Empathy’s Two-Way Street

I am intensely empathic (in case I haven’t already said that at some point). I take on people’s moods and emotional states quickly and easily. I read changes in mood, tone, or behavior very sharply. It’s exhausting. It helps me in my writing, my relationships, and my work, yes, but it can be wholly exhausting, that close connection. And it takes no effort, empathy. Whether it is or not, it has always felt like a natural state for me. Separation is what takes effort. Being able not to feel a particular way is the accomplishment because, in my world, emotions attach to people. Memories and feelings commingle, attach, and trigger. So getting to a point where I can not feel (note: can not, not cannot) is a large task and not easily accomplished. That’s not always fun either, though, because it means that who or whatever it is, they once meant something to me, quite deeply, but things have come to a point where those feelings are detrimental to me.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of being an empathetic person: coming to a point where I need to, sometimes drastically, change my emotional paradigm in order to maintain my mental/emotional health. Now, I understand that this is often called “moving on” and I accept that I am growing through these situations, but that does not change the heaviness of them. Perhaps saying that I do not feel anymore is misrepresenting it, however. I never feel “nothing”, not ever. I always feels something. What I am doing, however, is trying to change how I deal with what I now feel. Sometimes, for example, that’s setting the feelings aside and putting on my “professional face” until I can get home in private to process what I am feeling. Other times, it might be recognizing that sometimes feelings are irrational, acknowledging that certain feelings might be, and letting them pass on (still working on this mindfulness practice. Regardless, I am having to do the work to shift an emotional paradigm, and that can be a lot of heavy lifting.

I remember how mired I got in a particular situation when I was in high school. A person I had counted as a friend stopped talking to me the minute they found out, under the pretense of dispelling rumors, that I wasn’t interested in more than our platonic friendship. The connection was instantly severed. They left our friendship, which I had come to enjoy, along with our “professional” relationship (read: we were both heavy hitters in our school’s music program). It felt as though our friendship was a car where they had ripped away the steering, jumped out, and left the car to crash into a wall with me still in it. For a long time, I was stuck in my empathy, in my emotional loyalty, and in what I felt was a betrayal of that loyalty without any explanation as to why. At the same time, my own family’s empathy didn’t help because they were firmly on my side and would gladly harp on it with me whenever my blood got up, which kept me from moving on. I did, eventually, but it took a while to figure out how to separate from what I had felt before, particularly the sense of betrayal. With the benefit of hindsight twenty years later, I have a clearer picture now, of course.

We have heard over and over in movies and read repeatedly in books that “You can’t just un-love someone all at once.” I believe this to be very true. Teaching myself to un-feel particular emotions has been a very hard lesson in re-calibration, not only replacing the feelings with others but actively working not to let guilt set in about not feeling that way anymore. I have zero issues with admitting that I am a born-and-raised people-pleaser and that it is a constant process to un-learn that sense of guilt at not being what I think everyone wants me to be or feeling how they want me to feel. I have come to realize something very important over in recent years.

Being an empathetic/empathic person means that I need to have empathy for myself as well.

I have written before about guarding your peace, defending your boundaries, and doing so boldly and truthfully.  The same goes with empathy, though it is at times the harder of these lessons, at least for me. I am still an active student in this, even at this very moment of writing. I am not done with the work. Reconnecting with my empathy for myself sometimes takes help (something else I struggle in asking for). I remind myself that there are people willing to go to bat for me, and I have had beautiful examples of that this year. 

My department chair stepping between me (the new teacher at the school) and an irate parent and supporting my judgement and following of protocol in a grade dispute. 

My beloved husband offering to deal with a situation if I feel trapped and paralyzed over what to do.

My mothers encouraging me that I am doing well with my little one, especially when said little one is unhappy with the answer she has received or consequences of her actions and lashes out.

My therapist reminding me that there is no deadline on life, its new chapters, or the changes that we go through except the ones that we impose on ourselves. Gently reminding me that I have time.

If you need permission, consider this your slip, dear Reader:

Empathy for yourself is not a sin. Separating yourself from detrimental situations is not a crime. Maintaining your boundaries is not unforgivable. It is part of growing and changing. It is a part of holding to your truth, the purpose you were made for, and what is good for you. 

Empathy for others is wonderful and needed. 

Empathy for yourself is necessary.

