Sunday, April 14, 2013

Empathy Moment

I was born with a misunderstood gift, and for a long time did not know what to do with it. It took time to see examples of its uses. Sometimes it is not used for good. Sometimes it isn't even used. Many people have it, use it and let it destroy them. It's so interesting to me when I encounter others with the gift because we are all at different places in our development of it. It makes me introspective about my journey with the gift, and how I've come to love it rather than be burdened by it. Those that have a grasp of it are using it for good, removing themselves from it, and are changing the world. It's something the world needs desperately, but because of how precarious and potentially self destructive it is, there is short supply. There are varying degrees of sensitivity to it, and varying degrees of use, and I don't believe there are many who haven't experienced it. I have this gift to a very large extent. Though for so long I didn't realize that it was a gift. I thought I was weak, broken, oversensitive and over emotional. I didn't realize that everyone didn't have it as deeply as I do.  I have since learned it, harnessed it and I struggle daily to tame its effects on my life.

The gift is empathy.  It is a superpower and a curse. It is a blessing and requires great responsibility.  It is nothing special to those who don't have it. It makes me passionate and creative. It makes me misunderstood. I always know who else has it. I watch the people around me suffer because they don't know what to do with it. I was taught how to manage my empathy inadvertently. I needed to develop thick skin to be a productive member of society, yet still hold on to my most valuable possession; the ability to feel what others feel.

The past looked like this: I felt everything. Deeply. Every word, look, criticism, thought, was personally felt. I could walk into a room and feel the energy of every person, and adversely, I can change the energy in a room with my own.  I felt connected to everything regardless of whether it was mine to connect to or not. When others were unhappy I owned those feelings, because I felt them, even when they were not mine to own. Another side of this effect is the ability to take criticism effectively. Criticism is a necessary part of growth, and a necessary part of becoming a better me, but when faced with it in the past all I could associate with was the disappointment felt by the other person in something I had done. Disappointment is the most difficult emotion for me to harbor because I have a need to please- 100% of the time.There was a time when I could not speak, write or think without considering how it will effect someone else. Even if it's just one person. It is not perfectionism, but the need to feel the other person's approval. It was not until I began to learn small lessons to handle the empathy that I was able to use my gift for good, help alter the energy in the room, and preserve my own heart.

I was once in a profession which required a set of emotional armor to make it through the day. If I was going to succeed and support my family, which I strongly desire in everything that I do, I was going to have to learn coping mechanisms for the empathy.  This profession involved a great deal of criticism, both personally and with the work that I was doing. The disappointment was overwhelming. Every time I had to feel the discontent of another coworker, client or superior, I felt torn down. For an empathetic person, that is demoralizing. But I don't hate my gift, and I don't want to be less of who I am, so I realized I need to work on embracing it.

Everything changed when I realized that I felt very strongly about one human characteristic- one that has quickly become the most important thing to me in a person that I associate with. Accountability. This word means many things in many different environments, but to me it is simple. Own yourself. Own your actions, thoughts, emotions, choices and consequences. Own the fact that you have free will and the world doesn't happen TO you. Decide to be true to yourself by accepting that you are not a victim. Bad things always occur, but in every set of circumstances is a series of choices.

The first lesson of accountability with regard to my empathy was that being offended by someone's words or actions is my choice. Just as it is the other person's choice to speak harshly, it is my choice to let it become me. I had to stop choosing to take on those feelings because they weren't mine to feel. We are human. We make mistakes. Many, many mistakes. And those mistakes will affect other people, but if we own those mistakes, we can alter the outcome.  I learned that I did not have to choose to be unhappy just because someone was unhappy with a choice I had made.  The hardest part about this lesson is that not everyone takes ownership for being offended. Someone along the way will choose to be offended by you for one reason or another, but that is not yours either. I had to practice putting up a "soul shield" which involves taking a deep breath and remembering that I have a choice to take on the burden of someone else's unhappiness. Being a person who craves approval, I always want to "right" a "wrong". It is my choice to do this in a manner that calms my heart. If I feel that I have affected someone in a way that makes ME unhappy, I will find a way to right it. But that is MY choice. I no longer do this because I feel the need to change their feelings to make myself feel better.

Just as I needed to take ownership, I needed to learn that others own themselves. Everyone has opinions, emotions and beliefs that are inherently their own. I cannot own someone's opinion. Therefore, other peoples' opinions of me are not my business. They are entitled to that. I don't need to know what they think because it is not mine.  It is an exercise to remove yourself from opinions that are shared. I feel the effect of peoples' opinions, but I do not need to become them. This is not something that comes easily to an empathetic person. Our culture uses opinions to define people, belief structures and general standards of society. It's difficult not to use common opinion to define ourselves. But those opinions are not ours to own. This skill set takes constant practice. I need to remove myself from other peoples' definitions of me constantly. I have my definition of me to own.

With years of practice, I have utilized these main coping skills in order to harness the power of empathy.  I hate negative energy. It is more difficult to be negative, and takes a lot out of me to feel it. Because I am now able to remove myself from the negative energy of others, I can hold on to the warmer emotions and project them. I don't try to heal the world, but I have become much better at diffusing a difficult situation because I no longer absorb tension, anger, frustration and sadness. I feel it, but I don't take it on.

It sounds ridiculous to say it out loud... I do sound like a self-proclaimed super hero, "absorbing/reflecting" energy, but the truth is, there just aren't words to describe what it's like. The world thinks I'm "too sensitive" and "over emotional", but I think people like me are necessary to balance the "insensitive" and "non-emotional" society we've built for ourselves. In every situation there are varying degrees of empathy because as humans, we balance out each others' gifts. People like me handle relationships when others around us cannot. People like me welcome in opinions and beliefs of everyone because we have learned that we don't own those.  People like me help keep light in dark places. And yes, I truly did try to sound like a super hero with that phrase...

I love my gift. I think it makes me feel too much all of the time. I think it makes it hard to just "have a good time". I believe that it enables me to make instant connections with people because of the unspoken transparency. I think it requires a certain skill set to tame empathy and use it for good without the price of my own emotional destruction. But I get to share an intimacy with all people because I can sense what they feel. I am sensitive to them, which makes me care. I respect that they own their feelings and opinions, but I get to share that with them. I get to project warmth and welcome in places that are cold and difficult. I create environments for people to be themselves because I do not own who they are. I struggle with it, but I continue to work at it because it makes me who I am, and I want to keep becoming a better person.

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