Empaths: We feel your pain. Here, have some more.

Empath is psycho-shorthand for ‘someone who is empathetic.’

Empaths can put themselves in another’s shoes and experience their emotions.

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You want an empath around when you need more than someone to pat you on the shoulder when you are miserable and say “Poor, pitiful you.” That is a sympathizer. They serve a purpose. When you wallow in your particular wretchedness, the sympathetic person will not get overly-involved. The sympathizer will just feel sorry for you.
Then there’s the role of an aloof. This detached person sees your gloom, and wonders how you got there. And possibly is glad he isn’t in there with you.
Unlike the jurist—who will critique, censure, and castigate you from the edge of the pit of despair.

 
The sympathizer will offer you a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes we need sympathy. And sometimes we need cool appraisal from the aloof, to give us a sense of perspective on our hurt. There could conceivably be times when we  need the jurist, who tells us exactly what we did wrong (if anything) that got us into the pit, and MAYBE even instructs us how to get out.

 
But the empath will mourn with you when you mourn. The empath’s cheeks will burn when you are humiliated, and the empath’s heart will beat faster when you are afraid.
The empath will climb right into the ooze next to you and sob along.

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I could always, from the time I learned to read, put myself into a character’s shoes. Shoes? No, I climbed into the character’s skin and walked around in it. If I were a more open child and had shared these tendencies with my parents, they might have been able to act as aloof, or even a jurists, and convince me that too much empathy is too much. By the time I was about seven the damage was complete. There was no going back.

 
That year, our family stood on the sidewalk in our little town, cheering as a parade went by. I think candy was thrown. (I wouldn’t have cheered as much otherwise.) When I heard jeers of some rascally-types up the street, I raised my eyes from the Bazooka Bubble Gum piece at my feet, and met those of a truck driver. He and his truck had somehow gotten caught up in the middle of the parade. All thoughts of that hard brick of pink adhesive wrapped in an incomprehensible comic disappeared. My heart and soul flew into the truck with the man. I was experiencing the humiliation from the jeering children. I was aching for the moment I could break free from the parade, park my truck on a private, tree-lined street, and salve my wounded spirit. The rest of the parade was spoiled for me. I was one with that miserable driver.

 
It wasn’t till decades later—I’m embarrassed to tell you how many—that I could call up that painfully vivid memory. And realize with a shock that the truck driver wasn’t humiliated or scarred or crushed in spirit. He was bored and had a route to finish and just wanted to get out of that treacle-slow speed of a small town parade.

 
And that is the problem with empaths. We might feel your pain. But some of us (I hope I am not the only -nth degree empath out there) will add more pain to what we think you are feeling. We might project, on you, our own perceptions of what we think your emotional state to be. We may assume you are reacting as we think we would. A seven-year-old should never suppose that she is simpatico with a middle-aged truck driver.

 
Us -nth degree empaths might be feeling your assumed pain long after you have moved on to a place of peace, contentment and even happiness. We may picture you in the Slough of Despond when you are actually only splashing your way through a mud puddle, regretting nothing but your dirty hem. We can be found weeping with you even while your joy is coming in the morning.

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The life of an empath is a tough one. Our emotions are constantly roiling around inside, looking for more tribulation and anguish to weep over. Sometimes we can be the most frustrating of friends.

 

 
But when you are in that pit, and the jurist has pronounced judgement and walked on, the aloof is peering over the edge wondering how you got there and how you’ll get out, and the shoulder of the sympathizer is too far to reach, wait for the splash. The empath has jumped in with you, and might even stay there after you’ve climbed out.

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10 thoughts on “Empaths: We feel your pain. Here, have some more.

  1. As an nth degree empath, my heart resonates with your story. We are often labeled as too sensitive, but it is a gift and one that is difficult to learn to steward in a healthy way. I’m still learning. I used to think it was something wrong with me… until I learned I was an INFJ (Meyers-Briggs). Now I’m learning how to accept that part of myself and give myself grace when the jurists and others of the world would condemn my sensitive heart. And I’m learning when it is appropriate to protect it as well from those would abuse it. Blessings to you, Anita. Empaths unite!

  2. I should always have a disclaimer on my posts. I make things up as I go along. “Aloofs” and “Jurists” and “nth degree empaths” are the labels I personally put on certain kinds of reactions. You probably won’t find those terms in a psychology textbook, but I think they accurately portray reality. (“Empath” really is widely used though!)

  3. My first encounter with the term empath was in an old Star Trek episode. But I recognized myself! Yep, I’ve been the recipient of a good deal of teasing ridicule because of it. And how I’ve agonized for someone, only to discover later that they couldn’t have cared less! lol Thanks for a great laugh from your title, Prude!

  4. Anita, you have aptly caught the dilemma of an empath in your imagery, such as slogging through the Slough of Despond vs. a mere mud puddle. And staying in the pit even after the person we’re empathizing with has jumped out! I have sometimes found myself in this empath role, wondering, “Why aren’t you as bothered as I am?” It makes me angry! I guess that pegs me as an empath, for sure.

    Yet at other times, depending on how much emotional baggage I can carry at that moment, I find myself functioning as the Aloof or the Jurist. I definitely vacillate. As you said, there’s probably a place for each, at the right times.

    Empathy is great–we all need it, and we should give it liberally as needed by others. But does anyone know the trick for stopping the empathy faucet? No need to waste it, right? Nobody should have to go through years of sadness for bored truck drivers and others who won’t even notice!

    • If you ever find that faucet and the “off” handle, please let me know! And in thinking it over, I can also be the aloof, the sympathizer or the jurist. Maybe it depends on my emotions, and whether or not I interpret the situation of the other person as particularly painful—probably again depending on my own experiences.

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