“Aww, Jill, I love how empathetic you are. It’s a wonderful gift.”
-a comment from a dear friend
My feelings mirror yours. I have no idea what is happening in your mind, but I see your tears and I cry, I hear your pain and I cringe. Your smile is my smile. If you laugh, I will laugh, even if I don’t get the joke.
Empathy is a curse and a blessing.
My highly empathetic nephew refuses to watch movies. In order to simulate drama, most movies, even movies intended for his seven-year-old demographic, show their characters experiencing mental pain or sorrow. Movies require a sustained emotional connection, a willingness to travel the emotional journey the movie-makers create. For my nephew, movies represent the potential to feel something he doesn’t want to feel. His empathy for other’s pain is so strong, he avoids the experience completely. He’ll run out of the room even if a cartoon shows too much anger or sadness. Joy and laughter are fine, and so is obviously-fake pain (like the Three Stooges), but the intense storytelling found in movies is generally too much for him.
I will also walk away from the TV if a story is making me uncomfortable, but only if other people are in the room with me. The non-native emotions do not frighten me, but my inability to hide my reaction to those emotions (tears) is mortifying. (I watched an episode of Holmes on Homes with my brother-in-law two weeks ago and had to run out of the room when my tears became sobs.) Unlike my nephew, I don’t laugh when I see someone trip and fall, instead I blush with contagious embarrassment. I also don’t find situational comedy funny – misunderstandings simply upset me.
Empathy is learned.
Having said all that, and despite the fact that my nephew shares my extreme empathy, I’m not convinced it is something I was born with. I learned to read at three years old, as did he, and I’ve read a lot about the connection between empathy and reading. Here is a study that shows literary fiction promotes understanding others’ mental states. Another asks, Does reading enhance or even promote empathy? Or do you need to have empathy in order to be a good reader? There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, but there is certainly a correlation.
But here is where it gets tricky: I can be extraordinarily insensitive to other’s feelings in real life. I am often so overwhelmed by my own concerns that in a face-to-face situation, I will say something unbelievably hurtful without consideration for my conversational partner’s feelings. Most of the time, once my foot-in-mouth faux pas is obvious, I’ll feel awful and make amends. But sometimes, even after I realized I hurt you, I may not apologize if I think the pain is due to your own misunderstanding. I just can’t because I don’t feel like I did anything wrong.
Empathy is situational.
In situations where I have turned off my own feelings – watching a movie, reading a book, listening to an engaging speech – I allow the projected emotions to pummel my brain. But in situations when I have my “head up my own ass” so to speak, I don’t feel a thing.
An Empathetic Conclusion
What I need to do is learn to balance. To imagine my empathy as a knob in my mind, a dial I can turn. Turn it down from eleven so I can reduce my tendency to sob at sentimental, manipulative media, and turn it up from zero to increase my empathy in real life, when it really matters.
Ah well… Just another idea to add to my ever-growing “how to be perfect” list. I’ll finish it two seconds before I die. =)