By Mrs. B
I have always known I was a little different, but I am sure many people could say something similar. I decided sometime in my late twenties that there was no “normal” and the only way to go through life was to try and understand everyone. If the seven-year-old version of myself showed up right now I think my younger self would remind me that I have always had a burning desire to help people.
According to my mother, I started using words and sentences before learning how to walk, which is not the usual order of things. I was an only child around adults all the time and if you want to sit with the big kids you must learn to speak their language.
Throughout elementary and middle school I was fascinated with communication, personalities, and people. The result of which had me looking at professions I considered to help people like being a psychologist or a mediator. While I did not end up in either of those careers most of my jobs have allowed me to help people in some way. Wellness coaching, helping low-income seniors get medications, managing employees, and we will even throw in sales for good measure. Some might consider sales to be the opposite of a helping profession, but you would be surprised how many opportunities there are to be a good listener when you create a safe place for someone to share.
Let’s fast-forward to my late twenties
I found myself going through a divorce, a layoff from my employer, and moving back in with my parents. I did not consider myself to be winning at life by any means, but through the turmoil, I realized something vitally important. Out of adversity, one can learn life’s greatest lessons or something along those lines. Here is how it happened:
One Friday night, insufficient funds had me setting up camp on the upstairs couch. Absolute boredom had almost lulled me to sleep around 9:00 p.m. when the phone rang. It was a girlfriend who, unlike me, was out enjoying life due to her gainful employment and home-ownership. I answered the phone to sobbing mixed with irritation and loud music. Several minutes later only comprehending every other word, I found out that one of her other friends was hitting on her crush. This behavior from an intoxicated twenty-something did not come as a huge surprise, however, there was an important factor rendering this situation slightly different. Just a few weeks before she had told her friend explicitly how much she liked this guy. My heart broke, literally shattered into a thousand pieces, and within seconds I was sobbing with her. I tried my best to calm her down, but hours after the call I was still reeling with emotions that wouldn’t seem to go away. While I love my friends dearly this wasn’t even happening to me so why was I so emotional? The answer came the following morning and was not at all what I was expecting, empathy.
Imagine Anthony Hopkins soothingly narrating rhymes by Dr. Suess; She pondered and pondered and pondered some more, only to realize things made sense now that had never made sense before. The numerous crying spells of my younger years, tumultuous romantic relationships, my ever-present intense emotions, the deep desire to people-please, and looking for ways to avoid conflict could all be tied somewhat to my profound level of empathy. It occurred to me that while I may be different, I could not be the only empathetically emotional person on the planet. I did what any logical girl might do…. I marched downstairs to talk to my mother. The irony is not lost on me that this happened when I was 29 years old instead of an emotional teenager.
The actual word “empath” gets a lot of attention these days on social media. It’s like the terminology materialized out of thin air and is now being used in everyday vocabulary. Definitions of the word empathy vary from Wikipedia terminology to the good ‘ole Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Internet research on this topic, like most, provides countless viewpoints and personal stories. Some people make it sound like a superpower, while others make it sound like the monster that hides under your bed. In the spirit of honesty, I can personally understand both perspectives after sitting with this information for almost a decade.
I have read countless books and articles on this subject some secular and some Biblically based. While the Bible doesn’t use the word empath it does mention burden-bearing, which describes how as Christians we are called to bear one another’s burdens. Empathy like most personality traits is on a scale, some feel it more intensely than others. This trait which drops me in the category of ‘highly sensitive person’ may explain why many times I have found myself to be a one-woman waterworks factory with no reasonable explanation. Being able to feel what others feel doesn’t mean I only get the bad stuff, but I get to feel the good stuff too.
When I feel happy, I feel EXTREMELY happy. When I pick up on someone else’s anger, depression, irritation, disgust, love, lust, joy, happiness, etc. it can feel like the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios. For those of you who have been on this ride at Disney, you know it goes from 0 to 57 mph in a matter of three seconds, unlike traditional roller coasters that need to go up a hill and build momentum. The good news is that if you recognize it for what it is then it passes by as quickly as an Aerosmith rendition of “Love in an Elevator.”
I have been debating for weeks on how to conclude this personalized piece in an uplifting manner. What can I possibly convey to show this gift is a blessing and not some sort of curse? Bear with me through this example as it is a bit rocky. Author Charlaine Harris wrote a series of books, The Sookie Stackhouse novels, where the main character has a special gift. Sookie can read people’s minds and throughout the entire series, she commonly refers to it as a disability or a gift she would like to give back. When I first read the novels, I kept thinking how exhausted she must feel hearing what other people think all the time. I am not going all dark on you guys and I am in no way touting that telepathy and empathy are anywhere close to the same thing. I have no clue if there are people who can hear other people’s thoughts and I prefer to keep it that way. I only bring this up as an example to illustrate that Sookie is unique and that her abilities have both benefits and costs. Her grandmother, Adele, was a kind and devout Christian woman who always encouraged her granddaughter. At one point she told Sookie that her grandfather had used his “special abilities” to prevent his brother from taking his own life.
Adele’s character illustrates the importance of focusing on the good and suggests that a person should consider their “uniqueness” a blessing.
After much deliberation, I realized why this is so important to me. Despite the intense and tumultuous emotions experienced through friendships and relationships, it is all worth it because of love. (Insert eye-roll or swoon; your choice). I am not referring just to a feeling of love, but a profound connection to another that many cannot put into words.
We have all heard the phrase, ‘if you could only walk a mile in their shoes’, and through the gift of empathy, you can in many ways. What if your significant other could sense you had a bad day at work when you walked in the door and knew not to bombard you with questions? Imagine a friend who could sense feelings of sadness or embarrassment even if you are not able to put your feelings into words. If only my parents would listen to me more or why can’t my spouse, try to see things from my perspective? Empathy allows you to be connected and amazingly support others. If acknowledged and respected this allows a person to have the kind of relationships depicted in books and movies. Please do not let me mislead you into thinking that I always use the “sensing” and intuition appropriately. I think Sookie would agree with me that I frequently open my mouth when it would be better to keep it shut.
My Adventure Continues
It’s true what people say that knowledge is power. It can be extremely freeing if we try to understand our strengths, our weaknesses, and what creates our individuality. I have learned a very hard lesson on this path to self-realization which is: if I allow myself to act or react based on emotions I will always be a prisoner to feelings, never having the ability to rise above them and find peace. Our planet and our society are not without their faults, however, if we tap into the empathy that resides inside each of us we will start to see the world differently. Each day it takes works to try to maintain my healthy boundaries, not cycle back to people-pleasing or avoiding conflict, and certainly not give in to every emotion that I experience. What I now know is I am here to help others, listen, love, and respect others even if no one else will.
In other words, it feels good to feel good.