What It's Really Like To Be An Empath
A few months ago, I was talking to a friend about the drama of parenting, the ups and downs of life, and the general clusterfuck of the daily news. After listening to my emotional rants and tearful woes, and comparing her own feelings, she said, “I think you might feel things more than most people.”
Truer words have never been spoken. I am a big feeling person. By some definitions, I’m considered a highly sensitive person, or HSP. I’m thin-skinned or overly empathetic. I’m dramatic and emotional. I have big feelings — about everything.
For those who aren’t a big feeling HSP, let me explain a little bit about what it’s like. For those of you who are? Well, you’ll get it.
When you’re a big feeling person, you know self-doubt and regret well. You overthink most things, usually after you’ve made an impulsive, emotionally charged decision. You can turn a conversation over in your head a million different ways, analyzing what was said and questioning whether you should have said something different. The conclusion is always that you fucked up.
When you’re a highly empathetic person, you care deeply about lots of things — from racism and xenophobia to whether people will think you’re a bitch for not sending out holiday cards. You get frustrated when people don’t care as much about something as you do and worry that something might be wrong with you because care so much.
You feel helpless to solve unfixable problems because you want to fix them all. You get easily overwhelmed by the heartbreak of the world and even the minutiae of your day. You throw yourself into every cause you care about, and then tire and retreat from them all because no one can do everything for everyone.
When you’re a highly empathetic person, you don’t just feel compassion and sympathy and joy for others; you feel these feelings as if they were your own. Empathy, by definition, extends beyond compassion, and means that you vicariously experience the thoughts and feelings of others. You believe that it’s our primary calling to take care of each other because we’re all in this together.
Sometimes you feel conflicted because when you feel things in a big way and can feel the pain of others, there are no black and white answers, no good guys or bad guys. Instead there are infinite shades of gray, which can create a lot of confusion. Sometimes you resort to absolutes and intentionally block out the nuanced perspectives because it’s less emotionally taxing than letting in all of the perspectives and emotions. You can’t always let yourself go down the rabbit hole.
Being an overly empathetic, big feeling, thin-skinned, highly sensitive person sometimes feels like a curse, but ultimately, it’s a blessing. Our skin might be thin and porous, letting the negative in — the depressing news about the mistreatment of migrants, anger over the latest political upheaval, sad news about a friend’s health — but it also lets in the positive as well. I’ve cried hot, angry tears after reading about the latest string of hate crimes, but I’ve also wept quiet, tender tears hugging another mother on my doorstep because of an exceptional act of kindness. Your big feelings propel you to action. Your empathy creates understanding and connection.
When you’re a big feeling HSP, self-care is critically important. Intentionally narrowing the scope of your attention can help, so can taking a break from the news and a desire to be informed on all the things. Spending time connecting with a small group of close friends, instead of large groups of acquaintances, can be restorative and healing. Therapy and medication can also help.
But ultimately, I’ve found that the biggest help is self-acceptance. This is who I am. I am an overly empathetic, big feeling, thin-skinned, highly sensitive person. I am soft and pliable, and while I’m sometimes envious of those who have thick skin, those who have a laissez-faire attitude toward life, I am just not one of those people. One of my favorite quotes comes from author Iain S. Thomas: “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
So, yes, we are overly empathetic, big feeling, thin-skinned, highly sensitive people. While it can seem like the world is going to hell in a handbasket some days, we stay soft. We fight the urge to become bitter. We take pride that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still believe the world to be a beautiful place.
And then we feel all that beauty in our own big feeling way until the beauty and hope overflows onto our children.
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