What Does It Feel Like to Be Empathetic in the World Today?

Carol A. Hand

Have you ever felt a deep sense of kinship or overwhelming revulsion upon meeting someone for the first time? Seen someone’s face change as you gazed at them, like the layers of an onion dissolving to reveal deeper layers of light or darkness? Felt the weight of too many conflicting thoughts and emotions as you looked out at an audience when you lectured or entered a crowd? Been the person in the crowd whom strangers gravitated to in order to seek help or share their stories and troubles? How can you deal with this level of unwanted sensitivity in a household, organization, or world that is too often filled with chaos, unkindness and violence?

crouching child

Drawing: Carol A. Hand

We are told by religions that compassion is essential for a world at peace, that empathy – “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings” – is a crucial foundation for compassion.

“Being an empath is when you are affected by other people’s energies, and have an innate ability to intuitively feel and perceive others. Your life is unconsciously influenced by others’ desires, wishes, thoughts, and moods. Being an empath is much more than being highly sensitive and it’s not just limited to emotions. Empaths can perceive physical sensitivities and spiritual urges, as well as just knowing the motivations and intentions of other people. You either are an empath or you aren’t. It’s not a trait that is learned. You are always open, so to speak, to process other people’s feelings and energy, which means that you really feel, and in many cases take on the emotions of others.” (Source)

compassion greatergood dot berkeley dot edu

Photo: Compassion ( Source )

But what happens when you don’t understand what’s happening to you or how to shut it off when you need to listen to your own heart in order to balance? It has been helpful for me to learn more about what it means to be an empath and admit to myself that this is something I was probably born with – as both a strength and a weakness.

“Empaths may be excellent storytellers due to an endless imagination, inquisitive minds and ever-expanding knowledge. They can be old romantics at heart and very gentle. They may also be the “keepers” of ancestral knowledge and family history….

“The downside is that empaths may bottle up emotions and build barriers sky-high so as to not let others know of their innermost thoughts and/or feelings…. Without a doubt, this emotional withholding can be detrimental to one’s health, for the longer one’s thoughts and/or emotions aren’t released, the more power they build. The thoughts and/or emotions can eventually becoming explosive, if not crippling.” (Source)


Photo: A View Through the Fence, Bushes, and Trees – June 11, 2015

I do genuinely want to like and see the good in everyone I encounter. It’s what has helped me be a good teacher, public speaker, program and policy developer, and qualitative researcher. But it also has its downsides. Perhaps, like me, you overemphasize your analytic abilities and try to ignore and control emotions. You hide out as much as possible in your free time, building barriers to control interactions with others or create ways to focus your attention on a clear sense of purpose for every planned encounter. You avoid reading depressing or violent news or watching violent or insipid movies or shows. (Something that’s impossible to do when you teach classes about social policy.) But what happens when your boundaries are unpredictably breached in ways that make you too vulnerable to others’ negative energy? I’m still trying to find an acceptable answer to that dilemma. Breathe, meditate, garden, focus on doing something motivated by love, refuse to engage with people who seem to be stuck in negativity, and resist the inclination to isolate oneself even further?

I welcome your thoughts and ideas…

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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