Empathy and All Its Grief
Yes it's beautiful, but proceed with caution
What pessimistic and shallow human could show disdain for empathy? Isn’t empathy the reason the world is a better place? Morality, love and forgiveness all begin with empathy. This human trait is so raw and powerful, and it shapes the actions and lives of so many people. However, I think we tend to ignore all its grief. We treat empathy like we treat newly graduated college students, sending them out into the real world with a new job in a new place with no connections. It is all exciting, but we ignore the bigger picture — the more painful side. We congratulate them for finally growing up without considering the anxiety that accompanies it.
We praise empathy without considering the negative effects — how bearing all that pain might tear us down with it.
Music is an incredible tool to share and experience empathy with others. It feels otherworldly for these musicians to produce these intimate and intense songs that can be used as a tool for empathy among millions of people. I think about my visceral reactions to songs like Taylor Swift’s “My Tears Ricochet” or “Right Where You Left Me” and find it so powerful that I can empathize with this artist and this artist can potentially empathize with me. Sometimes, I listen to these songs from the perspective of my sister, my mom or my best friend, and they begin to take on a new meaning. I cry for a different reason each time, and I feel my heart become full of their sadness.
Maybe these feelings are extreme. I know not everyone feels empathy as deeply as others, which can make us feel crazy or unloved; however, if you feel empathy the way that I do, as if you can feel someone’s pain like you are holding their heart in your hand, you are not alone.
I know how it starts. You answer every phone call from your friend in case they are sad. You wake up every day wondering if your little sister needs something. Your mom tells you that they are struggling with being an empty nester, and you cry after each phone call.
There is this impossible weight of other people’s pain resting on your shoulders, and you feel like there is no good place to put it, but taking care of yourself first does not make you a bad person. It is not selfish to have boundaries in relationships; telling a friend that while you appreciate their trust to come to you in times of crisis, you are too overwhelmed to offer good emotional support. It is not selfish to ask someone to take care of you and help alleviate all the pain either. Self care can feel like the hardest thing in the world, but ultimately, we are better people because of it.
It is easier to feel someone else's sadness than to ruminate on your own.
Empathy can be a form of distraction. I use it to be adjacent to pain without letting it fully cross my own threshold. I push down negative thoughts, end all self-reflection and focus on the needs of my loved ones; however, I found that the longer I pushed away my own feelings, the more intense they came back, boiling over the edge. It is both the best and the hardest thing in the world to feel emotions so profoundly.
Empathy should not be a tool for self-destruction. The primary purpose of empathy is to connect with others. Empathy is the reason we still try to make the world a better place even after all of the tragedies. It is the reason why we might donate to end human trafficking or to build affordable housing because even though we might not ever be able to understand someone’s journey, we can empathize with their struggle. However, the most common mistake is underestimating the power of empathy. It has the power to make us feel emotions so intensely.
Intense expression of emotions is beautiful, but it does not always feel reciprocated. It is draining to passionately express love all the time and then feel like your needs are not met. Everyone experiences and expresses empathy, emotions and love differently. It is important to understand how someone shows love to feel secure in one’s relationships. But there is a slight caveat to that statement. While understanding that people might not show love in the same way is valuable, do not allow people to treat you poorly under the guise of “different love languages.”
Relationships are extremely difficult to navigate, and they never seem to get easier. I used to believe that my emotions would be better regulated as I grew out of my teen years, but that has not been the case. In a society where people are called crazy for expressing their emotions, I felt alone in all my emotions that I felt so deeply. I have always been told that my capacity for empathy was one of my strongest and best attributes, and it is just now that I began to understand its weight on my life. We are considerate to large feelings such as love, pain and happiness – let’s give empathy the space it deserves and appreciate all of its gifts and all of its grief.
Gwyneth Baker is an online editorial writer for Rowdy Magazine. The most embarrassing places she has cried are her professor's office hours (over non-school related issues), while deboarding a plane, and over the phone to a boy not in her league.