Keeping Empathy In Check

Last month, I discovered that June 9th is Empathy Day and today it is trending on Twitter, because we should all harness this inner empathy that we have, right? We should all be more in-tune with each other’s feelings and emotions, especially at the moment, right?

I am also seeing posts on social media about empathic overload, parasympathetic stress, and general exhaustion… and I’m feeling that too.

Being empathic is a funny beast. I believe that we all inherently are, to some level, empathic. But for some of us, especially those of us that fall at the more sensitive end of the spectrum, our levels of empathy can sometimes be a little too much to manage and can sometimes even feel more like a curse than a blessing. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that we need more kindness and understanding going forward, using the word ‘empathy’ as a way to propel us to this point seems a little too far, especially when those of us who are empathic can often feel overwhelmed or burnt out by it.

For a long time, a very long time, I kind of just took my own empathy as something that simply was. I am empathic, just as someone else might be classed as adventurous or studious. It was a personality trait that I had, I couldn’t exactly switch it off and so I just went about my business wearing my empathy on my sleeve. And so often I would feel so tired, I would feel heavy, I would feel sad with no apparent cause, or frustrated, or just very jumbled…

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have understood that I wasn’t only observing what other people around me were feeling and therefore sympathising with them, I was feeling it too, quite literally.

There was a moment when it clicked for me. I walked into a room where two people were having an argument without words. You know the type. There were no raised voices, there was no apparent anger at all, but you could hear it in the tone of voice, the words used… I entered that room and my mood changed, like flicking a switch, and I instantly felt my energy shift. I knew then that this sudden dip in my mood was not because of my own emotions. I had instantly, on walking into that room, absorbed some of the energy from either one or both of those people – and it was not comfortable. I couldn’t stay in there, this feeling did not belong in my body and I did not want it to be there.

After that moment, I began to notice more how my mood would shift around certain people and, perhaps even more importantly, I began to notice the energy of other people and how it impacted me. Most people have a pretty neutral energy I find, it’ll change depending on circumstance of course but on the whole, it makes things very straightforward. However, some people can have very powerful energy – and this isn’t always a good thing. It may all sound a little far fetched at this point, but I have met people before who have had very confusing and chaotic energy, these people are not bad to be around necessarily, but I find that I do become quite tired after spending time with them. I have also met a couple of people that have very dark energy, and these people I do find it hard to spend time around. Around people like this, I usually get a headache and a real heaviness in the back of my head. It will quite often feel like someone has pulled the rug from underneath me and I get the feeling that I would rather be anywhere else. It is not comfortable and it will usually leave me exhausted for days afterward.

I don’t know, at this point, whether this is an empath trait, a thing that most people feel, instinct, or just an off-shoot of being at the more sensitive end of the scale when it comes to my surroundings. But I do feel that how we pick up on and perceive other people’s energies does link into how just being close to or around someone can impact our mood, and to an extent, our own energy.

Is it any wonder then that, at the moment especially, there are people who feel completely exhausted and burnt-out, but with no apparent cause? In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I felt like I was just wiped out. I didn’t feel like I could settle to anything, my thoughts felt jumbled and I struggled to make decisions. I was suffering from empathic overload. The whole world was experiencing a form of collective trauma. Suddenly everything that everyone knew – our routines, how we shopped, what we did when we left our homes, our children’s schooling, our jobs – were all thrown up into the air. Overnight we had to adapt, we had to get our shit together so that we could, at the very crux of it, survive. Here in the UK, we saw how this virus was affecting Italy and Spain and we were told that we were a few weeks behind these horrifying death tolls, we knew that this unstoppable force was coming. We watched as people panic bought toilet rolls, as governments who should have been keeping us safe floundered amongst the panic. We worried about older relatives and friends and our jobs and what this all meant long term and we did it all whilst suddenly having to be alone with our thoughts, without the distraction of work and routine.

And then the shocking images of George Floyd being murdered, and the realisation that systematic racism exists even within our own homes. That no-one, even if you consider yourself to not be racist, is truly not racist. To witness and hear what generations of people have been through and to have to hold yourself and your own culture accountable for centuries of pain and hurt and torment and know that what you feel right now does not even compare in the slightest possible way to what millions of people feel every day, is really, really hard.

People are suffering everywhere right now. Watching the news is really hard, even scrolling through social media is hard because you want to be able to help in any small way you can but all you can feel is this pain, that doesn’t even fully belong to you. It is overwhelming, it has a physical effect on our bodies when our cortisol levels raise, and we can find ourselves trapped within the ‘fight or flight’ trauma response – and usually within one of the lesser-known variations of that; freeze.

That, to me, is my definition of empathy and recently I heard it summed up perfectly by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“Empathy is “You’re suffering, and now I’m suffering because you’re suffering.” So now we have two people suffering and nobody who can serve, and nobody who can be of help, and if you knew how your empathetic suffering actually makes you into another patient who needs assistance, you would be more willing to dip into compassion. And what underlies compassion is the virtual courage, the courage to be able to sit with and witness somebody else’s pain without inhabiting it yourself so much that you become another person who is suffering and now, there are no helpers.”

