Too Much Empathy?
“I am too empathetic!”
That was not a boast. It was a complaint. I recently received a message from a young lady who asked why God would endow her with a “ridiculous amount of empathy.” She claims to be concerned for others to the point of exhaustion. She absorbs other people’s emotions, so much so that she weeps for people she hardly knows. She called it a curse and she asked if I had any advice on how to “get over it.”
I totally get where she is coming from.
I am sure that many of us are able to sense the emotional state of those around us…but for myself, I not only sense it, I often enter into the emotional state of those closest to me. Not unlike this young lady.
It might sound great, but it takes a toll on a person.
Sometimes, all someone needs to do is cross the threshold, through the door, and into a room that I am occupying, and I will be overcome with an intense emotion, especially negative ones like sadness. .. to find out a few minutes later that something happened to cause that person intense sadness.
It is kind of like an eery psychic super power that I really used to hate; I thought I was little bit crazy.
It was like being on an emotional roller coaster, but the emotions were not my own; I never paid the fare, I didn’t get in line, and here I am with my hands in the air screaming as we fly down the Drop Of Death!!
People would tell me that I was too sensitive…that it wasn’t my issue, that I needed to get over it! They were almost right, I am really sensitive to those around me…but do I really need to get over it like empathy is some sort of snotty nose or ear infection?
I don’t think so. Well, actually with all the crying it might be like a snotty nose…
The second part of Romans 12:15 comes easily to people like us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Crying was what I considered the worst part about it. I used to weep with regularity when others were hurting.
And weeping is not manly at all, is it?
For instance, a few years ago a friend, who is not that close with me, called about his marital problems…after the phone call I broke down and sobbed and I let it ruin my day. And it goes on, when someone loses a job or a spouse, or a marriage breaks down, or someone gets a serious sickness, when my wife has a bad day, or my kids are feeling blue…
And it is not pretty at all.
It was, and still can be, emotionally exhausting.
Like the young lady, I used to look at this as a curse or a burden that I needed to “get over.” While I no longer look at it as a curse, it is still a burden of sorts…but it is also gift. Being an introvert, I would often absorb these feelings and dwell on them in isolation, and if I was not careful, I would grow depressed. Now, rather than just sitting in a dark room and crying, or trying to be tough and not let it bother me, I have learned a couple things about being a Christian “Empath.” Allow me to share them with you:
- Meditate on the Bible and pray. We have God’s own Word, given to us. Through it the Lord imparts wisdom and makes himself known to us. When our thoughts and affections are focused on Jesus Christ, dealing with the emotional onslaught is going to be much easier to bare, as we do not have to bare it alone.
- Talk to other Christians. I am not saying go and gossip to your friends about the other person’s problems. Talking to a trusted Christian friend about your feelings will prevent you from dwelling on it and holding it in and then eventually exploding in a quivering mess of negative, zoned out depression.
- Take time to recharge. If you are anything like me, you are going to need some alone time afterwards, as this will totally drain your batteries. Turn off the phone, get off the internet, find a place of solitude and recharge. For me that often includes blogging, reading, and sleep. A warning however: don’t stay there in your isolation. Don’t get trapped. Get out again and be of service to God and the Church.
- Learn to say, “no.” You don’t have to do it all yourself. Since we feel the needs of others, and want to help, we often have trouble saying no to people and take on more than we should. Part of why I had my bout with depression last year was because I was just completely burnt out.
- Exercise. I used to over-eat and over-drink to numb the over-active feelings. Which is not good. On top of the other things listed above, exercise is a good tool to help cope. Plus the endorphin high is never a bad thing…
- Surround yourself with loving, positive Christians. Since we tend to absorb the feelings of others, it makes sense be around positive people right? Don’t ignore those who are hurting and need your support, but know your limits.
In scripture we see the empathy Jesus showed for the sick, the blind, the deaf, and the lost. Jesus wept. Throughout Scripture we are taught to humble ourselves and look at the interests of others. We are constantly exhorted in the Scriptures to have compassion for one another, and people who have been blessed with empathetic personalities have this built in to us. It is a blessing.
Too empathetic? No.
Get over it? No. Empathy is not like the common cold that we have to get over.
God has given you an amazing gift.
Embrace it, and learn to focus not so much on the negative emotions that you feel, but the positive ones as well. Remember the first part of Romans 12:15 – rejoice with those who rejoice. Do that as well. Use this gift to God’s glory and the up building of the Church.