Empathy: A blessing and a burden

Empathy

I was on the metro a few days ago and a woman jumped on just as the doors closed. This is not unusual. Her attire, also, not unusual. What caught my eye was the juice packet in her hand, the soft kind that you squeeze the juice out of, and that she was squeezing it too hard. I thought to myself “Wow, she’s really getting every last drop out of that juice pack”.
I took me about two more seconds to realise that it was probably because she picked it out of a rubbish bin. I don’t know how, but I just knew it.
It was just then that she put the juice pack into a bag she was holding and pulled out a litre bottle that had some liquid in the bottom, about a tenth. I watched as the woman–whose shoulders I now noticed were bent over, making her recede into her jacket, trying to look small–took a sip from the bottle and I literally felt her recoil. I can only assume the liquid had gone bad or it was something other than what she was expecting. Every thing about her was sad, from the drape of her clothing over her slight frame, to the way her shoulders stooped and how her head hung down. The manner in which she was squeezing the very last drop of juice from that silver packet.
At the next stop, the woman hopped off the train and disappeared into the crowd.

This entire scene unfolded without me so much as seeing her face. I can tell you that her jacket was a light pink and that she wore a long dark skirt, that her hands were elegant, long fingered and creamy in tone and that she wore a very simple thin gold band on her left ring finger.
This scene went completely unnoticed by those around me and it took me two days to get over the emotions I experienced as a result. I could not stop thinking about her and I was heartsore for days.

I have always just believed I was overly sensitive and in fact, people, including my father, have asked me why I’m so sensitive. I never understood why I was so emotionally erratic, vacillating from one emotion to the next with little explanation as to why, always looking inwards for an answer. I never understood why things affected me the way that they do if there was something wrong with me that could explain why I cry after television adverts, when I read the paper, when I see cruelty, when I hear of bad things happening to people I have never met or when I watch the news, why I would get so angry as a child. It has occurred to me that I was subconsciously being affected by my brother’s anger and frustration. (Out of respect for him that is a story that won’t be told here).

I have always been this way, so I have tried to simply avoid seeing and doing things that will upset me but inevitably, because of the world we live in, I am confronted with sad or horrifying news on a regular basis, especially living in South Africa–where we have one of the worlds highest rape statistics, on the same scale as a country at war.
Every time my reaction is the same. Usually tears, most often extreme melancholy for days and there have been periods of melancholy for weeks.

It was actually Mr M’s observation that set me on this path of discovery in terms of my highly emotional tendencies. He, after telling me a particularly heart wrenching story about his past, noticed how I, firstly, reacted and secondly, how it affected me emotionally and remarked on how empathetic I am and how I have the ability to feel exactly what someone else is feeling without having the benefit of personal experience to draw on. He also said that it was one of the reasons he was so drawn to me initially.

That thought began to percolate and I started reading up and researching empaths, the different types and categories they fall into. For instance, you get Cognitive and Emotional empaths. Those two categories are each divided into about four sub-categories, depending on where you are doing your research. Furthermore, you get developed and undeveloped empaths. I am an Undeveloped Emotional Intuitive Empath. As soon as I started reading up on the typical characteristics of an empath, I wondered why I didn’t see it earlier.

I am called ‘undeveloped’ because I have little to no control over how deeply the emotional white noise around me affects me. It’s a very large part of the reason I find crowds and large groups utterly draining and why I prefer the safety and comfort of my loved ones. Incidentally, it’s probably the same reason I detest hospitals–the air itself feels heavy.
I have reasonably well developed social skills and I am somewhat articulate, couple this with my ability to empathise and relate to people from all walks of life and this leads people to believe that I am firstly, an extrovert and secondly, that I enjoy crowds.
Few things could be further from the truth. I am an INFJ according to the Myers-Briggs and a Blue/Red according to the Color Code. Being an empath falls squarely onto that foundation and really shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all me.

So where to from here?

More research, more reading up on the subject and forming a clear visual of the type of empath I am and how I then go about developing the mechanisms to help me field the emotions of those around me more efficiently so they do not affect me as much as they have been, up to this point, because it is utterly exhausting. I am either going to have to adopt better coping skills or let other people’s emotions tear me apart on a daily basis. I choose the former, it’s far less traumatic.

It has been said numerous times before that knowledge is power. Knowledge is also the first step in effecting change in your own life.

Thank you for reading.

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