The Problem with Being Empathetic
Empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share feelings with other people, is a good trait to have. You can imagine being in someone else's shoes, live vicariously through them, deal with and grow from experiences that don't actually physically affect your life. I am proud to consider myself an empathetic person. But honestly, it really sucks sometimes for a variety of reasons.
1. Their loss is your loss. One of my best friends recently lost her child in utero 7 months along. I was living vicariously through her due to the likelihood I'll never have another child (see The Mother's Grimm Tale). When she had to tell me they lost him, so I could but the brakes on the baby shower, her pain became my pain. I couldn't stop my imagination from following them through the process of having to give birth although the child was stillborn, to visually see the nursery when they got home with all the baby things that had anticipated the arrival of the child. All the wasted time hoping and envisioning a future with that child, all the dreams for the future were gone. I also couldn't stop making parallels. It's how I, or any empathetic person, digests a difficult situation. My pregnancy problems came into play around the same time. My baby was induced and born about the same gestational time. My baby and I lived despite the complications. Although I'm exceeding thankful for that, I feel utterly guilty that some people die and some survive. I imagine if it had been me instead, and I want to weep thinking of my life without my boy. I feel like I've lost my unborn child, and I cling to my alive one praying nothing will ever harm him.
2. Their gain is your gain... until you realize that you aren't really physically benefiting from their experience. It's tantamount to winning the lottery and then saying, "oh, sorry, wrong person." The same day I heard about my friend's baby passing away, I was informed of a friend who was expecting again. I was excited, ecstatic for her. Since she formerly had trouble getting pregnant before her twins, it was a dream come true. She discussed how they'd have to move into a new house, something they probably could afford because her new job. I was smiling like a idiot on the phone. After I hung up I felt deflated though. While she described their plans, I walked with her though the rooms of new, bigger houses, envisioned a baby again, a sibling for her boys to dote on. The success she feels, even when exhausted that she has a good job and money to be able to support a family of five, maybe not comfortably, but able. Then I realize, this isn't me living this dream, but my friend. And my deflation doesn't stem from jealousy or coveting this ideal life I pictured with and for her. It comes from feeling overwhelming joy for someone and then taking a step back. Those feelings of euphoria are for someone else, not me. Although I am happy for her, and I do not want a large family, huge house, and I love my job and family, I want to keep that joyful feeling when someone shares good news. It's like I came down off a good high, an adrenaline rush gone. I wish they could bottle up that joy and sell it. Whoever could would be millionaires.
3. You never stop feeling. This is the worst. An empathetic person always feels, so he or she is constantly happy, sad, angry, embarrassed--whatever emotion the person you're connected to feels. So there's no numb feeling, or bored feeling. You constantly feel and it is exhausting. Take the day I had the other day--pregnant--yay! Baby passed away--OMG I want to puke! I felt so much in that day I was rendered exhausted and useless. I actually went to bed early from being so tired. Any scenario on a daily basis can call upon your empathetic nature. You walk by a park where you first kissed someone and your heart flutters again with feelings of new love. You see a lonely old man in the bar who seems depressed and nags the bartender trying to get a listener to his woes, so you say hi knowing well he will unburden himself on you and make you depressed. You realize it's okay, though, because he's been carrying it long enough. Honestly, I wish I could turn it off and not feel, not care.
4. You don't have anyone for emotional support...unless they are a fellow empathetic person. Since you are at the top of the sensitivity pole and place yourself in dire and pivotal situations mentally speaking, you'd expect the same of others. Instead they pity your plight or ignore the situation not knowing how to deal with it properly. They seem insincere, almost as if you can see "better you than me" or "poor thing" burning in their eyes. Emotional support and connection is necessary to get through any difficulty. The way I can get over something is when friends share something similar, bare their soul to me, and shows that they have been there; they are okay now. This gives me hope, and helps me feel as if I'm no longer alone. It makes whatever the difficulty is much easier to face. This is the goal of an empathetic person for his or her friend in need.
5. You are forever misunderstood. People mistaken empathetic reasoning for narcissism, egoism, or blatant selfishness. The way an empathetic mind works is it tries to make a parallel with one's own life to get a point of reference, to know how to connect and feel with the person. If this connection is spoken aloud, a friend can sometimes get upset. I've been told "It's not about you!" once before, but in saying that, the person has exposed him or herself as making it all about his or herself as well. Your problems ARE about me, as in I am your friend, your confidant, the person you came to for advice. By telling me, you have enveloped me into your problem and I am a part of it too, not as much as you obviously but I am. Being an empathetic person involves me even more now. By making a parallel, I am trying to show you I am here for you and I can feel this with you, not competing with you. According to Berkeley University, "listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences."6 Habits of Empathetic People What they mean is we must exchange experiences and make parallels in order to truly bond and create an understanding. I'm not actually trying to make you feel better because I think my situation is worse. Honestly, why would I want to have a bigger problem than yours? No thanks!
In the end, I'm still happy that I'm empathetic. It is much better than being cold-hearted or pitying others when they really need that empathetic bond to help them. We strive to have this connection to others, to parallel our experiences so we can feel together. No one really wants to feel alone, to struggle alone. We want others to reach out to us, connect, and experience it together. I think I'm a good person through my empathy. Why else would so many people, even strangers, come up to me and discuss their problems? For example, an old man sat down with me yesterday at the mall (the only Starbucks seat left) and started talking to me. After five minutes, he was discussing the loss of his daughter. People can see that others are empathetic, that they'll listen, and connect. He saw that in me. Another part of being empathetic is being the go-to friend. One of my friends calls me on a regular basis to bounce her ideas, problems, and situations off me because I "give the best advice." I objected by saying, "but I never tell you what you should do," and she responded with, "You make me see what I want, make me talk through it, and you are there for me." And this is what an empathetic friend does, he or she is there for others. They are in the moment feeling with the friend. I don't think that's a bad person to be.