Dealing with empathy

Humans occur along vast ranges of characteristics and one of those ranges is the scale that has empaths and extreme altruists on one end and probably psychopaths on the other. They all have their pluses and minuses. Nothing is bad or good. Everything is both. There is good in bad and bad in good. Good and bad can’t even exist independently. They are expressed relative to each other, after all.

Do you know where on this spectrum you are?

You may say “yes” instantly.

Are you sure?

Throughout my life, various friends and relatives have pegged me as the “typical” clinical/cold/unemotional scientist. They perceived me as dorky and maybe even unable to understand other people’s emotions. Particularly my two younger sisters, perhaps, but they weren’t the only ones. They often portrayed me as the caricature of the emotionally limited high-IQ, eh, geek, dork, what have you. (That’s not me. My IQ is good but not excessively high.)

By the way, it is certainly not my intention to offend anyone. Read on, please, if you are starting to become annoyed.

Empaths feel your pain

In reality, I am closes to the other end of the scale of empathy, perhaps resembling the sensitive cellist or flautist more than the clinical physicist or geochemist.

I am certainly not a full-blown empath, but I am sometimes highly empathic.

It depends on the circumstances, but on occasion, I soak up other people’s emotions like a sponge, without being aware of it. I suspect that it happens predominantly when I, for example, am very tired. When it happens, it can be very hard to tell for me that what I am feeling is not my own emotion, but someone else’s.

Shielding myself or, at least, verifying that what I am feeling is my own feeling and not someone else’s is important.

It is probably one of the reasons why I live on my own.

I love working at places like Costa Coffee and Starbucks. on the other hand. Then I get a balanced mix of emotional input from the people around me, I suppose. But in other situations, I have to remain very aware of what I am feeling and why. Particularly, when I am upset, I have to ask myself “Is this feeling mine or is it someone else’s”?

Enjoying a meal at a soup kitchen, as I have done a few times, can leave me awake until the early morning, apparently purely as a result of all the stuff – energies – I pick up from the people who were seated around me. Soup kitchens are not likely to attract the same mix of people as Costa Coffee and Starbucks do.

I seem to serve as an antenna and/or amplifier for other people’s negative emotions at times. Their pain. Their stress. A lightning rod that deflects those emotions.

In practice, it may sometimes serve to get people talking about what is bothering them, I suspect, enabling some kind of breakthrough. It is very interesting as well as possibly empowering for me to acknowledge this much more than I used to and maybe even to start working with this.

I certainly need to be much more aware of this than I used to.

To “hard” scientists, such as physicists, this may all sound like hogwash, though behavioral scientists can come up with explanations for some experiences I have had. But not all, I reckon.

Here is an example.

  • I remember a Saturday morning on which I was getting increasingly antsy and jittery. The feeling disappeared after I called someone who had left a voice mail the day before. It was from someone who didn’t know me, but who urgently needed someone – me – to do something for her and she had been awaiting my call very anxiously. Apparently, I had been picking up on her feelings.
    The story is even more fascinating. This person had found me because she had called someone else who, was on a long vacation in India at the time. She said that she had been given my contact details. But the person who was in India didn’t know her either – I later asked – and had no idea how this particular woman got my phone number.Behavioral scientists would say that the nervousness was mine as the call was on my to-do list, I suppose.

I also remember a time when I was driving to the city of Maastricht with one of my sisters. At some point, we stopped talking because every time one of us said something, the other person had been thinking the same thing. That example is slightly different, but it is probably the same principle. I suppose that behavioral scientists can explain that too.

But what about the following examples?

One Saturday morning in Florida, I was feeling very sad and played Ravel’s Pavane on my record player. I was scheduled to volunteer in seabird rehab that morning and when I got to the seabird center, the person I was assisting that day turned out to be devastated. She had just needed to put her cat to sleep. I remember her crying in my arms. I hadn’t known that the cat was doing that badly. And the cat’s nickname was Princess… “Pavane pour une infante défunte” means pavane for a deceased princess.

When I left Florida, the same person treated me to a lunch. To our utter amazement, they played Ravel’s Pavane during our lunch at the restaurant. (I had not gotten around to letting her hear the music.)

A few years later, it happened that I felt both sad and a very strong urge to call this person (by then, an ocean removed from where I was living). I called. Turned out that another cherished animal (anipal) had passed away.

There have been other instances.

I used to dismiss all the esoteric talk about “energies” as fantasy aka hogwash myself, but now I think that I was wrong to do so.

Is it all a matter of how our bodies work, as a series of chemical reactions, hence essentially a complex of electric circuits that generate their own teeny tiny magnetic fields, I once wondered? Are some people tuned in much more to these fields than others?

From a “hard” scientific perspective, it may certainly sound like hogwash, but near-death experiences are no longer dismissed as hogwash either (at least, not by everyone in science) and we’re also now acknowledging that many other animal species have emotions and cognitive abilities not unlike our own.

It’s amazing how more challenging it can be to live your life well, when other people keep telling you something about you that isn’t actually true.

You can’t address something of which you are not aware.

Now that I realize how sensitive I can be to other people’s feelings, I can deal with this much better (and possibly even use it make them feel better, help them “heal) and stop the feelings from draining and upsetting me.

Most importantly, I can use my newly gained insights to make my life easier, and experience less friction and (other people’s) hurt.

Fascinating!

But not always easy.

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