotional-spiritual tightrope walking. I have to tune out everyone around me, read just for the person in front of me but also take into account the effect of what I’m saying on the audience. I’m doing it in front of an audience on purpose; I’m not pretending they’re not there. So I’m teasing out what is specific to the person in front of me, what is universally applicable and being cognizant of the effect of what I’m saying on the audience. I like that it’s really hard.
Have you ever upset someone by what you’ve said?
This was at a one-on-one reading. Something inside me said, “don’t do it,” but I didn’t listen to that voice. I just surrendered to the moment. [The client] was visibly pregnant, she had twins; she had a big smile on her face. At first blush, she seemed like a happy woman about to give birth. When I tuned into her, I felt all this dread. I just knew she was not happy about having children; she was not happy about who she as having these children with, and she felt like she was trapped and didn’t know what to do…she felt like she was walking towards her own funeral, even as she was stepping into this new life. So I’m delivering this experience of what it’s like to be her, to her. When I’m doing readings my eyes are closed, so I’m not receiving any feedback. When I open my eyes, she still has this fake smile plastered on her face and she goes, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s not true at all.” Then she left, and I got sick. I lost my voice that day, and then I got a 102-degree fever. It was like I had violated some cosmic law, and I was getting punished. She was not happy.
Have you ever met someone you couldn’t read?
Yes. It’s not that they were emotionally blocked, it’s that they really didn’t want to be seen.