Empathy Almost Killed Me

Growing up sensitive hurts.

Photo by Rob Sheahan on Unsplash

As a child, I had a very difficult time separating feelings that were mine and not inspired by other people’s. It was easy with my family. But, strangers were confusing.

I’ve always liked people. I was always very confident regarding who was safe to approach and wouldn’t mind entertaining me. But, I did not understand where I stopped and they began. Or, perhaps I was right and our concept of ourselves is a modern-day delusion that I had to learn. Or, more rationally, perhaps we all have valid perspectives that differ.

Freak

I was three or four years old when I asked my father how many people are inside us. Even as I was asking the question I felt the very strong emotions arising in him that any parent might feel if they were unfamiliar with empaths.

Despite his changing emotion, I still wanted to know the answer. So I asked him again to clarify, “you know, in my head. How many people are in my head?” I felt him try to hide his emotions.

He composed himself internally and answered in an unshaken voice, “only one son, you are the only person in your head.”

I wanted to ask, “are you sure?” But, I knew better. I could feel his worry. My introduction to psychologists was shortly thereafter. I learned to hide the depth of my empathy. I learned to lie about who I was and what I felt. I learned that I was a freak.

This would have been the late 70’s. So, I think it would be another 20 years at least before the concept really entered the zeitgeist at all. At least now people are beginning to understand highly empathetic children. Thanks in large part to psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron. According to her website, she initiated the study into highly sensitive people in 1991.

Empathic Sonar Allowed Me to Differentiate Myself from Others

I’ve always liked animals. They’re easy to communicate with. They don’t lie.

Humans were a lot more confusing at first. When I started going to school with other children I started having behavioral problems. I don’t excuse my behavior and there were several factors. Looking back, I think part of why I acted out was to differentiate my feelings from others.

I instinctively used my behavior as a sort of sonar. If I annoyed everyone by being wild, I could better separate the signals. Hey, that’s me, the one that’s having fun and not annoyed at all!

I was such a weird kid. I asked really odd questions. I was super hyper sometimes and excessively depressed other times, and we moved a few times. Each school had a whole new set of people for me to differentiate myself from. I went to my fifth school in third grade. It was only a few weeks before I was kicked out and sent to a private school with kids that all knew each other.

Bullies Hunger for the Suffering of the Weak

The private school children were very mean to me. It was the hardest thing for me to understand. How could they bully me? Didn’t it hurt their feelings to hurt mine?

Along with verbal bullying, they would attack me physically, pilling on me, rubbing yucky stuff in my hair, etc. I wouldn’t fight back at all because it would hurt me more if both of us hurt than if I hurt while the others felt superior. It was a daily ritual for several weeks until they put a worm in my sandwich.

I remember looking at it with an awkward smile on my face and wondering if the other kids would like me and not want to hurt me anymore if I ate it. You know, like, no big deal, it’s cool. Third-grader logic. I would have. At that point, the teacher stepped in and told them to stop.

I learned that some people hunger for my suffering when they perceive me as weak.

Picture of the author

Finding Confidence — Embracing “Freak”

The bullying stopped. My behavioral problems did not. I spent third and fourth grade at the private school and then moved back to public school to repeat the fourth grade. I was a freak, a loner, and an outcast.

I was beginning to understand how to separate my own feelings from those of others. I could feel their insecurities. I figured out that they were only trying to make themselves feel better because they were suffering. I began to realize that I don’t have to let them put their yuck on me. I realized that many of them were miserable too. Most of them were scared.

They hurt me because they were hurting. I gained confidence. Despite what I had been through and all my misbehavior, I did not hurt people. They called me a freak because they were right. I was not like them. It wasn’t an insult. They were complimenting me. My confidence grew. I made my first friend in the sixth grade. He and I are close to this day.

Two years later I was sent to military school.

Photo belongs to Travis Ferret, the author, all rights reserved

Military School

As you might guess, the first few weeks of military school were very difficult. There were no animals. I had learned how to separate my feelings from other people but it required energy and took effort, it was quite tiring.

Nearly everyone was either miserable or power-mad; most, a sour mix of the two. One particularly hard day I was walking in the hall crying. Just balling out of control, tears pouring down my face.

An older boy, who I believe was another empath, pulled me into an empty room and told me that I could not cry anymore or “these people” would eat me alive.

He was kind and he was coming from a place of genuine love. I could tell that it was hurting him to be so strong for me. I needed his help and he helped me a great deal. I fear he took too much of my pain. He was sent to a psychiatric facility a week or so later. It took me over 10 years to learn to cry again.

Close Friendships Taught Me Balance Our Feelings

Thinking back on it now, my time in military school helped me develop my empathic skills a great deal. It was very structured. There was a whole lot of marching and formations and parades and on and on. I think the years I spent in that environment provided some consistency with which I learned to calibrate my empathy.

Through my close friendships, I learned to balance my feelings with other humans. I learned how to gauge others. I learned that they are affected by my emotions as well. They just aren’t as aware of it. Which gave me the power to protect myself. I learned how to foster doubt and uncertainty in those who would harm me.

I learned how to avoid being perceived as weak.

Stepping Away from the Edge

By the time I turned 18 years old, I had experienced regular bouts of debilitating depression lasting several weeks at a time. I was not willing to continue living with these cycles.

Instead of going to college right away, I decided to dedicate one year to the sincere study of, and effort toward, finding some kind of balance. If after a year I was still going through depression cycles, I would switch my study to focus on the optimal form of self-destruction and suicide.

I’m 46 today, I’ve lived a happy and balanced life so far. I’ve earned a couple of degrees. Becoming the expert on my happiness was the single most beneficial thing I have ever done for myself. I have had many ups and downs. I have faced challenges and disappointments and have had successes and achievements.

All throughout I have been grounded enough that emotional input does not send me spiraling. I take it in, process it, and let it pass. It’s like jumping on the moon but not flying off. Like kneeling beside the hole without falling in. See this article for my advice on how to become the leading expert on your happiness.

Feelings are for feeling. I am proud to tell you, I cry easily now.

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𝘈𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘷𝘶𝘭𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 & 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘸𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘰𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸𝘭𝘦𝘥𝘨𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘶𝘢𝘭 𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘴.

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Travis Ferret

Travis Ferret

I intend to model alternate ways of thinking and approaching life’s challenges. Hopefully, you can use my stories to develop your own rational perspective.

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