My Empathic Life

Recently, Stevie looked down at her phone and suddenly started laughing hysterically. Despite having no idea what she was laughing at, within moments I had tears rolling down my cheeks too. Laughter is pretty universally contagious, but if like me you walk around “catching” the emotions of those around you--even the unpleasant ones--you might just be an empath, or highly sensitive person.

Despite being one, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the term “empath” before my older son Ben was born, but he undoubtedly fits that description (as does Stevie). He recently put it this way: “Mommy, I feel what other people feel. When they’re sad I’m sad, and when they’re happy I’m happy.” He means this literally. I’m equal parts proud of his compassion for others and concerned that this cruel world will break his heart as it has mine so many times.

I have no idea if Marilyn Monroe was an empath, but her famous quote, “if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” makes it a distinct possibility in my mind.

Sensitivity and empathy are signs of strength, not weakness, but they are traits that make life more difficult for both the empath and those in relationships with us. We can’t simply “move on” from hurtful comments or actions from those we love, and if we do so for peacekeeping reasons the hurt doesn’t dissipate, it gets stored in our bodies which can easily breed resentment or even make the empath turn to substances to numb emotional pain or become physically ill. (For instance, I broke up with a toxic friend, and I ceased vomiting on a near daily basis.)

On the other hand, empathic people are extraordinarily giving, supportive of and invested in the well being of those we love. We rarely (if ever) hurt other people purposely and will go to the ends of the earth to apologize to someone we accidentally offend, often multiple times.

Just as our capacity to feel sorrow is bigger, so is the intensity with which we experience joy and excitement, and those around us benefit from that. As a mother to a highly sensitive child, I can say unequivocally that the challenges he presents parenting wise are easily outmatched by the gifts his loving and caring heart brings to our family and this world.

While compassion and empathy are expected of women (but rarely rewarded), these traits have been “feminized” by our culture, so my heart goes out to men and boys too afraid to be who they authentically are. Please know you’re in good company. Famous male empaths in history include Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, George Orwell, the Dalai Lama and Claiborne Paul Ellis (KKK wizard turned civil rights activist).

If this describes you or someone you love, do not be ashamed. The world so desperately needs your unique gifts.

Kathleen SchwarzComment