On Being an Empath


Like some sort of AA meeting from a show on television I imagine myself in a circle of people, standing up to introduce myself in a confessional:

“ Hello, My name is Jennifer Bothast and I think I am an emotional empath.”

I think it’s just one of those things that is hard wired in me. I have sometimes wondered if I am just very sensitive and other times wondered if my moodiness was a sign of having a mild case of bipolar disorder. Either of those ailments are probably still possibilities, but I think the more likely diagnosis would be of an unskilled emotional empath.  Like so much of my life before the beginning of my awakening, I was largely unaware I had been soaking up other people’s emotions like a sponge and then walking around feeling overwhelmed with no real idea why.

A few weeks ago I was posting to my “sisterhood” group about this feeling of overwhelm after watching a newscast following the Colorado movie theater shootings. I couldn’t even stand it being on tv in the same room because the grief was just too overwhelming for me and I found this to be odd that I couldn’t control the tears streaming down my face even though I had no obvious connection to anyone they were talking about. Other people around me were watching the same story unfold and they clucked their tongues and felt pity for the families involved but I seemed to be the only one crying. Why?

One woman questioned me in her response asking if I was an empath. I hadn’t heard the term outside a character on TV from the Star Trek series. I thought it was a fictional label. And when I started to think about it I found myself categorizing it like an elevated position of someone in some sort of authority, as some sort of psychic, a teacher possessing obvious abilities I would certainly be aware of if I had them.

But then I opened the book that was recommended to me by Rose Rosetree called Empowered by Empathy. The first part of the book is called “Empathy 101” and the author treats the information as if the reader were in a virtual classroom.  Being skeptical but curious, I read through the questionnaire tests designed to help the reader sort through if they are actually part of the 5% of the population considered “gifted” with empathy and if so in what form. I had no idea there were types of empathy.

In going through the questionnaires I found myself being guarded to potentially taking on a label I should not assume even though I absolutely identified with so many of the things being said. It wasn’t until the third and final test, the “easiest” one when I had to admit without question, that I did indeed belong in this category.

Test #3 “The TV Quiz” asks a fairly simple straightforward question I could find myself unable to waffle around. The first question asked about the Star Trek character I’d seen at work on the show and already mentioned here in this blog. Her name was “Counselor Troy” and I did indeed remember her well as someone I looked up to in a way I hadn’t given much thought about. I just remember thinking she was really beautiful and how cool it was that she could help other people by using her empathic gifts.

But it was the second question in this quiz that hit me like a hammer.  It asked how you react to tv talk shows that focus on highly dramatic emotional confrontations. I knew exactly what the author was referring to with answer choice number three which was “Help! Let me outta here!”

I cannot STAND to have that on anywhere around me, not even in the background with someone else being the primary viewer. I can’t stand to even watch the commercials for those shows. Why on earth, I thought would anyone be entertained by that drama? It makes my skin crawl.

And so ok..Maybe if that was some indication of being an empath, then yes, there might be something to this curiosity and emotional sensitivity of mine after all. And it might be a good answer as to why for someone who is gaining so much understanding of mindfulness practice that I should still exasperatingly be riding an emotional rollercoaster. I have always known I had a tendency toward what I thought was emotional sensitivity, but I figured it was “artistic temperament.” Maybe it is, but it is somewhat comforting to me that there may be more to it than that.

In trying to describe what it feels like to my partner, I related it to a movie we had watched together.

“Remember in ‘The Green Mile’ when the main character would breathe in all that gunk from other people and be choking on it until he could breathe it back out again? In the movie it had looked like a swarm of tiny black bugs to me. In real life it feels like being an unsuspecting sponge in a sea of emotions. I absorb other people’s feelings but it not only doesn’t take it away from the other person but I don’t know how to get rid of it either, so then we’re both miserable. And I do this largely unknowingly until I am so overwhelmed by everything and feel like I need to go crawl under a rock for a while because I can’t deal with even one more anything from anyone.”

“It sounds to me, like that’s your choice”, she said. “Just don’t let it in.”

Well, that would be wonderful if it were that easy. There is a chapter in this book that does teach you to “turn it off” but I haven’t gotten that far into it yet. I am only just past the part about identification and explanation. The author states “In Driver’s Ed., which part of a car do you learn to use first? The brake. It’s the same with Empathy 101.”

I am going to finish this blog for today and get back to reading. But honestly, just being able to express my myriad of emotions to myself without identifying with all of them and knowing  that I may learn to not take ownership of stuff I am pretty sure is not mine is comforting.

Stay tuned for any progress I am able to make in my next blog. And if any of this personally resonates with any of the readers of this blog I highly recommend you check out this book I am reading. Hey, then we can be in the virtual classroom together! And if I can learn to become skilled and control this supposed gift then how wonderful would it be to be able to use this gift in service to others and not feel in a way victimized by it?!

I have ALWAYS wanted to make a difference in the world. I imagine we all do. Using our unique gifts, whatever they are must be a way we can accomplish that goal in healing the world a little at a time. Let it begin with me, right?

And so it is.

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