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