Monday, May 26, 2014

The Empathetic One

When I was agonizing over the decision of killing the spider in my bathtub this morning, despite a deep-seated, nearly paralyzing fear of spiders, I realized that I may be taking this empathy thing a bit too far. I’ve always been empathetic. From my days as child, sleeping with twenty stuffed animals because I was afraid I might hurt the feelings of said stuffed animals (or the giver of said stuffed animals) if I didn’t include them all, to my days as an adult, crying long and hard over a dead goose in the middle of a busy highway.

I can’t help it. I feel, and I feel deeply. Relating to people, to animals, heck, even to things, is a gift, even if it’s also a curse. Let’s start by examining the gift side of things. I care. I care about how the world turns out. I care about people and their fate. I care about how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way. It helps me to connect to you and everyone else in this world, and I sincerely love that about myself. It makes me open-minded and inclusive. It helps me “see through another’s eyes” and “walk in another’s shoes” and all of those other tired clich├ęs about connecting and relationships.

On the other hand, empathy hurts. It turns me into mush. It worries me. It’s “tearin’ me apart,” as James Dean might say. As a supervisor, my empathy has proven to be a bit too much to handle. Since January, I’ve been struggling along in my first supervisory role…ever. The fact that I’m now leading a team of 6 to 7 people on a daily basis, that they count on me for things like paychecks and guidance, well, sometimes it’s a little overwhelming.

Their problems become my problems. I spend time agonizing over how best to solve those problems, and most of the time, I just can’t turn off my mind. The same goes with friends and family. If I sense for even a moment (and I’m good at sensing feelings, too) that someone close to me is unhappy, my entire day is thrown off.  I focus on what must be wrong, how I can help, and all of the other things that empathizers focus on when their powers are at work.

Empathizing and worrying seem to kind of go hand-in-hand, although they aren’t mutually exclusive. In recent years, I’ve fine-honed my empathizing to turn off if I start worrying too much. That comes in handy when my mind starts getting carried away with things.

So, yeah, I would say being empathetic is both a blessing and a curse. It’s like I’m a superhero with powers that are both good and bad. Maybe a little like Superman. Run with me here. Superman sometimes hates the fact that he’s got all of these powers, because even though they help him save people, they also alienate him from people and keep him from living a normal life. I sometimes want to live a normal life, with a normal level of emotion and empathy. That’s all I’m saying. When you over-empathize, you end up driving yourself a little crazy.

But if Superman had the chance to give up his powers, would he? It’s the age-old question. If I could give up being so empathetic, would I? The answer always seems to be no. Because in giving up anything that is a part of you, whether it be a super power or a personality trait that happens to be in hyper-drive, you change that fundamental equation that makes you…you. And when the world is full of so many cool people, who are each different and super in their own way, who the heck would want to do that? 

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