I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and then today I saw Stina Leicht’s beautiful post about empathy and the fine balance required in remembering that everyone is simultaneously different and the same. So I decided I’d write about empathy, and then I surprised myself by how vulnerable I feel writing about the topic.
I’ve realized lately that I have a high amount of empathy. This is not something I’ve known about myself all my life, so I still don’t feel completely easy with the knowledge. It makes a lot of sense, though. One of my strengths as a music teacher was my ability to make my students feel comfortable and supported, even while they were exposing themselves with their singing. As a writer, I enjoy delving deeply into the heads of my characters. And certainly for my adult life, it’s generally been fairly simple for me to put myself into other people’s positions and to see many sides and perspectives of an issue. It’s comfortable like slipping into a broken-in pair of shoes.
Having high empathy is a very mixed experience. My empathy has brought me many of my greatest joys and also many of my hardest challenges. At its best, it truly is a gift without compare. Being able to create connections and be truly present with people is a deeply meaningful and satisfying act. On some level we all want to tell our stories, and there’s a powerful resonance that can be achieved by being a loving witness to that.
But high empathy is tricky to manage. I’ve talked to other people with high empathy, and it appears that many of us have a chameleon-like ability to be who is required. We are the people who can figure out the right thing to say. We are the people who know how to smooth everything out. We can turn our own emotions and needs off like a switch if that’s what we think is necessary. We are the people who can sit quietly and reflect the other person back at themselves without the judgment that would make that too painful.
Unfortunately, we are the people who need the strongest boundaries, and we are the people to whom those boundaries come the least naturally.
Without those boundaries, we become people-pleasing, codependent, or emotionally drained. We can see the other side so clearly that we can accidentally neglect our own perspective or place less value on it. Being so aware of different options and viewpoints can paralyze us into indecision. We can lose ourselves in trying to be who someone else wants us to be. Nothing good lies down that path.
I’m going to tell you a secret about highly empathetic people. We want what we give. Sometimes we want it desperately. We want other people to see us the way we see them. We want other people to listen to us the way we listen to them. We want people to slip into our shoes sometimes too, and we want our experiences to be validated the way we’ve validated so many other people’s experiences.
In the end, we’re just like everybody else. We all want to be recognized for who we are.