I’ll never forget the day I went to see Saving Private Ryan with a bunch of my high school friends. I walked out of the theatre feeling like I’d been through emotional boot camp. I felt a dark and forbidding cloud hang over me for the next week. I didn’t want to look at people, talk to anyone, or think about anything. Seriously. It took that long for me to recover. Any time scenes from the movie flashed through my mind I felt a deep pain seize me and my stomach would twist in knots. I couldn’t understand how people could be so cruel, so terrible, so violent. The image of those young boys on Omaha Beach, maimed and dying, crying for their mothers, left an indelible scar in my heart. Like so many important films about the world, I knew I needed to see it, but I didn’t know how to separate the despair that came afterwards from my own emotions and reality. Not that my friends weren’t also disturbed by it, but I remember being so confused as to how they were able to function normally and even laugh and joke after the movie. Why didn’t they all feel what I felt?
Twenty years later I still experience the same things, though I have been become a little bit more dulled to violence. I rarely watch war movies, I can’t handle horror films and I have to turn away during scenes of sexual violence, or any animal being killed. But, there are important shows and films that I want to see even though I know they will be tough for me to get through. Just this week we watched an episode of the amazing and oh-so-hard-to-watch, The Handmaid’s Tale, that was so traumatic for me that I had to get Zeke to stop playing it momentarily so that I could sob uncontrollably.
“Why do men hate women? Why are women treated like second class citizens? Why is the world so horrible? How can people allow these things to happen to others?” I ranted, I cried. I shook with sadness and rage. My loving partner talked me off the ledge, reminded me that this was just a TV show about a dystopian future and that the majority of people are good and kind and the world in general is not crazy. It also helped that the show is filmed in Toronto and I recognize a lot of the locations, making it feel more like a set than a terrifying reality.
About a year ago I was at a party, just hanging around the food table, eating some yummy treats, when, from out of nowhere I felt a darkness overtake me. It was a feeling of deep sorrow and unhappiness and I felt it instantaneously. A woman approached the table who I had never met before and although we didn’t engage directly, her anger and sadness were so palpable that I felt like I could reach out and touch them. I felt myself recoil in horror and run from that table as fast as I could, while simultaneously feeling deep compassion for her.
This, folks, is my life, or rather, the dark side to being an empath. The word empathy is tossed around a lot these days, and although I think that’s a great thing, I also think sometimes people aren’t sure exactly what it means, so here’s a definition for you.
Everyone I know who considers themselves an empath or highly empathetic is on a sliding scale, and experience it in slightly different ways, but for myself, I can quite literally feel someone else’s feelings much of the time. I was at a funeral years ago for a friend whose father had sadly passed away far too soon and I could not stop crying. I felt embarrassed because I hadn’t actually known his dad personally, and I felt like I was somehow taking away from my friend’s grief. But I could feel what he felt, and what the people in the room felt and I couldn’t seem to control myself in the moment. People often say that everyone should be more empathetic, but I don’t necessarily agree. Hear me out. First of all, I should say that I think empathy is needed in this world and essential to a functioning and healthy society. I think people need to understand where people are coming from and that they need to learn to put themselves in other people’s shoes, but really, I think it might be more helpful for people to simply be kinder, more compassionate, more sympathetic and better listeners.
Imagine you have just been hit by a car. You’re on the ground and you’re bleeding. You’ve broken your leg and your arm and you are in so much pain that your body is slowly going into shock. Someone runs over to you and suddenly feels the exact same pain you are feeling. Yes, it feels good to know that your pain is understood, but does it ease your pain? If that person is feeling the pain as deeply as you they are therefore incapable of helping you. What you need in that moment is kindness, compassion and a skilled paramedic who will jump into action, address and validate your pain, but not be overwhelmed by it. Having said that, many paramedics do suffer from PTSD and the profession has a high suicide rate. It’s hard to see trauma and pain, day after day and not have it effect you, empath or not. So let’s have extra compassion for anyone in the helping professions.
Now, imagine yourself as an emotional pain magnet. When you feel emotions so immediately and intensely, processing and living in the modern world can be a little like swimming in an ocean of people who have no idea that they might be drowning you. But there’s an upside. Really.
Feeling darkness, despair, sadness or anger from others is almost too much for me to take sometimes, but when I feel joy or experience beauty, it is mind blowingly incredible. Any kind of art, but in particular for me, music and film, can make me weep with utter joy. It fills me up with so much goodness that I’m able to wash away the horrors of the world for a minute, or an hour, or three. If I’m lucky the joy even carries me forward for a day or two. The arts are my emotional vitamins. I have so many other things in life that give me joy, such as my family and friends, my sports, laughter and comedy, my loving partner, delicious food, travel, meditation, new experiences, playing games, having great conversations and so much more, but there is something unique to the arts that gives me the strength to go on.
