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Is Empathy a Gift or a Curse?

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Growing up, I was always extremely perceptive to the emotions of others. Most of the time I pretended like I wasn’t because it makes people uncomfortable when you know more than they want you to know.

On the other hand, once people realise that you understand without them having to explain how they feel, it’s a relief. I can’t count on both hands how many people have told me that I’m they’re soulmate or that I understand them better than everyone else.

The way I’m talking about my empathetic ability now makes it seem like a superpower and sometimes it feels that way. I genuinely enjoy connecting with people on a deep, emotional level.

It’s why I volunteer with grieving children and why I root for the underdog in almost all situations. It’s how I connect with people who are suffering across the globe even though I personally live a pretty cushy life. As much as a value, my empathy, most of the time feels like a curse.

Empathy and intuition

Empathy is the ability to feel the emotions of other people as if they were your own. Intuition is the ability to understand something directly without reason. If you’re naturally an empathetic and intuitive person, this creates an almost sixth sense-like ability to process emotions of others without conversation.

For example, a person could walk into a party and instantly feel that something is off. Later the host, who was acting friendly and composed the entire night, has a panic attack because they’ve been so stressed the entire evening.

The empathetic and intuitive person was able to sense that something was wrong with the host or maybe just that everything in the party environment wasn’t quite right before anything had actually happened. This information would cause them to feel stress or anxiety at the event as well.

Although empathy and intuition aren’t the same things, when combined, they can create an almost constant state of emotional turmoil for a person who is surrounded by emotionally needy or unhealthy people.

Considering the current state of our world, empathy definitely seems like a curse. There is a lot of anger, hate, and sadness out there; and feeling that when you don’t have to feel it is hard. The good news is that empathy is an emotion, and emotions – or at least our responses to them – can be controlled.

Controlling empathy responses

The most obvious solution to not letting yourself be emotionally drained by empathy is to not put yourself in situations that are going to drain you. Many empathetic people choose not to watch the news, engage in potentially conflictive conversations, or spend time with emotionally needy or unhealthy people. But are we being fair to ourselves if we’re limiting our interactions with the outside world just because it feels too hard to deal with?

It isn’t healthy to consistently suppress uncomfortable feelings, although it’s definitely easier. Instead, we have to practise how we control our responses to empathy like we would with any other emotion.

For example, if someone calls you a bad name it might hurt your feelings. You may choose to respond by angrily calling them something back or by crying. As children, this is often how we react. As we grow older we learn how to control our reaction and this control overreaction also changes how we feel. Eventually, the bad name from a stranger has no control over how we feel or perceive ourselves because we’ve built up confidence and control over our emotions.

The same goes for empathy. Being around someone who is sad may make you feel sad.

But once you’ve been around enough people who are sad, you realise that you can feel and experience this emotion in an indirect way. Instead of feeling sad you instead recognise this empathetic response to sadness as one that is separate from your own sadness. This takes practice and patience and definitely requires you to experience the outside world and everyone in it in all its glory.

Another way to control your response to empathy is by having direct conversations with others about how they’re feeling once you notice the feeling is affecting you. For example, the other night I was hanging out with a group of friends and I could tell that something was wrong with one person in the group.

This was causing me to feel upset and uncomfortable. I had a few choices: I could leave the situation, I could try to ignore the feeling which would probably lead to feelings of resentment towards the friend that was unknowingly making me feel this way, or I could pull the friend aside and simply ask what’s wrong. I chose the latter and we had a short conversation about what was bothering her. I felt better; she felt better and we went on to have a great night.

The gift of empathy

Even though empathy feels like a curse, I’ve come to appreciate it as a gift. It has pushed me to live in a world where everything and everyone feels outside of my comfort zone and that has helped me grow.

One of my favourite quotes is: ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ Empathetic people can fear empathy and view it as a curse that they should hide from. Or they can fear empathy but also embrace it as the unique gift as it is and use it to help people and better the world around them. Which do you choose?


Image credit: Freepik

Megan Malone is a freelance writer and digital media specialists with degrees in marketing and psychology. She is the founder of Quietly She.

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