Art by Rachel Eck – IG @rachel_e_lettering

NaBloPoMo Day 28: On Crying

I am an empathetic crier. It is rare, very rare, that I can see a friend or dear one crying and I don’t start crying as well. Perhaps it is a sense of wanting to be able to comfort the other; perhaps it is to let them know that what they feel isn’t silly to be crying over. I cry when my friends are hurting. I cry for and with them because, often, there little more that I can do from where I am.

I am also a very easy crier. I cried last night when I prayed over Elizabeth as she lied congested and uncomfortable in her bed. I cry when something bad happens on my favorite tv show. I cry at moments in books, at cards sent, gifts given.

Right now, though, I have plenty of tears of my own. I am tired, my shoulder aches where I banged it, the weather is gloomy and wet (see, even the sky is crying), my baby is sick, my husband also isn’t feeling, and I have had nightmares. It’s just been a teary couple of days.

Not all tears are bad, not all crying is painful. Sometimes we go through periods where our heart leaks out of our eyes for reasons of which we are unaware. But it happens, so the likelihood is there that it is needed. I am not sure just what my tears need to wash away, smooth, or reshape within me, but I think I am willing to let them.


Not Understanding My Skin

In their newest article, The Well Written Woman discusses the issues brought forth by the events in Ferguson, MO. I will not be discussing that, not by a long shot. I am woefully uninformed and far from qualified to do so. However, their opening paragraphs struck me as something that I could easily say about my own self [applicable portions bolded]:

“I don’t even know where to start with the rat’s nest of social justice issues that need to be addressed in the midst of all that is happening in the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the ensuing (justifiable) outrage of the people of Ferguson, MO.

I don’t know that I’m even remotely qualified to discuss it.

I don’t know the struggle people of color face in their every day lives, with the police, with the systemic racism that permeates our culture.

I’m white.

I don’t know a damn thing about what it’s like to be black in America.

I can observe what it’s like. I can recognize injustice when I see it. I can empathize with the pain of another human being, but I have no frame of reference to be able to sympathize.

I am blessed with the privilege of being surrounded by diverse people. That diversity has opened my heart and shattered it and rebuilt it over and over again.”

Yes, I am black. No, I have no idea of the hardships and struggles that seem to be synonymous in this country with that state of being. I personally don’t know a damn thing about what it means to be black in America. Though I have been back and forth to the States all my life, I grew up on an island in the Caribbean, amongst a family and community of all shapes and colors, a country composed of multiple ethnicities. Were there cases of racism? Oh, yes! I would be an innocent fool to think otherwise. But I have been fortunate enough in my life, both there and here in the States, to never have personally encountered injustice based solely on the color of my skin, or, if I have, it wasn’t anything that mattered enough for me to notice. But can I say something? I notice that other people notice that I am unbothered, or at least not enraged.

When I was in college, I took an American Literature class and, of course, we came upon African-American literature and the Harlem Renaissance. I was one of two black students in the class, me being an English Education major and him a theatre/directing major. He was very enthusiastic and passionate about this period of literature and the authors and elected to do his class lecture assignment during this segment of the semester. After my fellow student gave his lecture, which was fabulous, the professor stepped up to me as I pulled my things together to leave class and he asked if I was enjoying the class. I assured him that I very much was, and he seemed surprised by that. I asked him why and he explained to me that, frequently, when he had African-American students, they usually seemed to really enjoy the Harlem Renaissance portion of the class but I seemed rather blase about it. I admitted that, while I found some portions of Harlem Renaissance literature interesting, there will always be a part of it that is lost to me. I have not the sense of injustice or righteous anger that seems to pervade a great portion of the literature; I fail to understand or be able to sympathize with it. Therefore, some of the emotion and levels inherent in the writing were inaccessible to me then and still are now.

So in this situation with MO, I find that I am woefully ill-equipped to understand and discuss this situation, which is why I haven’t even brought it up in conversation or watched most of the news coverage or read the stories on it. All I know is that there is a great deal of heartbreak, anger, violence, and, grieving, broken people involved and no amount of talking on my part, particularly from my position in life, is going to do any good. All I can do is pray for everyone involved and that is what I am doing.

It brings to stark relief how good of a life I have had and still have. When I tell my husband that my daughter and I have gone out shopping or something during the day, sometimes he will ask if we saw anyone we knew or if anyone say hi to us or anything. The reason, he tells me, is that he wants us to feel comfortable where we live and to never feel like we need to worry or be afraid or nervous. Want the truth? I have never worried about anywhere that I have lived in my life. I have never feared for myself (or my daughter) because of the color of my skin. Maybe that is blissful ignorance and obliviousness on my part, but, regardless, it is something that I am continually grateful for.