I do not want to be someone that freezes in the face of someone else’s pain, but there have been times throughout my life – including very recently – where that is what I have done. Many times over the past few weeks, I have thought back to this passage of text and this interview in general and tried to face things with compassion, rather than empathy. Because empathy can become so strong that it destabilises us and renders us useless in the face of someone else’s struggles. I do feel pain for others and I do feel very overwhelmed with everything that is going on in the world right now, but I do also have the power to step back from it. I have the power to limit my news intake and I have the power to choose what I read and when I read it.

We so often hear analogies along the lines of ‘you cannot save anyone else unless you put your own breathing apparatus on first’ and (whilst I disagree with the whole notion of ‘saving’ people) this is absolutely true. Because what good is all of this desire to help and be the light within someone else’s darkness, if you are suffering as much as they are to begin with?

It takes courage and it takes strength to hold your own behaviour up to the light and examine it. And I am not saying that empathy is ‘bad’ – I firmly believe that it is a good thing to be able to empathise with someone else and to be able to help them from a place of kinship and understanding. But there does become a point where it can become too much and we can become unstuck. Do it too often and too intensely and you end up exhausted, do it without even realising, repeatedly, and you end up with burnout. Do it with one person within a relationship and you end up on a codependency spiral where you reach the point of only being ok, if they are ok. Like anything – including the good in this life – it is good to keep in check and use in moderation.

And for everything else, there is compassion.

Learning to Swim

 Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash 

You told me that when I fell off the rails I would do it quietly and without fuss.

Slipping, hardly noticeable.

I knew what you were saying was right, I saw the worry behind your eyes at the realisation it had already begun. But I smiled, I told you not to be silly.

I feel it now. Your words ring true in my ears as I drink the wine that numbs the feelings, as I crave the words that give me the punishment. It’s all inside of me; my small body and fragile mind keep it contained in a safe and hardly manageable existence…

But I still see the way you look at me, the gaze that lingers too long and the arms that hold so tightly. You know it’s happening and you can’t stop it because I tell you I am fine.

I am drowning, but still I smile.

Validation Isn’t Just For Parking Tickets

Image by Jason Rosewell @ Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, I reacted to something inappropriately – I dismissed something that my husband was feeling and I realised as soon as the words left my mouth what I had done, but by then of course it was a little late to take it back.

I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately surrounding vulnerability and validation. I think vulnerability may come up more in its own post about the subject, but validation is so very important.

And I neglected that.

A bit of background information would be helpful here… My husband has an old Mk 2 Golf that is very much a project car. We have named her Christine after the Stephen King novel as she is, lets say, high maintenance? (Although she hasn’t tried to kill me yet, so I’m taking that as a bonus 😉)

Anyway, Christine has some relatively nice alloy wheels. On this particular Saturday we had to pop out to pick up some toilet seat hinges (such a glamourous life we lead!) and also a few grocery bits. However, before we got to Screwfix, my husband had to do a three-point turn which was tighter than anticipated and he scraped the front passenger side wheel on a curb. He got out to check and it had left ‘a huge gouge’ in the paint. He was pissed off – mostly at himself, but also because of all the time and effort he has put into that car, and now something else, so easily avoided had gone wrong. It had already been a hugely stressful week, he wasn’t looking forward to fixing the toilet seat, it was hot, we were tired and hungry etc etc…

We went around to the supermarket and as we got out of the car, he came around to take another look, I also looked and… I couldn’t see anything. I was expecting ‘a huge gouge’ out of the paint. I’m not into cars in the slightest, to me it just looked like a regular alloy wheel. He pointed it out to me – a scrape along the outside edge and… well, I did the worst thing I could possibly do, I laughed.

Not in a cruel way – I wasn’t laughing at him, but in more of a relived way. I told him that it wasn’t that bad and hardly noticeable. I did the one thing that I always try not to do, I minimised his feelings, I invalidated his concern.

Of course, this did nothing to improve his mood. I tried to explain to him that my initial reaction was just relief – for him – that it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. But it was too late – the fixing of the toilet seat when we got home was punctuated with swearing and the slamming down of screwdrivers, which was completely understandable. I hadn’t heard him, I hadn’t realised that actually, it wasn’t about the wheel at all.

It was a build up of things, of worry and anxiety that had filled our week off. It was the driving to and from Bristol which had stressed him out for a number of reasons. The additional driving down to Dorset to a specialist vets appointment which was anxiety inducing, hot and once again gave no real conclusion to an ongoing concern with our dog. It was the social obligations which had taken their toll, it was the thought of going back to work after not exactly having a relaxing time off. It was the lack of decent sleep on and off for a fortnight due to stress. It was the thought that Saturday and Sunday should have just been two days to finally chill out – and now because of an error of judgement, there was something else to ‘fix’.

