The Ugly Curse of Empathy

False Baldcypress

False Baldcypress

Hello. My name is Chris. I’m highly empathetic. I’ve been this way all my life. While it’s been a benefit in my social life, and a great way to connect with my characters while writing, it’s also a damaging, distancing, disconnecting thing.

It seems like a strange thing to write: empathy can be a distancing, disconnecting perspective.

Let me elaborate.

This post is brought to you by a podcast about empathy I listened to two months ago. As some topics tend to do, my subconscious struck up a conversation with my conscious, and it’s been a slow, Ent-like discourse since then.

As an extrovert, I love being around people. As an empathetic person, I need to be around the right people. It’s not enough to spend the day hooting over buffalo wings and slapping everyone on the back. It’s not enough to gossip for hours about nothing. It’s not enough to simply be around people. I must be around the right people, or I spend most of my time floundering about.

As a man who has dated several people in the past year, I’ve heard a very specific line delivered to me in a very specific way more often than not: why don’t you like to do things for yourself, and by yourself?

Even extroverts like to grab a meal out alone, sometimes. Driven, independent, well-developed people apparently spend a lot of time doing themselves. In fact, according to some I’ve discussed this with, the ideal dating scenario is two separate people, doing what they love to do, in proximity. So: baseball fans watch baseball together, gardeners plant tomatoes together, and food aficionados reserve expensive restaurants together.

And that works for some. The world takes all kinds. I’m cool with being told that. What I love to do in my free time, by myself and for myself, is write. It’s a sport of one, with a team of one, where another person watching over my shoulder is a detriment to the end result. For me.

Then comes the “you’re codependent” angle I’ve heard a bit recently, starting with Cygnus. I took it to heart, studied up, and realized, well, I’m not codependent at all. I don’t need someone else to make me happy. I don’t need to be in a relationship to feel fulfilled. I DO need to be on a team of some kind. I DO need to be part of a collective, working toward a common goal through support and assistance. I’m empathic. I love being able to immerse myself in others, see the world through their eyes, share in their journey for a while.

This means my sense of self is much smaller than most. I know my core. The peach pit. I know who I am. I am a writer. I game with my brother. I have dinner with my parents once in a while. Everything else is fair game. As an empathetic person, I enjoy doing things with others that I wouldn’t enjoy doing by myself. I love baseball (with the right person). I love dancing (with the right person). Travel. Beer pong. Long hikes. Do I do these things when I’m alone? No. They are dimmed by my solo activity, because I have nobody to share it with.

I mean, why bother? Not in a depressed or self-destructive way. Why eat McDonald’s when you can eat better? If you have the available funds and time, why eat McDonald’s?

Something I’ve found somewhat exacting in my dating life is how often people shy away when I fall into them. They fall too, sometimes, but don’t understand what I’m doing and detach. I’m told I’m too “intense,” when in reality I find value in fewer walls between hearts and minds. My dating life has suffered greatly from empathy. I’m the greatest guy in the world on date one, two, six. On date seven? Whoa. I’m moving too fast.

I am? I was told recently, by someone that has since unfriended me on Facebook, to “slow down” in my dating life. As if I should take some down time for myself, regroup, and move forward when I’m stable and ready. While I understand the sentiment, I feel like Mr. Spock when the machine asked “How do you feel?” Does not compute. I’m great. I feel fine. Stable. Complete. Whole. When I’m alone, I’m great but dimmed. If I had friends to hang out with, I probably wouldn’t date. But then, if I had friends to hang out with, they’d probably get tired of me very quickly. Because I’m highly empathetic. And that makes it difficult for people to understand my motivations.

From a work perspective, being empathetic is great. I connect with customers, give the bosses what they want, and generally throw down. I’m a great tech, but being in a world where I connect for a minute and move on, it also slows me down. I put a lot of energy into people, and when every aspect of my job is soulless–i.e. micromanaged management micromanaging me, an unending litany of expectations and goals constantly pushed out of reach by the carrot-on-a-stick holding “policy makers,” and a slew of managers that can’t take two seconds out of their days to say, “Hey. I got four emails from customers in the past week saying how great you’ve been doing. I appreciate that.” or “Your work has been stellar. I find nothing wrong with your work, and that’s saying a lot, given the expectations.”–I find myself unable to anchor. I’m not simply talking about praise, like some puppy who wants a treat–something else said to me recently–I’m talking about connectivity to people. The human factor. I survive on connectivity. Teamwork. I don’t want to be constantly told how great I am–a common misunderstanding from someone who doesn’t have high empathy–I want to be told I’m not alone in this. It makes me angry to think about.

They aren’t the same.

I’m a man who thrives on plans, yet I don’t know what the next day will hold, and I don’t know if I’ll be home by 6 or 9 in the evening. I don’t know what my next assignment will be. I don’t know if I’m doing anything wrong, let alone right. For an empathetic person, it’s a major struggle to find the spots of gold in all the automated rust.

This isn’t a complaint about work. Or a complaint about dating. I’m currently seeing a woman that understands at least in part my personality and perspective, and has similar interests. I’m just trying to get the misunderstandings out there, and opened.

Just like it isn’t geared toward introverts, I feel this society puts down empathy. In order to get ahead in the capitalistic world, you have to put aside what you feel and want and others, and simply stare at the goal of money until you achieve it. And in order to keep it, you must continue to stare at it. Dare I say worship it. Sociopathy is the name of the game for the runners of this nation. Look at politics. Look at the House and Senate. Look at the media. Look at, well, just about everything with a camera pointed at it. Empathy is weakness in the big scheme.

I know there’s a lot of people out there who seek out empathy. I know there are many jobs out there that condone it, and uphold it, and see it as an asset on the resume. I know there are pockets of society that ignore status quo and exist to nurture empathy.

But in this place in my life it seems everybody misunderstands me, my ways, and my ability. I think that statement is enough to recognize I’m not just a scared child looking for an umbrella in the rain. I study myself, and I know I’m not wrong in this. Yet I feel I’m in a minority.

Chris

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2 thoughts on “The Ugly Curse of Empathy

  1. What? A blog? Hallelujah!

    Anyway.

    I think, to some extent, we all have elements of the introvert and extrovert inside us. And I think you make a good point for all the extroverts out there–just spending time WITH people isn’t all it’s about. It’s about spending quality time with the right people. For instance, I love the guy I’m dating, and I love spending time with him. But occasionally, I need to NOT spend time with him, so I can appreciate the time we spend together MORE.

    I’m on the opposite end of the social spectrum from you, I think. I’m very much an introvert, and I’m just as happy spending time by myself as with other people. But, again–it needs to be QUALITY time that I spend with myself. My me-time has goals. Writing goals, drawing goals, cleaning goals, whatever they are. I’m not a status quo type, but I do feel the need to work constantly, to be achieving something of use to myself constantly.

    I’d even venture to say that introvert and extrovert are society-built terms that, in the long run, mean nothing. Again, we all have elements of both inside us. What really matters is finding a way to use the time we have–both alone and with other people–in a way that benefits us emotionally. 🙂

    • Yeah we’re pretty fluid as people. I know this job is kicking me hard right now, which is more of the motivation toward my writing this post than anything else. I’m very unbalanced. All the people I talk to about this look at me funny and say, “be different and it’s fixed.” I’m a little tired of it.

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