Empathy on Steroids (not the drug)

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to put this into words, and it hasn’t been easy. Heck, I’m not even sure the following words will be the best way to explain it. Even so, they’re the only words I have right now, and I hope you’ll be able to understand all the same.

Maybe you remember that time in your childhood when you knew for certain that something you’d done or said was wrong. I’m talking about the immediate feeling afterwards that comes from observing the effect, such as seeing the other kid look sad or start crying. It’s the feeling that tells you that you messed up, and that it wasn’t right that something you did hurt the other person. For me, it’s always felt like a pit that opens in my chest, somewhere above my stomach. It appears instantly, and depending on the situation, the hole may or may not close. It’s the feeling that compels you to apologize, to try making up for what you did. It’s a learning moment, one in which we begin to understand what empathy is.

I still have that proverbial hole in my chest, but it seems to have opened up more frequently nowadays. However, it doesn’t happen because I feel like I’ve upset someone or done something wrong. It happens on a daily basis when I think of the way people interact every day. For example, imagine walking with me and we decide to go into a Starbucks somewhere (because let’s face it, they’re everywhere). We pick a couple of tables after we order, and we wait. Across the way there are two people sharing a table, talking over their drinks. What they have with them and what they are wearing are not the things that stand out the most to me. What I do notice are the tones of their voices, the way they’re sitting, how often they smile. All the sudden, an otherwise casual meeting I have nothing to do with becomes intensely personal.

I think about the ways words make people feel, and I wonder if those words are new or repeated.

I think about even the simplest gestures can make someone feel—like paying attention to when they’re talking. It may seem like common courtesy to most people, but to some, it may be just the thing they’re after.

I don’t necessarily try to make up stories about these strangers in an effort to either humanize them or entertain myself (think: the opposite of what the girl in Spinelli’s Stargirl does). The things I see them do and hear them say already humanize them for me. I’m not interested in who they are, necessarily, but rather how that conversation is changing each person in the moment, as well as changing their futures.

Some people might just say I’m capable of empathy, which should (and is) a good thing. I would rather be able to understand someone instead of dismissing them, if I can help it. But this feels like empathy on steroids—it’s like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when Data experiences emotions for the first time. It’s overwhelming sometimes, and sometimes it leads me to feel overly anxious or even depressed. I feel a bit crazy just talking about it, but I’m verbalizing it the best I can in the hopes that someone will be able to know what’s going on.

If it helps, I think it started after I switched my major to Communication Studies. After taking just one semester of classes, the world seemed bigger and far more complicated, and there was no going back to my original perceptions after that. I suddenly felt so small, surrounded by millions of minds, hearts, and feelings at a conscious level I hadn’t experienced before. Again, you might think it’s beneficial for me to understand people’s differences, and as both a Communication Studies major and a human being, I would agree with you. But in this case, my level of consciousness has progressed to the point where everything  people do and say leaves a profound effect on me, even if I’m not the participant in the interaction.

I also suppose it’s good to remember people are people, especially when said people make you so angry or sad that it becomes all to easy to treat them as something other than people. While this is helpful in conflict, it doesn’t help me when I’m alone in my room and the thought occurs to me—that thing Person A was doing with Person B…who knows what implications it will have? I won’t even be thinking back on a conflict—it’s likely I’m remembering something that happened a week or two ago at minimum, or a month or more at the maximum. I’ll stew on it without meaning to, and even if it didn’t start out as depressing, you can bet it becomes that way super quick.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m whining about problems that aren’t actually problems. The thing is, I’m never sure. So that’s why having a blog is great, because then other people can read what I’ve said and provide input. Maybe someone who has been experiencing this same thing has found a way to verbalize what they’ve been feeling. Maybe there’s someone who can’t necessarily relate, but who knows a more concise way to explain what I’ve described. Maybe someone has some advice on how to tame this empathy-on-steroids.


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