Saturday, October 12, 2013

Me, On Being an Empath

My entire life I’ve been told I am sensitive, and very rarely was it presented to me like it was a good thing. Within the last couple years, though, the word, thought and significance of empathy came to my attention; someone called me an empath and it finally prompted me to do a little bit of research about what it meant for me specifically.

Described by Psychology Today:  

Empathy "is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling."

What I found astounded me because it described me so well. The layman’s term empathy means being able to feel what another person feels; actually taking it into yourself. This is different than sympathy, where you simply imagine what it must feel like to be or experience something from someone else’s perspective, and perhaps think about a case where you were in a similar situation and how you felt then.

Even though I had known the word empathy before, when I started to look into it and how it applied to me, the more parts of my life came into focus and made sense.

There are many positive parts about being empathic. In general, empaths are good listeners; they’re the people you can talk to when you need support and encouragement. They’re the type of people who are really good at finding the answer to questions like, “I want to surprise my loved one in a way that they would really enjoy. What would they like most?” Because an empath can feel what you feel, they’re less likely to go out of their way to hurt your feelings; they’re better at giving constructive criticism and being able to sandwich suggestions between compliments; they can be soothing and caring individuals and amazing therapists and healers.

In that sense and for an empath who knows how to deal with what they’re receiving, empathy is a powerful gift, much like acute hearing, good eyesight, or a great sense of balance. For the unaware empath, however, these “gifts” can feel like a nightmare that won’t end.

For most of my twenties, I compensated for my oversensitivity by being a rock hard bitch. When that started to dissolve, I became even more sensitive and, especially over the last couple years, I've found it tough to cope with how much I feel, not only with my own emotions but also emotions that I couldn't always attribute to what I personally was going through.

I never realized how tuned into everyone else I was until recently. I would even blog about how the volume seemed to be turned up on everyone else’s needs and ideas while my own voice was barely audible over the din without making the connection. In fact, I have realized that this is the reason I enjoy living and traveling in foreign countries. Even if I speak Spanish fluently, it is not my native language, and therefore I still have the ability to “turn off” my eavesdropping in public places. If someone’s speaking English, especially loudly or emotionally, I can’t help but understand, process and take on. Spanish-speakers, on the other hand, I can tune out, leaving me to a blissfully silent world full of noise.

The way that this has been the most harmful to me is when it comes to saying no or even saying what I think or feel to other people. I have realized that when I am having a conversation with someone, especially when it is obvious that they need something or are in pain, my first response is always going to be what they want to hear most, regardless of what those words – or actions, or jobs I agree to – will do to me, physically, emotionally or mentally. It is my first response because I have picked up on what they need, it becomes my need in the moment, and I want to fix it, partially because I want it to stop hurting them, but most especially because I want it to stop hurting me. (Note to self and others: this doesn’t actually work.)

It was also harmful to me because I would imagine how anything I wanted or needed would affect someone else, and hesitate to say it because I had already felt that pain for them and didn’t want to feel it through them again.

Before I knew this was the case, I had at least finally gotten to the point where I realized that I could not trust the first response that wanted to come out of my mouth when someone asked me for something. Instead of giving an answer in the moment, I now say I will think about it. Then I go home to my quiet space where I live alone and reconnect with what is best for ME underneath all those whirling emotions and ideas that I was caught up on in the moment. Almost always, the answer that reflects most what I want is different from the one that I would have blurted out in the moment.

I’ve been beating myself up for this for years. It is not ok in our culture to not have an instant answer; to not be able to negotiate in the heat of the moment, to not be able to state your needs when asked. It is part of a larger system, you see, which I recently learned was called the paradigm: (once again I knew the word, but never in context to myself) unstated yet understood rules about the way the world works. Or, as Merriam Webster puts it, "A theory or a group of ideas about how something should be done, made, or thought about."

Not only can I pick up on what others want or need, especially if I’m close to them, but I am also extra sensitive to this overarching idea of what I should be doing to be considered a successful part of the machine. This is why it has felt like such an uphill battle with each of the decisions I have made about my lifestyle, and why, over and over again, I have tried to justify myself and my actions: I have been trying to shut out of the ideas of what I should be despite the fact that it seems to be screaming at me in Dolby Surround Sound while I’m trying to hear myself on a cheap ass cell phone with a broken volume button.

A couple months ago, I found the Empath Community. Not only are there like-minded people there, but the woman who founded the site created a survival guide to turn down the volume on others and up on your own voice (it sounds ridiculously simple, but imagine two knobs. One says, “me” and one says, “others.” Turn yours up and the “other” knob down. Practice and practice. Also, create imaginary shields, and think about distancing yourself from anyone else when you need to connect with what you want.)

I almost cried when I started reading through the pages. Not only was I not alone, I wasn’t crazy for feeling this way, and I wasn’t weak for being unable to disconnect from what others wanted or needed, or what the culture as a whole was telling me. It had nothing to do with strength and everything to do with having the tools and believing myself when I realized that the feelings I had and the desire to fix things weren’t always my own. It’s as if my ego was trying to fulfill orders for comfort, help and support and handing them back to my body and soul without looking to see if it was more than they could handle.

There’s a single phrase that has come out of this that has become essential to me: “I believe you.” Before, I would sometimes get a pain in my chest and a panicked feeling that I could not attribute to anything going on in my own life. Now I know it’s someone else’s pain or panic I’m feeling, because I believe me when I know that instead of thinking that’s a crazy possibility. Instead of trying to unpack an emotion that isn’t mine, I let it go. When it seems like a task is small and no big deal and I should be able to handle it, but the little tiny voice in my head says no, I believe it. When my intuition tells me that even though all logic is pointing in the other direction but that tiny voice of mine chirps in to say that she thinks it’s not a good idea, I believe her. With each instance, her voice becomes a little louder, and my ability to hear her and ignore the other ideas and feelings coming at me gets better. Despite all this, I still tell someone who wants something from me that I need to think about it, because it’s still easier to hear myself when I’m alone, and I’ve decided that that’s ok. If I’m going to turn down the volume on the paradigm, I can turn down the volume on that idea too: instead of thinking I’m a failure for not being able to connect to how I feel in the moment, I can let go of that yet another self-worth-crushing idea, because the little voice that is me told me it was ok to do so, and I believe her.

Love and believable kisses