Empathy for Struggling Souls Calls Us to Walk with Them
This is your story. You are reading it because you are empathetic. I describe walking with my friends as they meet their challenges along life's path. But it's about you too — about how you care for your friends in a loving and supportive way. There are many snares and difficulties, as you well know. We can try to avoid them, but truthfully, I often fall into them even though I know better, and you probably do too.
For many of us who empathize, our feelings are not just emotions; they are a calling. We seem uniquely gifted by life as good listeners with hearts full of love and concern for certain people we encounter on the path. If we had a choice, we might not choose this calling because of the emotional pain it can cause — but, no, actually I think we would. It's tough on us because our own hearts get involved. We fall in love with the souls we support and suffer with them.
And often, the love and support our friends return to us exceeds our own.
Yet with all the difficulties, the pain, the hurt, and even anguish we may feel as support-givers, the gift satisfies something in our own souls as much as it does those of our friends. We are like gardeners who prick our thumbs on the rose thorns, cut our fingers on our tools, and dirty our nails in the soil. It hurts a little, or sometimes a lot, but we wouldn't have it any other way because we love the ones we tend to, and we rejoice in their beauty when they blossom. And often, the love and support our friends return to us exceeds our own.
My friend Sandra's story is one with which many of you will resonate — a long, exhausting, emotionally intense divorce. She is a good friend with whom I often go on walks, chatting about everything from everyday life to sometimes very deep personal topics. Of course, when she said she was going to get a divorce, my heart went out to her, and that became the constant subject of our walks and talks.
Faced with the same situation, you might feel the same way I did: “I'm not sure I'm ready to handle the many difficult emotions that accompany a divorce.” You know you'll be dealing with anger, loss, anxiety, fear, worry, doubts, guilt, even moments of panic, and difficult reactions from the spouse if you know them too. Take the time to anticipate what might happen, and think through how you will respond so you can handle issues well when they do come up. You may also consider how deeply involved you want to be, and what boundaries you'll have to create with your friend.
Throughout the experience, I felt a calling to walk beside Sandra. Challenging as the situation was, I was willing to be all in, to be the stabilizing soul, the listening ear, the kind and reassuring word she needed to hear. A few months into her ordeal, I mentioned I felt called to see her through it, and she said, “Yes! I have felt that! It's as though you were sent to walk with me through this whole thing.” And so I did. She has passed through that bit of hell now, and her life is happy and stabilizing.
I wish I could say I had perfect equanimity about it all, but my heart often went up and down with Sandra's — her tears were my tears, her anger was mine, her worry was my worry as well. But as she made progress, so did I. At some point, I learned not to take her pain so much into my own heart, learned to put a little distance between my emotions and her wounds. And Sandra's eventual happiness also brought me happiness.
I learned not to take her pain so much into my own heart
I faced a tougher and much longer challenge when Bob, my best friend in high school, became mentally ill as a college-age adult. How might you handle an event like this if you were 21 years old and afraid of mentally ill people? Could you overcome your fear and inadequate knowledge of mental illness to be a comfort and a help to your friend? These were the questions I faced.
Bob's illness continued throughout his adult life. He often felt overpowered by his own mind and went in and out of incoherent phases. Remaining friends with him was tough because sometimes for months or even years he could not think or make sense in conversation. Still, we had a bond of friendship from our earlier days that made it impossible for me to leave him.
Seeing Bob's inner struggles and hearing him express self-esteem issues as he recognized his mental illness, hurt me to the core. Again, I felt like a stabilizing force in his life and could not abandon him. I was not always a frequent visitor, but in the last ten years he became more coherent and I visited more often. We had many pleasant conversations over a meal or taking in a local semi-pro baseball game. My friend passed away a year ago. I felt relief for him since he is finally at peace, but for me it was a hard loss, having been friends for fifty years.
Another unmistakable calling to use my empathetic gift came when I made friends with Catherine, a young woman who belonged to a Facebook group I frequented. She faced a big change in her career path after working jobs that were damaging to her psyche, and she expressed interest in my profession. It was natural to help her get a start.
Over more than a year of frequent conversations, we became close friends, (though we have never met in person). We discovered many common interests and striking similarities in temperament, as well as some amazing unexpected connections in the world — synchronicities. The struggle for me, and one you could also face when helping any close friend, was that I became too involved, letting my emotions overpower me.
Catherine's career change morphed into multi-disciplinary freelancing, requiring her to master and employ multiple new and existing skills. The road to building her new career has been challenging, emotionally, financially, and strategically. However, it has also provided her with tremendous healing from her past experiences, many new successes, and hope for a future of her own making.
As Catherine's mentor, my job was to coach her, guide her, encourage her, and offer emotional support. She needed all those things, but she also demonstrated extraordinary talent and intelligence in her new career, as well as determination and amazing creativity. I was able to help her extensively as a career guide and an emotional and spiritual companion on the path. But she did something far greater for me.
In retirement, I had stagnated a bit, not doing much other than daily walks and socializing. My friend’s passion for life — for her healing, her new career, and her creative endeavors — was infectious, especially since many of her interests were also my lifelong interests. In short, she mentored me as well! We began collaborating and encouraging one another in writing articles and poetry and learning photography. We share common interests in hiking, politics, reading, music, and more. As she came alive through her healing and her new career, I came alive too. What a precious gift we have given each other, as our friendship and her freelance career continues to grow.
My emotions while supporting Catherine have been very unsettled as I empathize with her sometimes difficult struggles. I've had to work at keeping my feelings under control and letting go of over-involvement. But just as I have helped her, she has also supported me graciously, generously, and with keen insight all along the path. Any inner difficulties have been infinitely less significant than the extremely rich friendship and passion for life and growth we have shared.
What conclusions can I draw that might help you, as a fellow Empath, survive the emotional pitfalls and wounds we will face when we walk life's path in a close bond with another soul? You probably already know and try to practice the usual therapies for staying in balance: meditate, exercise, sleep well, eat well, go on retreats, get counseling, or find your own empathetic friend.
Also, learn non-attachment — to love and care and empathize without possessiveness, without holding loved ones to your expectations, and without letting their emotions overwhelm your own. Another way to say non-attachment might be to say, “set boundaries” to protect you and your friend. You deserve freedom from the emotional pain of identifying too closely with your friend, and your friend deserves your support without control or manipulation. It's a subtle art, but one has to learn to feel and to care while also maintaining balance and distance. Buddhism, Hinduism, and some forms of psychology can teach you non-attachment.
Does it always work? No. Not for me. I sometimes feel too deeply, love too deeply, care too deeply about my friends and family. But you know what? They are worth it! And the wealth of love, support, and passion they have given back to me far exceeds anything I've given. Thank you, dear friends and loved ones, for letting me love and support you through your trials, and for giving it all back to me in greater measure than I could ever have imagined.
edited by Katrina Stone