Monday, April 10, 2017

The Gift, or Curse of Being an Empath

I went through a stage of more than a year with very little TV watching. I canceled cable and limited my news consumption. When I decided to stick my big toe back in, we got a smart TV so that I could be mindful of my viewing selections. I began watching very specific shows available on-demand, from recommendations from friends and family. But that experience, too, has grown dark for me. Clearly, I can't "take" what others can. I get easily stressed and upset by so much of what I am exposed to. What's wrong with me?

After a great deal of self-reflection, research, life-experience, and some therapy, I have learned there is a name my my personality type. I am an empath, and can be deeply affected, even obsessively so, with things I have viewed, read about, learned of or experienced. That explains why watching the news, a show, documentary or movie with a storyline of injustice, terror, or violence affects me so deeply. When watching a disturbing scene, especially if it involves children or animals, I literally feel it, physically in the pit of my stomach, and then often have dreams (nightmares) and then feel torn about the dilemma of burying my head in the sand or facing harsh realities. Once I have learned first-hand of some kind of injustice, I feel faced with a decision: now that I know...what do I do? Then I feel guilt when I do nothing. Or if I do something, it's never enough.

I remember when I was young, the mini-series Roots affected me deeply, watching a 17 year-old Kunta Kinte being kidnapped from his village and taken to a Virginia plantation and mercilessly whipped while they demanded he accept his new slave-name left me crying and gave me nightmares for weeks (actually years). Another mini-series about the Holocaust, again, was important for me to see from a historical and educational perspective. But I watched with a sick feeling the entire time, fearful of what would happen next...imaging how I would feel to be in their place. Many a date or movie lover in my life would get annoyed with me because I don't like going to a movie in a theatre, because if a difficult scene comes up I can't escape. I've heard many times: "it's just a movie" or, "you know this didn't really happen...these are actors" by annoyed people who can't seem to understand why I just can't watch certain things.

Movies or a series rooted in history that tell a story that needs to be told are important. Documentaries showing a hidden camera view of inside a factory farm confirmed my decision to stop eating meat. As hard as those stories were for me to learn about, I believe that starting at a certain age of maturity watching a well-produced educational documentary or a replay of a series like Roots or the Holocaust may open the minds and hearts of our young people. The history of humanity needs to be taught, in order for there to be any chance it may not repeat itself.

Now that I have discovered this gift, or curse, it explains the things that have always happened to me. There are times I have met people, whether on a plane, at a social event or in a grocery store line where within minutes people begin to tell me things. I often avoid conversations with people if I'm not up to it completely because I can't just make small talk. People just open up to me. I've heard many times, "I don't know why I told you that. I've never told anyone that and I barely know you." I feel an energy coming from someone (positive or negative) and I have learned to trust those instincts. More than one person has told me that when they walk into my house there is a healing energy.

But the dark side of empathy is that feeling so deeply can be draining. I often don't want to believe what I am instinctively feeling about someone. I know when people are lying. I get a sense when something is happening to a friend or loved one and I call them and sure enough, they are sick, or sad or something. I can easily become entrenched in the drama of someone going through a rough time and I try to take on their problems. Then, it deeply affects me. I have been called "too sensitive" or a "pleaser" because I like to keep the negative energy to a minimum.

When I became a new mom I was tormented by any bad news item pertaining to kids. An episode of Criminal Minds now freaks me out, because, well, they pull the story lines from somewhere, don't they? What if someone tried to do this to my child? My loved one? I have colleagues and acquaintances who are hunters and I try to understand--but I can't imagine pointing a gun at a living creature (unless it was self defense) shooting it to watch it fall and then celebrating that death with a smiling photo over the still-warm, not quite dead creature. An trophy hunting a beautiful lion, elephant or bear?

I. Can't. Even.

I have concluded that while many of what has affected me most was important for me to see, hear, read, or somehow experience to make me the person I am, as it changed my life perspective;  moving forward, limiting my exposure to such things is in the best interest of my sanity.

If you wonder if you are an empath, I have put a list of characteristics that you may or may not relate to. Some of these are from my own experience and from many online resources, including this one

You may be an empath if you:
  • Often feel fatigued, exhausted or ‘heavy’ inside.
  • Find it intensely painful to watch or read about cruelty, torture, violence or tragedy
  • Experience a strong Friday relief and a deep Sunday night blues due to anxiety of work or school 
  • Take on guilt easily, even for things you didn't do
  • Are conflict averse and try hard to keep the peace
  • Find it hard to relax until others are happy
  • Are often the "go-to" for emotional support to those in need 
  • People tend to easily open up to, and confide in, you. 
  • Can easily “read” other people. 
  • Can pick up when someone is hiding something or lying. 
  • Are deeply affected by the emotions of others and these emotions often linger in the form of obsessive thoughts 
  • Often feel unexplainably moody, or physically ill after spending time with certain people or in certain places 
  • Have excellent intuitive abilities. You often just know things, or can pick up a hidden nature of a person. 
  • Often put others needs and happiness above your own
  • Are a good listener 
  • Feel really good when those you care about feel good, and really bad when things are feeling bad 
  • Are driven to support the underdog, downcast or emotionally crippled 
  • Have a deep love for nature and animals 
  • Are creative, solitary and spiritual 
If you relate to most of what is on this list. You are not alone.