According to Eric Perry, Ph.D., a doctoral level licensed psychologist and fellow blogger, all humans (except for psychopaths) have some ability to be empathic within them. In a recent blog, he aptly and succinctly described the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when you are able to understand a person’s emotions from your own perspective. Empathy is when you are able to understand a person’s emotions from their perspective. When you feel sympathy, you are relating to that person based on your emotions, how you would feel and react in that place. You may have experienced a similar situation and can call up the memory of the emotions you went through at the time. Empathy is more like literally stepping inside a person’s heart and mind and seeing the situation from their perspective. It’s when you feel, see and think exactly as that person is seeing, thinking and feeling.
I’ve always known that I have some strong empathy. I can remember, as a child, crying and holding my head while my cousin was having the knots brushed out of her hair. I felt it, felt the hurt and reacted as though it was happening to me. I didn’t understand then what empathy was, but I’m certain now that that is exactly what I experienced.
Lately, I’ve been trying to help someone who is going through a really tough patch of life right now. He recently found out that his girlfriend (now ex-girlfriend) was cheating on him with one of his friends while he was supporting her and her child. It was apparently a big upset in his life, making him unable to function enough that he was let go from his job. He is still in a lot of pain and he seems to not be able to rebound in any way. I’ve been trying to give him some gentle but sage advice, and offering him a place to talk about it. My sympathy was in full gear, sad that he was in so much pain.
A few days ago, as more conversations have opened up and he’s disclosed even more, I had a moment where, as best I can describe it, my heart literally felt like it was sinking into my chest. I became suddenly aware that I had a clear vision of exactly how he was feeling – and the pain was intense! It struck like an arrow and I wanted to just curl up into the fetal position and cry my eyes out. It took some very deep breathing to creep out of that shell-shocking intensity – but it is still very much there. I have found myself behaving in his behavior, which is needing desperately to reach out for a life-line and yet, unable to trust anyone who would toss me one that it would be safe for me to grab onto. I’m trying to be myself enough to be sociable in ways I normally am, but know that some of doing that is pretend.
Feeling the intensity of his pain made me very emotional. Even when I could separate myself from it a bit, I was constantly thinking of him, wondering how he was doing. I haven’t heard from him in over 48 hours, despite reaching out a few times to contact him. Honestly, that makes me worry if he’s okay, but it also puts some separation between the shared connection to his life, and I’m able to function a bit better emotionally because of that. The part of it that won’t, leave me is the feeling of vulnerability. I tend to be a trusting person by nature (innocence until proven guilty, as I said in my previous post). I’ve allowed myself to become more vulnerable already by being more genuine about who I am. My own vulnerability, plus the vulnerability I feel within him, tends to make me feel wide open and without defenses.
I asked Dr. Perry, in my reply to his post, if he had some practical advice for finding balance to the empathetic part with life in my own shoes. I don’t think I’ve ever been so consumed by another person’s feelings that they took my own emotions away.
I’ve had some time to regroup since I started writing this post, and the separation from that empathy is what I’ve decided needs done. I am always about opening myself up for others, but this situation has helped me to discover that I can’t survive if I put someone else’s feelings over mine. Do I feel guilty? Of course. I feel bad that I’ve chosen to pull myself away from another human being. But I’ve also realized that ‘toxic relationships’ can be just that – toxic – even if it isn’t really about the way others are behaving towards me. As much as I care, I can’t fix his problem, and I’ve also been feeling a little like I’m putting more energy into looking for a solution than he is. I’m owning all of that, processing it, and hopefully learning from it.
I suppose I’ve written this blog article not so much for myself, but for any of my readers who have found themselves in a similar situation. I want anyone who has to know my process so that he/she too can see the toxicity that can happen and hopefully learn from it as well. I will still choose to give myself to others as they struggle, but I’ve learned – the hard way – that I need to make sure I’m taking care of myself as well. It reminds me of a phrase I heard a while ago and often pass on to others. I need to take my own advice!
“Fill your own cup first, and nourish others with the overflow.“