Empathy, and Empaths

static and chaos, aka foam

For most of my life, I could never explain these waves of foreign feelings that would consume me out of nowhere. “You’re just overly sensitive,” people would say. Intuitive. Insightful. Sharp. But I knew something deeper was going on, and unfortunately for decades I’ve hid it, instead letting myself believe that I was just a little introverted, a little twitchy, a little off. Empathy is a strange topic for those of us who have abnormal levels of the sense. I’m only just now beginning to realize the depths to which it can (and has) affected me through my lifetime- both for the good and the not-so-much.

My first “serious” girlfriend used to think it telepathic how I could understand – and help her explain – the chaotic and conflicting emotions she would feel over her mother’s death, or any intense situation she would find herself in. I didn’t know any better.  We ended up staying together longer than we should have simply in that I believed it was some deep connection I shared only with her. However, that intense emotional experience – my first really significant relationship – had only just kickstarted my empathic senses.

My next lover was creeped out by it entirely.  She later in life admitted that I was usually spot on, but at the time she’d just get angry and tell me I had no idea what I was talking about.  The mismatch between what I was hearing and what I was feeling confused me. But I get it now.  I’d have been creeped out by it, honestly. It was around this time close friends started to notice changes in my personality, too. I became more quiet and remote, especially when we’d be out in large groups or crowds. I’ve always felt like an extrovert at my core so to not just hear about, but feel these changes in myself was so confusing.

Oddly, it was only through experiencing massive crowds that I came to discover better words for what these waves of extreme emotions feel like to me.

Imagine being in an environment so loud that all you can hear is everyone else’s voice- you speak and feel your mouth move, but it’s not your voice you hear, and it feels disorienting.  You hear these sounds and voices so internally they almost feel like they’re coming from you.  Well, imagine sound here as emotion. Or more accurately, emotions- and lots of them.  I literally get flooded by what everyone around me is feeling, and the more of them there are, the heavier it can get.

Being an extrovert at my core, I love to socialize, talk, share. I want to explore and meet new people. But it’s taken some heavy, sustained introspection to find a safe way for me to do those things without needing to recharge somewhere quiet a few times a day. I’m getting better at it, and particularly over the last few months as I get a grip on what’s actually happening.

Malls and busy parks or beaches tend to be the trickiest for me to experience. At these types of spaces, everyone is broken off into in small community ‘cells’, experiencing their own microcosms of emotion and connection independently of the other groups around them.  There’s no common path or thread to the emotions around me in these places, and it can feel like an overwhelming volume of static that confuses and floods my senses.  It’s why I generally wade straight out into the water at the beach if I can’t find a secluded spot to perch my towel.  Far less static out there with the fish.

To stay centered in these high-density areas I just need to focus in on my own body, nerves and senses. I’m getting so much better at filtering out other feelings from my own lately. That’s been hard to sort out, but I’m actually surprising myself with how much more outgoing I feel these days. I also need a lot less recharging time.

Fortunately, event-based crowds like concerts, festivals or rallies are much easier to experience. Everyone is often focusing on the same thing, so as opposed to confusing static it’s like a bunch of voices yelling in unison.  I can easily choose to either join in, or suppress that group scream as it’s so obvious and focused. These types of crowds are ones I’ve literally grown up in the center of as a career musician.

It’s always surprised me how comfortable I am playing on large stages in front of massive crowds. I truly feel no fear in front of a huge audience – but only because it’s full attention is usually on me. The rush of unfiltered acceptance, excitement, and love from an audience all focused upon you is one of the most amazing feelings you can experience. It’s like the most euphoric of drugs, the best sex you’ve ever had. You’re all breathing the same air and moving to the same rhythms- it’s the most amazing benefit of this whole empathic sense, no doubt.

But the other side of the coin is a bit different.

The emotional suppression that I’ve developed in order to deal with these massive floods that’s proving to be the biggest problem with my empathy.  I seem to have developed an sort of empathic ‘off’ switch that gets flipped unconsciously more than I’d prefer when I’m stressed. I can stop all the emotion around me from being absorbed, and protect myself from the floods, but it comes at a price. It’s not a filter that helps me center on my own state with clarity. And I can get caught in that state and disconnect from the world around me, going emotionally ‘numb’.

I can’t tell you the damage that has done at times.  I’ve shut myself off from feelings that could have well served me and protected me when I needed them the most.  I’ve reflected emotions I’ve soaked up from individuals around me in less-than-positive ways. And I’ve used my emotional insight for my own personal gain, from business negotiations to arguments to even random street encounters. I’ve never betrayed confidence or trust, but I’ve certainly freaked out people close to me by voicing their unspoken feelings or acting based upon them. I have to watch myself to not speak my empathic senses as fact, but it’s tricky because they’ve become as natural and common to me as touch or smell.

But having recently begun to learn more about empathy (and in cases like mine, it’s negative effects) from some close colleagues and advisors around me, I’m learning quickly how to manage my senses more effectively.  How to observe emotion without absorbing it.  Ways to approach someone who is clearly having emotional burdens and offer help without seeming nosy or overly direct. And most importantly, how to filter out the noise and focus on my own emotional state, to better recenter myself when things get heavy.

Empathy is a strange word. I always equated it with compassion, but it’s actually quite different a concept. Whereas compassion is acknowledging and understanding how another feels, empathy is when you allow yourself to feel those emotions.  I can control the first, but I can’t control the second – however I need to use both in a complementary fashion. Through compassion, I can reach through a safe empathic ‘barrier wall’ to hear and understand another person’s state without soaking it all up.  I now have a very broad vocabulary of ‘emotional hues’ to refer to without having to ‘wear’ another person’s emotional state in order to relate to them.

This alone has been a huge revelation for me over the last couple months, and it’s helping me protect my energy in many many daily situations. My next step is starting to open up my empathic protective wall to start acclimating myself to the ‘sound’ of all the day-to-day emotions I encounter once again. My separation and healing has built huge walls around me to protect myself, but I’m now ready to bring those down again and experience the full sound and glory around me again.  I’m much better suited to withstand the storms now, too.

I used to joke about the ‘voices in my head’ before I learned about empathy, but it turned out those voices were really just all around me. What a relief.  Adjusting to a newly identified sense is bizarre, but I know I’ll be a happier person now that I understand what’s going on with this whole empathy thing.