Do I have too much empathy?

A few years ago I was coming home from a trip and my sister picked me up at the airport. It was a late night flight and we were the only car on the highway.

We were deep in conversation when out of nowhere a dark shadow came up out of the corner of my eye and “BAM”, the car rock and rolled as whatever it was got hit by the front, then back tire.

There was an awful moment of silence when our brains were working faster than our mouths; Do we turn around? What was that? What should we do?

Instead…

“Fu*k!! Crap!! What the hell was that?” I screamed, looking back hoping whatever it was got up and walked away and the car shuddering was an engine problem.

“It was a raccoon, I saw it come off the shoulder. There wasn’t anything I could do so I kept going” my sister lamented. “I feel sick.”

“This sucks, that poor raccoon.” I agreed.

My sister stared straight ahead. I thought she might cry. The sad demise of this raccoon started a conversation about empathy. My sister is often too empathetic, from my point of view. She literally FEELS when someone or something is hurting. She felt the loss of the raccoon almost as if it was someone she knew.

Her emotions react strongly to the suffering of others. My sister is what’s known as an empath.

She can’t control it. It’s what makes her who she is.

But being an empath often dictates certain behaviors. She avoids confrontation at all cost, saying no, or disagreeing when she thinks that someone else’s feelings may get hurt. Her empathy lives on overdrive, driving her life decisions. Making her go out of her way, often at her own expense, to make sure SHE doesn’t have to live in the emotionally uncomfortable feeling of what might happen if she stands up for herself, or sets boundaries around other people’s behavior. She wants to be “nice”, often allowing her niceness to affect her life.

She is a people pleaser.

This isn’t bad, for the most part. I’m only explaining to educate others that empathy is what people SHOULD feel when something bad happens, and there are all levels of empathy.

My empathy level isn’t on overdrive. I don’t know what “normal” empathy is, but I can temper my feelings and adapt when emotions take over my senses. Okay, sometimes I can’t. I too have thrown a few temper tantrums in my day…

So yes, I felt sad for the raccoon, but I didn’t stay in that sadness and think about it for as long as my sister did. I couldn’t go back and save the raccoon. I was sorry we hit it but I could rationalize that it was an accident and not done intentionally. She could too, but the feelings of empathy that came up created an uncomfortable feeling in her body, her emotions overriding her ability to find her center, her emotional balance.

In the world today there seems to be a disconnect, or a suppression of empathic understanding. In general (which means there are always exceptions) truly empathic beings are non-violent. Those who FEEL for others can’t be violent. Literally. It goes without saying, even though I just said it. It seems obvious but if you aren’t someone who FEELS empathy, you can’t understand it.

Again, this isn’t bad. It just is. Unless a war is started from lacking empathy. But that’s for another post.

I look at all the disagreements our culture and other cultures have and I believe most of it goes back to empathy, or lacking empathy. Those who FEEL it, and over FEEL it. And those who have less or no FEELINGS of empathy.

Make sense?

Let’s look at homeless people. If you live in a place where there aren’t any, you don’t really have to feel anything, because you don’t and can’t see the problem. Sure, we all watch the news, or what we like to call news. It’s usually not news, it’s entertainment. News could be a chance to educate viewers, giving them some options to get involved in the process we all have to live with. Our news doesn’t do that.

I digressed, back to the issue at hand. If you hear about people who live on the street through the television or internet, you might momentarily feel bad but what do you do with that feeling? Nothing? That’s normal. We can’t react to every feeling, or emotion we have. Can we?

But what if you walk by a homeless person and say something like “they deserve to be homeless and they’re all drug addicts” Does that mean you aren’t empathic or FEEL for the person?

I don’t have an answer to that but I doubt it. I have heard more than one person say that. And frankly, it’s said from either a place of ignorance (not knowing) or yes – an inability to feel or acknowledge the other persons plight – which is a lack of empathy. A place where the person is only seen as a body, not a complete human being with a back story and life that got them to where they are. It could also be that you are uncomfortable with human feelings so you place blame to push those feelings away. That’s common too.

I often wonder how many wars, elections, political decisions, etc are made from a place where other peoples lives and conditions are not acknowledged or considered. Instead of looking at the whole, we only think of ourselves. Is that service to the greater good? When does the greater good matter more than self?

When does empathy matter?

I don’t know if there is an empathy pill. There should be. I’ve known a sociopath (a person who cannot feel empathy) in my life and it was a soul crushing relationship, literally. I know I don’t want sociopath’s ruling society. But I know that often, to get to the top of the pile, you have to step on some hands and cause pain.

What if the next time we find ourselves reacting to something we don’t like, whether it’s a comment, an article we don’t agree with, an action someone does to us, or anything that gets our dander ruffled, we pause. That’s all – pause.

In that moment of pause take a breath.

Relax your shoulders.

And ask:

Is my response necessary? Will my response show empathy and understanding? Am I a total ass or can I be kind, even if I don’t agree? Then reply.

Or don’t. Because really, does it matter?

People who are highly empathic focus on listening, rather than speaking because they want to put themselves in the other person’s situation. In order to truly understand the difficulties or triumphs that the other person is feeling, they want to know all the details about what is happening in the other person’s life. They feel emotions more than think, or suppress.

Ignoring a feeling is not an option for an empath.

Here are eight ways to strengthen your own empathy:

  1. Challenge yourself. Take some time to volunteer or read about peoples life experiences who may not live the life you’ve lived.
  2. Get out of your usual environment. Volunteer. If you live in the country or suburbs, visit a city and vice versa. Make eye contact, even if it feels uncomfortable, and see what happens. Challenge what you usually think. Just because we think it, doesn’t make it true or real.
  3. Get feedback. Ask questions, be curious.
  4. Explore the heart not just the head. How do you feel when you see others struggle? Guilt is often a feeling of pressure that we don’t want to change or see things any way other than how we think they should be.
  5. Walk in others’ shoes. If you can’t take this literally, imagine what it’s like. Ask yourself “how did this person get in this situation?” My guess is, you may not have an answer to that.
  6. Examine your biases. I used to think homeless people were lazy and it was a choice. When I got out of my element and used the first 5 ideas here, I learned I was wrong. I changed my bias.
  7. Cultivate your sense of curiosity. Instead of making assumptions, get the facts.
  8. Ask better questions.

In these trying times, we can all check our empathy levels. If we have too much, maybe we need to question that. If we have too little, maybe the change needs to come from within.

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