But… it wasn’t my job to fix this situation, and it is never our jobs to fix other people’s problems. My job – which I neglected to notice – was just to hear his frustration. To recognise it, acknowledge it and act accordingly. Because when we feel heard we feel empowered, we may not realise it at the time, but we do realise when we aren’t heard and the space that it puts us in.

I should have said sorry and bought him chocolate 😊

My husband, upon reading it to this point

However, this ‘trying to make things better’ is something that I think we have all been guilty of at some point or another. Its horrible to see someone we love and/or care for upset, angry, or frustrated so we try and do what we can to bring them out of the situation. It can also sometimes be uncomfortable for us and so we want to move past those feelings quickly so that we can get on with our day and put whatever unfortunate happening that has just occurred behind us.

Is that selfish? No, I don’t think so. I think that we all experience uncomfortable feelings – definitely in adulthood but we would have done so as children as well. We all have our own feelings about feelings – I am uncomfortable with anger for example. If I am ever angry then I don’t know how to safely hold and sit with that emotion, and if someone is angry at me or around me then I don’t know how to react, so I go very quiet, very small and just take it. But we would have all had instances in childhood where we felt strong emotions – such as anger, resentment, sadness and also the extremes at the other end of the scale such as love, generosity and giddying waves of happiness. How those feelings were reciprocated by parents and caregivers when we were at the cognitive developmental stage where we didn’t know how to express ourselves, will undoubtedly shape how we learn to deal with them as adults. This also applies to when we see someone else expressing these emotions that we struggle with – we react in the ways that we were reacted to.

With the incident with the car, I just wanted to make it better for him – but he was also angry, and I didn’t know how to deal with that and so my innate reaction was to get us both out of that situation as quickly as possible.

It didn’t work – and why would it have done? Making light of the situation wouldn’t have made the scrape in the wheel go away. We could have held hands and laughed and skipped our way into Morrisons, but his feelings of frustration and anger would have still been there. The situation that caused the discomfort wouldn’t just disappear if we ignored it.

Our feelings – whatever they may be – need to be heard. Talking about feelings, with a partner, friend, parent, child etc is such an important step in honouring our true selves and opening up those bridges of communication. If I made my husband feel silly over the car or if I repeatedly tried to distract him or judged or minimised his feelings every time something went wrong – even if its not about a subject that I am particularly knowledgeable on – then he’s going to stop communicating when he is upset, and this won’t just apply to what is happening in the garage. However, it is also important to realise that his emotions aren’t mine – I don’t have to crouch down and hold my head in my hands and get angry and frustrated at instances like the scrape in the tyre, I just need to communicate that I can see that he is upset and angry and keep the dialogue going.

Instead of laughing, I could have said something like ‘Oh dear, that must make you feel frustrated’ – and then instead of storming off into the supermarket ahead of me, he perhaps would have said ‘Yes, I had just got the car how I want it/its going to take time to fix/but its not just that…’ etc. It would have opened up the space for him to communicate and to have his feelings heard.

It isn’t dangerous to have our feelings out in the open – even the ones that can feel really difficult to express.  No bolt of lightening is going to come and strike us down if we dare to actually feel these difficult emotions and communicate with each other about them, in fact, much the opposite will happen. Learning to recognise our feelings and our emotions for what they are allows us to be more in tune with ourselves and with those around us – it allows us to communicate honestly and openly and it teaches us that our emotions – whatever they may be – are valid. In turn, this plays an important role in being able to trust our own instincts, for example if we begin to recognise fear or unease for the emotion that it is – instead of squashing it down and ignoring it because ‘it doesn’t feel very nice’ – then we become better at protecting ourselves and those around us.

I’m not there yet with anger. I can now recognise it as something that I need to be mindful of and work on – and I am very fortunate that I have some wonderful friends and a wonderful husband that are more likely to encourage me to talk about my anger when I feel it and help me unpick it, rather than try and ‘fix’ it with platitudes, but these things do take time and a lot of patience. When I have been angry in the past and I have pushed it down and tried not to feel it because I have had that belief for 34 years that ‘anger is bad’ – where has it gone? It hasn’t come out of me, no, it has stayed and whispered in my ear that what I feel doesn’t matter, that what I feel is ‘wrong’, that what I feel makes me a bad person… and do you know what other name we have for that voice? Depression.

So, encourage people to talk – those that you love, those that you care about. Let them know that it is ok to feel what they are feeling and that no emotion – however hard it may be to experience is ‘wrong’. We cannot be shining beacons of light and grace at all times; life doesn’t work like that.

In order to appreciate the light, we must also experience the dark – and the dark can look different for each any every one of us.

Philippa Perry has written about this subject in her wonderful book ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did)’ and during my most recent round of therapy, I have found this book – and some of her talks on YouTube to be highly illuminating.

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