On Empathy and Why It Sucks

Oh but Rebekah, isn’t it great to be able to sympathize with someone who is going through something?

Let’s start with one thing. Sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. Obviously they’re different words and why would they both exist if they mean the same thing, right?

Sympathy is defined as ‘harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.’ Whereas empathy is defined as ‘the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.’ I get it, even the definitions sound similar so I’ll break it down for you in words I can understand.

Sympathy, to me, means that you can understand what someone is going through because you’ve felt it before. That makes sense, right? Good.

Empathy is understanding what someone is going through because you can feel it now. That makes less sense I’m sure. Imagine this, you’re surrounded by a group of people who are all individual complex beings. Before this moment you were pretty neutral emotionally but one of the people in the group is angry about something and suddenly you start feeling irritated too. Or, maybe someone is sad about something and out of the blue you feel that sadness.

So now maybe you’re asking how that could be a bad thing? Isn’t it easier to help someone if you know exactly what their going through? No. A thousand times no. And on top of that, it’s not always so black and white. You can’t turn empathy off. You could be standing in line at your local Taco Bell and be overcome with a sense of frustration because someone has been waiting a little too long to get their food. You can’t help that person. You might not even know that person. You just feel so much. At times it can be crippling.

A while ago I posted a halfhearted blog about being the center of attention and in it I discussed not knowing when I stopped wanting that. Having done a quick read up on empathy and being a highly sensitive person, it all makes sense. I’m not going to go shouting from the rooftops that I’m an empath but I do have some empathetic tendencies.

As someone afflicted with empathy I tend to become very overwhelmed in large groups of people. My moods are heavily affected by those around me and occasionally so are my actions. Honestly, the list goes on but I can’t be bothered to go into it now because you might think I’m crazy.

I hope by now you can understand why empathy sucks but if not, I’ll recap for you. Number one, and probably the biggest reason: You can’t control it as far as I can tell. I can’t just say I’m not going to be empathetic and then go about my day. It’s always there. No ifs, ands or buts. Secondly, it’s emotionally draining. Most people won’t understand that your desire for alone time is actually something you need in order to continue functioning. There are times I have found myself saying no to fun experiences because I know there will be too many people around and I’ll end up in a bad mood if I go. Of course there is a balance to that. I often will feel like I missed out on whatever it was if I didn’t go. You win some, you lose some I suppose.

In addition to those very big and valid reasons why it’s a rough life being a highly sensitive person, I should point out that depression and anxiety are also often mixed in with empathy. HOW FUN! Not. Now obviously, it’s not the only cause or reason for these mental disorders, there just happens to be a correlation.

With all that said, although I mentioned that you can’t control it, you can find ways to control how it affects you. I’ve read a lot of articles with who knows what sorts of fact checking but among all of those I found some really helpful tips. I’ve always found myself drawn to these even before having read the lists so they can’t be so bad. I guess I’ll just give you a list of what has worked best for me in the past when I get overwhelmed.

  1. Spend time alone. – I always take time to seclude myself in my own personal space so I can clear my head and get back to normal, so to speak.
    • If you can’t get away to spend time fully alone I suggest standing near the edge of a room that way you are not fully surrounded. If I’m at a restaurant, I find myself sitting in a booth so I can sit up against the wall if I’m feeling overwhelmed. I don’t know the science behind that but I swear it helps.
  2. Listen to music. – Of course this isn’t limited to music. If you have a podcast or audio book that calms you down, you can listen to that. Avoid sounds that put you on edge because I’ve found that to have the opposite effect.
  3. Move around. – I like dancing, some people prefer walking or running. Although those aren’t my favorite they have helped me in the past as well.
  4. Treat yourself. – This one isn’t technically isn’t on the articles I read but it’s nearly the same. Take a bath, eat some chocolate. Find something that makes you feel warm and happy. You won’t regret it. Just don’t go overboard.

I know that isn’t a complete list but self care is really different for everyone. I hope it helps some of you.

Now that I’ve went on about this for like 950 words, I should probably wrap it up. I honestly had no intention of this ever becoming a blog. In fact, this isn’t even why I got on my computer today. I initially was trying to write a poem and it wasn’t happening and I got distracted (as per usual.) So now you have this. You’re welcome.

I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

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