‘E’mpathy and why getting it sucks
Blogger’s Note: I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge for April 2012, where you blog your way through the alphabet during the month of April. After suffering some writer’s block on D, I got super busy on my E and F days. So, I’m totally cheating and back-dating this post.
I was going to write about entropy today. My daughter asked me a few days ago what it meant. As I stumbled around trying to put it into words, I felt like I could picture entropy happening, say, in my living room, but I wasn’t sure what the actual definition was. I looked it up to clarify as I started to write this post, saw the word “thermodynamics” and my brain died.
Unless you are a sociopath or a thermodynamic engineer, you can probably empathize with that feeling. That word — empathy — has come up frequently in my mind over my life’s journey, so that’s why I’m writing about it for E instead of a word I can’t define.
The first time I can remember actively thinking about empathy and how it evolves was a few years after my daughter was born. In her first few weeks of life, she had to have an emergency heart surgery. It was terrifying for her parents and everyone around her. The experience was one of a few major factors that contributed to me having severe postpartum depression. After the dust had settled from all of that and I stopped thinking only about myself and my problems, I started to realize I much more capacity to understand other people who had sick children or people who had suffered depression.
Prior to those experiences, I think I had compassion for people who suffered pain of losing children or having sick kids, but after my daughter’s near-death experience, my understanding of what they were going through went through the roof. I could more easily put myself in their shoes when they spoke of some of their experiences because I had been through some of the exact same things. Not everything. Not exactly the same. But enough to find common ground in our feelings.
Depression was in a whole other category. Prior to my personal experience with it, I didn’t understand what others were going through at all. I really, truly thought people with depression just needed to “buck up” and be happy. In fact, I didn’t even understand it was a medical diagnosis! I thought it was just extreme sadness over difficult moments. My understanding for and empathy of people with depression entered a whole new level after my personal experience. (And trust me on this, you can’t just “buck up.” It really doesn’t work that way.)
In getting through these life events, I talked to therapists and others about my experiences. One thing I learned is that when you start talking about it, when you start to open up your pain to the world, people come out of the woodwork to share their pain, too. Most of the world, it seems, is just dying for someone to empathize with them. Too many of us feel alone in our experiences. Talking about it with other people and hearing about their similar experiences made me feel normal again. The more I spoke about it, the more, too, that I was capable of listening.
It was in this period of my life I made a specific decision to be far more open about myself, rather than intentionally hiding my pain. When I was diagnosed with cancer and started this blog, I promised myself I would be completely honest about the experience of cancer and what it did to me mentally and emotionally. I started this only with the intention of having my friends and family read. It was a way to keep myself mentally healthy.
In blogging, I opened myself up to a world of communicating with people about their pain. Sometimes, that doesn’t work for me and I have to step away from the conversation. I feel, in those situations, my empathy becomes a detriment. Often, when I’m overwhelmed by the feelings of others, I am feeling much more than what is similar between our two experiences, but what is similar between our experiences and the world’s. It becomes quickly overwhelming to realize how much sadness there is in this world.
Most of the time, though, feeling with someone is phenomenal. In the best situations, I’m doing more listening than talking and I walk away feeling like yet another part is me is just the same as everyone else. I walk away feeling more human. I hope the other person does, too. I think experiencing empathy equalizes us. That’s good in more ways than I can count.
I’ve also, with time and with beating down depression, learned to empathize over good things, too! Feeling the jitters of a new love, the excitement people have for the changing of seasons, the warm fuzzies of new parenthood — it’s easy to bring to mind my own happy experiences when others share theirs.
I know that at 40, I am more empathetic than I was at 30. And if the empathy scale is 1 to 10, I think I was at a 1.5 at age 20 and a 12 today. From what I’ve read, it’s normal to be less empathic when you are young. Good. I wasn’t alone in my narcissism either.
It stinks to go through some of the crap life has thrown at me. I would never have chosen any of it and if I can avoid a repeat of any of those bad things, I will. However, it has become more apparent with time that the more I can empathize with others, the better I become as a person. I like myself much more at 40 than I did at 20. Yeah, I should be Mother Teresa by now, but, apparently, that’s not how it works. Surely by 60, though. Surely.