The Dark Side of Empathy
And how to turn it back into a strength.
I had always assumed everybody was more or less able to build a connection to what other people were feeling. The first incident in my life that made me wonder if my levels of empathy were appropriate was in the 12th grade.
My boyfriend at the time helped my dad carry a heavy cupboard down the stairs in my parents’ house. It got too heavy, he let it slip, and the massive thing crushed his fingers against the wall. His hand went red and blue immediately. He said he was okay, not wanting to seem soft in front of my dad, but I could tell he was in severe pain. I wanted to help him and get some ice — but instead, I (!) fainted.
This kept happening. Watching close friends get vaccinated made me cry or faint. Seeing people who I cared about be happy made me laugh, but when they cried, I could literally feel their pain. This goes on to this day, where sometimes I feel a strange kind of anxiety that I don’t recognize, just to realize it is someone else’s.
This may be a more specific case, but for me this occurs not only with real people close to my heart — it even applies to movie characters. Watching scary, violent, or really sad movies? Not for me. I always wondered why anyone would be entertained by the thrill of witnessing say someone being robbed at gunpoint or losing a friend to cancer.
Whenever I do let myself be persuaded to go to the cinema, I regret it as soon as I feel myself identifying and, consequently, empathizing with a character who experiences something bad. I walk out of that cinema all depressed and can’t really shake it off (now, fortunately, all my friends know that any film they make me see needs to be approved for all audiences).
It almost feels like I get emotionally hijacked. My body, mind, and soul are unable to distinguish where my reality ends and someone else’s begins. This mainly happens with people that I deeply care about, but I care about a lot of people, so I realized I needed a solution. So, I took a look at what empathy really is, and how I can cultivate it without feeling drained by its flip side.
Empathy is understood as the ability to feel or enter into the emotions of another.