The responses to my post about extreme levels of empathy were terrifically interesting, and helped me think through the whole thing.
First, a surprising number of people said they related to at least some of what I wrote. I say surprising, because I think of this as super rare, but lots of people connected to at least some part of it. I will say, though, that there were two categories of people—those who have a high degree of empathy, and those who have an uncanny degree of empathy.
To distinguish between the two, here is a thing that happened to me at church one Sunday recently. We had a local high school touring choir visit, and they performed for most of the service. I was happy to see these students, as I had worked with many of them. The whole service was going great. My kids were behaving and paying attention, the music was fantastic, and I was just generally in a good mood.
And then the choir started singing the song “Angel Band,” and I suddenly felt a prickle in my nose like I was about to cry. Normally, I would have accepted that and maybe created some reasoning for myself, like that I was moved by the song or by seeing my students or something. But, because this was right after I wrote that previous post, the fact that I take on other people’s emotions on and sometimes feel them as if they were my own was on my mind. I said to myself, “Wait, these are not my emotions. I feel happy right now. And it’s a nice song, but I’m not moved to tears, not really. So what is going on?” I started looking closely at the faces of the people I could see. Because of where I was sitting, I could actually see a lot of people’s faces well, maybe 30 or more. I looked at each of them and spotted the source of these feelings. Someone I know fairly well, but not intimately. Someone I like a lot and have a genuine connection with, but don’t spend much social time with. At the time when I started feeling that pre-crying nose-prickle, she was in my field of vision, but so were many people, and I wasn’t especially aware of her. Her face wasn’t crumpled and crying, but it did look…tight, somehow. And I just knew she’s the one who is on the edge of crying. I kept looking around, but I came back to her, over and over. I knew that she was the one. At the end of the song, I saw her wipe under both of her eyes. She was far enough away that I couldn’t tell if there were tears or not. The song moved her in a way that it hadn’t moved me, maybe because of some personal memory it prompted, I don’t know. But I felt it.
When I tell my friends who are highly empathetic this story, they do a double take and say, “That’s what you’re talking about?”
My uncanny friends just nod.
I feel like I have an unusual number of friends who can connect to at least some of this extreme empathy. One of them asked my Myers-Briggs type (and yes, I know that this whole concept isn’t necessarily scientific, but it can have its uses). I’m on the line between INFJ and INTJ. She told me that this experience is not unusual for INFJs, who represent less than 1% of the population. Maybe that’s just the 1% I gravitate toward.
A number of people asked me if I had listened to the “Entanglement” episode of Invisibilia. The first story in it is about a woman who experiences other people’s tactile experiences. If she sees someone get hit, she feels like she’s been physically hit. This is called mirror touch synesthesia. Around 1.5% of all people have this, which is much higher than I would have guessed. What’s funny is that I had actually listened to it last summer, but I hadn’t connected it with my own experiences. At least in part, this is because the episode focuses very strongly on this physical experience, and then mentions at the end, almost as a side note, that she also feels other people’s emotions. This is not unusual in mirror-touch synestetes, but it’s not necessarily always the case for them, either.
I’m glad that a number of people prompted me to revisit this episode, because it did contain a few clues that I found very enlightening. First, this is a scientifically documented and very real experience. Brain scans of people who have mirror touch synesthesia show that they have an excess of mirror neurons, which are how your brain automatically imagines doing a thing that another person is doing (we all have these, but most people don’t notice this experience). They also have a larger amount of gray matter in the parts of the brain that have to do with empathy and less in the areas that help us distinguish ourselves from others.
It’s this last part that felt like an A HA! to me. Reading other people’s emotions well is something that lots of people can do. It’s useful and helpful in many contexts. Feeling others’ emotions as my own, though, is less good. Especially before I realized that that’s what it was. Until I had boundaries between my emotions and other people’s—until I learned to name a random emotion as mine or not mine—I just thought I was an emotional mess.
Many of the uncanny people I’ve talked with since I posted the first bit of this have confided that they were depressed, sometimes for a long time. One, in her mid-30s, said, “I was depressed for twenty years because of this. Maybe I still am, a bit.” Another person told me that he’d experienced severe depression for a decade, but medication didn’t touch it. It wasn’t until he read my post that he had a bit of a discovery moment and connected the two.
I’ve struggled with both anxiety and depression off and on over the years. Before these conversations, I hadn’t connected them to the way I feel other people’s feelings. It wasn’t until talking about this with other people who have experienced this that I realized that my bouts of depression have never been about my own life circumstances. Even when things were on a negative trajectory in my own life, I had a sense of purpose and focus. I didn’t have days when getting out of bed was a struggle. I only had days when I thought, “Well, how am I going to manage this stuff? Let’s make a plan.”
The times when my depression was out of control were when I was living with someone who was depressed, or working very closely with someone who was, or being managed by someone who was. Which, it turns out, accounts for lots of my adult life because depression is a very real thing and something like a quarter of all people will suffer from it at some point.
Someone I haven’t seen since undergrad commented, “I would love to know more about how you learned to stop absorbing other people’s emotions. I’ve been struggling with being an empathic sponge for years.” That made me think…when did I stop? Did I ever really stop? How does it happen?
Recognizing it is the first thing. That’s been a process. It was at least seven years ago when my colleague first called me an empath, but it took many, many more years for me to start to examine emotions and think, “Wait, is this mine?” Now, I have a mental habit that is akin to cleaning up after a party—”Well, this isn’t *my* casserole dish. Better see who left it here.” Having the awareness to say NOPE to emotions that don’t need to be cluttering up my house has taken a long time, but it’s a major contributor to my happiness. What’s interesting is that training myself to examine what other people leave behind hasn’t made me less empathetic. If anything, it’s made me more empathetic, because I’m consciously, rather than sub- or unconsciously aware of it. When I’m consciously aware of something going on with someone, I can check in with them. I can try to help or at least listen. I also can decide to feel those emotions, to take them on and experience them, but I don’t have to anymore (mostly). Sometimes they still catch me unawares, but much less frequently than they used to.
I read an interesting blog post in Psychology Today that featured an interview with a psychiatrist who is interested in empaths. She offered some practical advice about how to cope with the loudness of other people’s emotions. One thing was to do a visualization of a literal shield that would deflect other people’s emotional messiness. Another was to drive yourself to gatherings so that you can leave when you’re done. That reminded me of one thing that helped me a lot when my kids were babies: when we would spend lots of time with family, I was guaranteed a break because the baby would need to nurse/use the potty/take a nap. I hadn’t realized how much I need that downtime until my kids got to the point where they really didn’t anymore. Part of setting good boundaries is just deciding when I’m going to take that time, even if it might seem rude, without having the kids as an excuse (spoiler alert: no one notices. Really).
One of the uncanny people I spoke with is a new friend, who is in more or less the same life-phase that I am—married, small kids, running her own business. I don’t know her that well, yet, but I said, “Tell me if this rings true to you—I think that I stopped having so much trouble with other people’s feelings when I started my business and decided to do exactly what I wanted to do with my life, without thinking too hard about what other people’s expectations are. It doesn’t seem like that should be connected to this level of empathy, but somehow, I feel like it is.”
She was thoughtful for a moment, and then she said, “I think you’re right. That’s when I started to feel less out of control with it, anyway.”
I don’t know exactly why that would be, but I think it’s true. I wonder if it has to do with strongly asserting oneself. Maybe the act of insisting on one’s autonomy helps build the gray matter in those areas where it’s a bit weak.
I’m grateful to those who reached out to me and helped me clarify and examine my thinking on this. It’s definitely an ongoing process, but it’s one I would like to continue engaging with.