Monday, January 24, 2011

Musings on Empathy

I guess I first became aware of this tendency of mine when I was five or six. My friend Darlene was standing, swinging on a swing, and as she went up, her foot slipped. The swing began its travel back as she fell, not far, to the ground, but hard enough that I heard the thump as she hit. "Ouch!" I blurted, wincing. My brother, standing right next to me, however, was laughing.

Darlene was fine. She kind of grumped to her feet, brushing off her backside and snapping at Wayne to shut up. I remember I watched her to make sure she wasn't just pretending to not be hurt, and, satisfied she really was okay, we returned to our play.

Why would I remember a small thing like this?

I'm not sure, except that it's a vivid memory and it's the first I have in a long chain of recollections of what I--and what some of my friends and lovers over the years--have referred to as my empathy. Or, more often, my "over-empathy." The kind of empathy that sometimes identifies so much with someone else's fear, or pain, that, sometimes, it cripples me as well. (Feeling someone else's joy, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing. Some people are so full of joy and goodwill that I'm always happy to be in their presence.) No, it's the darker emotions, or, even worse, the scary dead shut-down of any feeling, except for some ominous undercurrent, that alarms me the most.

I hope you don't think I'm crazy. I'm simply the kind of person who can go into a room, be there for ten minutes, leave and be able to tell you not one single detail about what was actually in the room--but I could tell you with great accuracy what that room FELT like. I'm one of those persons who can tell if someone is on the verge, say, of some kind of explosion. (Maybe I just got tuned into this stuff because I had an unpredictable stepmother.) Sometimes these people just need to be touched. Human contact, the briefest hand laid on an arm, can elicit a storm of tears or a heavy sigh or fury. And how else to explain? Sometimes it's like you can absorb some of their crap, let it flow out of them into you. But then the problem becomes one of having to feel their feelings. It can be like being throttled.

Or maybe I've watched too many episodes of Star Trek or something, and all this is totally my own imagination. Still, there's something to it, because more than one person has told me that just being held briefly by me soothes them, or that they can feel me even if I'm not there, or a touch from me can help reground them. How much of this is them and how much is me, who knows? I used to do a flying meditation with my ex, Beth, that used to be pretty remarkable. Every last person with whom I've ever done any bodywork has brought up, without my even having to mention it, the openness of my heart chakra. I seem to be capable of an endless number of deep loves, which may shift and change, but they never go away, and sometimes, I've been told, I bear the curse of caring too much.

And I do absorb love like a sponge, crave it like a drug, so I always have to be careful. You can get lost in that stuff, like a dope fiend huddled for days on end in the corner of an opium den.

I suppose this adds yet more dimension to why I tried to shut the valve off by addicting myself to alcohol for so many years. Booze either numbed me out entirely or replaced real feelings with fake, imagined, or inflated ones that meant nothing to me at all. Nothing at all, when it really mattered.

Maybe feeling others' feelings is rather like Blink and it's not really anything psychic, but it's just a quick sizing up of body language, facial expression, and the terseness of a reply. But since I've gotten sober, I'm more tuned into people, and consequently they are coming to me more often. Maybe it's my own body language, me looking more open, more curious, more empathetic and willing to help.

But some days, it's hard to not feel overwhelmed. I'm reminded of that scene in Wings of Desire when the silent library is full of the anguished thoughts of humans, audible only to the ever-present watching angels. It's glorious and horrible at one and the same time.

So human cruelty knocks the breath out of me because I wonder what part of his or her own humanity that person has switched off, and why; what happened to them that they felt they had to tighten that valve so much?

And why on earth is it we think a person who has opened the valve completely is weak?


Kristin H. said...

A whole community of empaths out there...

Joyce said...

Wow, cool. I'll have to go check out that site. Thanks very much!

Tedi Trindle said...

I totally get it. I guess I assume other people clue in like I do. I feel big energy in the rooms. I think I'm going to start paying closer attention to where my energy is drawn and see what happens. I know when I get a hug from a particular one of my sponsees I can feel her drawing my "mom" energy, of which I have a lot, fortunately. Fascinating post, thanks.

Joyce said...

Since posting this, I've heard from several people who've told me they know EXACTLY what I'm talking about! Looks like I'm good company. :)