One recent movie stands out to me as art at its best and that’s the Academy Award winning masterpiece, Moonlight. The film is carefully framed with an empathetic lens that is so artfully employed that I was able to perfectly imagine what life was like for a *spoiler alert* young, black, closeted gay kid growing up with a drug addicted single mother in a poor neighbourhood in Miami in the 1960s. My own childhood couldn’t have been much more different. What I loved most about this film was the way it dealt with the deep grief of its protagonist in a beautifully hopeful way. I left the movie feeling grateful for the experience and that this piece of art existed in the world.
You see, I’ve always wanted to understand people’s experiences, especially when they are extremely different from my own. It gives me a special tingle in my storyteller brain. I want to know everyone’s story. There’s no such thing as a boring person, to me. Only someone who hasn’t connected with their own truth and their own story. I also want to understand how my own privileged life has perhaps skewed my view on things and if so, how I can change that. Perhaps that’s the ethnomusicologist in me or the fact that I grew up with a journalist for a mom who taught me to question everything and be curious about everyone. So, when people say to me, “you don’t understand” or, “you can’t understand” I want to tell them, “I might not understand it exactly the way you do or through your life lens, but I’m telling you, I want to understand and I can feel what you feel.”
This past year in the world has been very hard year for empaths. Sometimes I wonder how I will push forward with the news that I read each day coming out of the United States, and every corner of the world. I was an early adapter of social media and loved it for so many years, but lately the stories and comments (I know, I know, never read the comments) have been almost too much for me to take. I try to focus on the positive – the good news, music, cute animal videos, hilarious memes and videos, stories and pictures from my family and friends and stories of people who are doing good in the world, but I also want to be informed. Is it possible to balance it all? I can’t understand how leaders can make decisions that destroy people’s lives without a thought or care. I can’t comprehend the desire for power over others, the inability to understand or feel for other people, or the complete disregard for human lives and the human experience. Is that where my own empathy ends? To be honest, I don’t want to feel empathy for leaders who make these kinds of decision, but can you blame me?
So, lately I’ve begun my own personal studies on how I can cope in the world and how I can use my empathy for good while also protecting my own emotions and not burning out. I want to use my “super power”, as Zeke calls it, to help other people and not let hard emotions shut me down completely. So, as you can imagine, it was pretty amusing for me to see an empath in a superhero movie recently. *Spoiler alert* In Guardians of the Galaxy 2 there’s a new character named Mantis who has the ability to feel what others feel and effect their emotions as well. The character is flawed and there were some cringe worthy moments, but overall I was happy to see empathy take its place in an action movie. I remember seeing my first on screen empath, Counsellor Deanna Troy on Star Trek :The Next Generation, a classic show in my family, and although some of her lines were laughable at times, I felt a connection to the character and remember thinking, “huh, well, I’m no Betazoid, but it doesn’t seem like rocket science being able to feel what other people feel.” As a kid you assume everyone experiences the world exactly like you do.
Last year I wrote an e-mail to the creators of the one of my favourite podcasts, NPR’s Invisibilia. For those who haven’t checked it out yet, it’s about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. It’s brilliant. I wrote to them telling them what a big fan I was and how about an episode on empathy? Well, I have no idea if my e-mail had an impact but I was thrilled to see that the first two episodes of season three were about emotions. What? Thank you guys! I highly recommend having a listen.
In these two episodes they discuss emotion from a whole variety of angles, including a rather progressive and thought provoking view from Professor of Psychology, Lisa Feldman Barrett, who argues that emotions are constructed from language and experiences and our brains learn to express and feel certain things because of these past experiences. It’s a bit like the nature versus nurture argument but for emotions. I’m not a psychologist so I apologize for not being able to explain it very well (plus I still need to read her book, How Emotions are Made.) The hopeful note I did take away from it, especially as an empath, is that it IS possible to handle your emotions differently. It’s possible to heal emotionally from past trauma and it’s possible to change the way we react to things. I believe this because I have experienced it first hand. I have been able to take a traumatic experience and through a special kind of counselling, put that experience into the “memory” section of my brain rather than the “trauma” section.
So, regardless of how emotions might be made, it’s always nice to know that we aren’t stuck. There is hope when we are going through hard times and there are techniques we can learn to protect ourselves emotionally as well. One small technique that I read about recently is to carry around a thumbstone with you and whenever the emotions of others gets to be too much, hold it in your hand and imagine an invisible shield protecting you. I’ve heard of worry stones before, but emotion shielding stones were a totally new concept to me. In fact I just received one in the mail this morning so I’m just about to give it a try.
This is just the beginning of what I imagine will be a lifelong exploration. The world of emotions is fascinating, complex, misunderstood and often gendered as well. I hope that as the world progresses and becomes more equalized the study of emotions and empathy expands with it. Stay tuned for updates and thanks for reading.