Get Well

The Trouble with Empathy

by Maggie Suszka


In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, 9 year old Rose takes a hearty bite out of the immaculate, mouth watering lemon-chocolate birthday cake her Mom left fresh out of the oven to cool. She discovers she has a gift. She can taste her mother’s real, raw emotions in the sugary goodness of the cake. She discovers this gift isn’t so much of a “gift” as you’d think. Having an understanding beyond sympathy, beyond defining and labeling their emotions or even helping them work through whatever they might be experiencing. It’s feeling exactly what they are going through.

Empathy is often outlined as the front runner and number one value any individual could have – whether in a relationship, work, in love or friendships. No one really talks about how empathy can be a tricky thing.

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose could taste it. “It seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary.” Her Mom felt empty to her.

How would it feel to realize that your mother feels undeserving, unloved, and empty? Suddenly your reality and world changes. When you empathize with another, you feel exactly what they are experiencing. And sometimes this can be draining, even chilling.

Empathy is defined as, “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner,” according to Merriam-Webster.

I recently attended a college graduation where empathy was defined as so much more than sympathy – that the students had empathy instilled within them from their college years, that this skill would allow them to move into the world with fire in their bellies and to ultimately really feel what others were.

I don’t want my words to get confused, I value empathy above all other things in my relationship (on the same tier as loyalty and commitment). Empathy, in both friendships and romantic relationships, has enhanced my connections with others in ways I’m not sure I can fully put into words.

There have been times I have even been told I feel too deeply. So, yes, I love empathy.

But it’s not a universally positive emotion as so many conceal it as. Such as Rose, people can sometimes get all of the “icky”, “empty”, and “scary” feelings of others. These feelings can be really hard to sort through, especially when you’re seemingly doing it for someone else. Maybe even someone who is unaware or unwilling to see or recognize them. Nevertheless, your empathy muscle stretches you to try and understand how they truly are feeling in their heart of hearts. At the end of the day, there is only so much you can do. And there’s only so much you can empathize with them.

Feeling understood is powerful. Empathy is powerful. We can put ourselves at risk for manipulating our own selves and putting our own experiences and emotions on the sidelines; due to these feelings of deep empathy. If we continue on in an ever empathetic state, we’re imperil of constant feelings of sadness, anxiousness, pain and fear.

As you can imagine or have experienced, empathy requires a lot of energy. It takes time to digest and understand what others are going through. It might even create a sense of burnout from the process. For those that begin to feel unending waves of pain, fear or struggling, take a moment to step back and reevaluate the individual you are empathizing with and at what level.

Some might point out or confuse it with being overly sensitive: it’s not. You create a safe space, a warm home and the ultimate openness with empathy – people at their core desire most to be understood. Not being heard or understood can be polarizing.

If those feelings of pain, fear, struggling, anxiety or overall negative emotion persists, that could be a sign you have “opened up your doors”, digested or empathized too much. You can’t let your mind and body be entirely hijacked by another individuals’ experience or emotions. It’s not about reclaiming your own feelings, but untethering yourself from their emotions and giving yourself clarity in the process.

At the end of the day when all is said and done, the world is a better place with empathy. We are more loving, more adventitious, more willing to throw ourselves into the world, and to lose without regret because of this so-called crazy experience of empathy. For that, I’m thankful.

Feature Image via Vanessa Granda

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