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. Some perceived me as dorky and unable to understand other people’s emotions. The caricature of the emotionally limited high-IQ, eh, geek, dork, what have you. (That is 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.

Empaths feel your pain

In reality, I am very close to the other end of empathy (perhaps closer to the sensitive cellist or flautist).

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

It depends on the circumstances, but I soak up other people’s emotions like a sponge. When I do, 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 one of the reasons why I live on my own. I love working at places like Costa Coffee and Starbucks. Then I get a balanced mix of input, 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”?

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 them.

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

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 to do something for her and she had been awaiting my call very anxiously. I had been picking up on her feelings. To make it even more fascinating, this person had found me because she had called someone else who was in India at the time. She had been given my contact details. But the person who was in India didn’t know her either and has no idea how this particular woman got my phone number. Behavioral scientists may 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 it. That example is slightly different, but it is probably the same principle.I suppose that behavioral scientists can explain this 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 volunteering that morning and when I got to the seabird rehab place, the person I was assisting that day turned out to be devastated as she had just needed to put her cat to sleep. I remember her crying in my arms. I had not known that the cat was doing that badly. And the cat’s nickname was Princess… (infanta?)

When I left Florida, the same person treated me to a lunch. Thearo 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 strong urge to call this person, by then, an ocean removed from where I was living. 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, but now I think that I was wrong.

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 sound like hogwash, but near-death experiences are no longer dismissed as hogwash either (at least, not by everyone) and we’re also now acknowledging that many other animal species have emotions and cognitive abilities not unlike our own.

It’s amazing how 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 am to other people’s feelings, I can deal with it much better and even use it make them feel better without it draining me. I can use it as a healing power. But maybe more importantly, I can use it to make my life easier and experience less friction and hurt.


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