20: Empathy (Part 3) The Good!

As promised in 17: Empathy (Part 1) and 18: Empathy (Part 2), I’m now tackling the positive aspects of being an “empath,” or hyper-empathetic person. In Part 1, I wrote about the stereotype that Autistic people don’t experience empathy and how—not only do I empathize—I actually experience hyper-empathy. In Part 2, I focused on media consumption and how careful I have to be with what I watch, listen to, or read due to hyper-empathy. But the focus of both posts was on the negative or tiring aspects of being hyper-empathetic and how it can be a burden. Today I really wanted to address the wonderful side of being so sensitive to others’ emotions.

  • I experience positive emotions strongly too

In Empathy (Part 1), I wrote that “I feel other people’s pain so innately that it can be so debilitating I have to try to unplug my feelings and let myself grow cold and unattached to survive.” I also described “taking on other people’s pain.”  But it’s not just the negative or draining emotions that my hyper-empathy exposes me to!  I get to experience the positive ones too!

When someone around me experiences a strong positive emotion—whether they be on screen or in my life—I am affected. If someone is feeling sheer happiness, I soak up the light from that emotion. I can become giddy and joyful when someone near me is in a similar state. I can cry from happiness and flap my hands with excitement when a character I love is happy. I sometimes have to clamp down on my emotions so that I don’t cry happy tears (or otherwise outwardly show just how happy I am) and embarrass myself when riding the waves of someone else’s happiness. The more deeply connected I am to someone, the more affected I am. It’s wonderful to experience such sincere happiness when others are happy.

  • I connect deeply with characters in media and my soul is moved by music

In Empathy (Part 2), I wrote about the negative ways that media can affect me and that “[d]isconnecting from or not engaging with certain types of media has been essential to my survival as a hyper-empathetic person.” But just as I am positively affected by real-world emotions, I am also affected by positive emotions in media.

I sometimes connect with characters in books, TV, movies, and games so strongly that it feels like I have lived their lives. I hope some people reading experience what I’m talking about and can relate. It can take me days to disconnect myself from a good book and it leaves me with more insight and understanding about other peoples’ lives and experiences. It’s an enormous gift to be able to carry over what I learn in books into reality and further empathize with others.

The emotion in music often moves me to tears and fills me with such a deep peace and tranquility that I can physically feel something in my chest fill with happiness. Sad music can unplug a deep sadness within me so that I can begin addressing it; joyful music can alter my state of mind and leave me feeling energized and full of possibility. Music moves me in ways that I can’t even really describe fully in words.

  • I’m great with kids

I started babysitting around age 12 and loved it straight away. From there I became a part-time preschool gymnastics teacher, then a counselor’s assistant at a camp, an assistant teacher, and finally an English and reading tutor. I love being around kids and young adults, and I think one reason I’m so suited toward childcare and teaching is my ability to empathize.

I told myself when I was young that I would try my best to never forget what it felt like to be a child:  the changes, the anxieties, the frustration, the lack of control… and for the most part, I feel that I’ve stayed true to that promise. I can empathize with kids and speak with them from a place of equality whenever possible. Showing true caring for a child means that I’m often let inside their worlds to see the joys, the anxieties, the excitement, and the stresses…and I cherish that gift!

  • I’m a good partner

My ability to empathize deeply makes me a patient and loving partner. When my husband is happy, my mood is positively affected! When he’s unhappy, I can empathize deeply with how he is feeling and come up with useful ways to help and support him.

  • I am a good listener and ally to my friends and family

As I mentioned in previous posts, my ability to hyper-empathize means that friends and family often confide in me. While this can be tiring, it’s also a gift that I truly cherish. I experience great joy knowing that my loved ones feel they can trust me to listen to things that are going on in their lives.

  • I can empathize with strangers

When I was 7 or 8, I heard about a flood that happened in a different state in the US. There was one church that was severely affected so much so that members could no longer enter the building, much less worship there. I had never been there, never met anyone in the congregation, nor met anyone affected by flooding, but I felt such grief that I was moved to do something. I wrote them a letter and (with my parents’ help and permission), donated my entire allowance savings to their rebuilding efforts.

Around the same age, I decided that I would foster or adopt a child someday. Hearing about kids in the system broke my heart and I was adamant that I would someday provide a loving home to a child in need. (Someday, I hope this will be a reality!)

My hyper-empathy enables me to relate to and feel for strangers—people I have never, and may never meet. It makes me a compassionate, caring, and deeply sincere person, and I cherish this ability.


So there you have it:  some of the many positive ways that being hyper-empathetic can actually be a wonderful thing and something that heavily influences the way I view and interact with the world.

[image description: Trillium flowers, white flowers with three petals and three stamens. There is one pale pink trillium at the center of the photo.]

18: Empathy (Part 2)

Hyper-Empathy and My Media Choices

I began writing about my experiences as a hyper-empathetic Autistic person in 17: Empathy (Part 1) and quickly realized that I had too much to talk about in just one post.  Today will continue my look at empathy–this time through the lens of my media consumption.

As I mentioned briefly in Part 1, I struggled a lot when watching TV or movies as a child until I realized that I was having extreme issues over-empathizing with characters or people on screen. If I’m being honest with myself I sometimes still struggle hugely with this, but I’ve learned to be much more selective with what I watch.

One clear example of this is the show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” I know many of my readers aren’t from the US, so I’ll explain. On this show, viewers watch home videos sent in by other viewers and (hypothetically) laugh until they cry. My family used to watch the show pretty regularly. Some of the videos are adorable, others are sweet, and some are funny. But I realized after a while that I was really tense while watching and noticed I was most upset when certain kinds of videos came on. There are a good number of videos sent in of people slipping, falling, crashing, or otherwise hurting themselves on camera. I hate those!

I understand logically that probably no one was actually seriously hurt in these videos. I realize that people probably wouldn’t have sent them in if they had! I get that the person in question may even have found it funny themselves. But it doesn’t really matter. For me, there’s truly never been anything funny about a person in that kind of situation—even if they’re perfectly fine. The “funny” videos where someone dropped a birthday cake or scared their child while wearing a mask aren’t any better for me. I empathize too much and feel sad and guilty about the dropped cake or upset and betrayed by the parent who frightened the kid.

There are certain storylines in other shows and movies that I usually don’t enjoy watching either. One great example is the infuriating “barter” episode. The one where a character runs around for the entire episode trying desperately to reach some goal only to fall continually just short of it. Where a character has a priceless object —let’s say, a vase— that they want to trade for a famous baseball card while at a flea market. Unfortunately the baseball card collector has her fair share of vases at home and refuses…but mentions she would just love that shiny red action figure at the table next door. The main character rushes to the action figure collector who tells them they aren’t interested but really wants the antique music box sold by their competitor… The story goes on until our hero has traded their vase for a candelabra for a chess set for a Pac-man lunch box for a whole host of things… all until they get that shiny red action figure and go to the baseball card vendor, only to find that she just sold it. You know–the really, really frustrating and infuriating episode trope. That’s another example of something that’s meant to be entertaining but makes me incredibly anxious and upset.

I could go on and on with media:  books, news, video games, movies, TV, music, etc. I have to be very careful about what media I consume for many reasons, but empathy is one major one. Watching the news has almost always caused me extreme anxiety or even panic attacks. Certain songs can send me quickly into a spiral of sadness and anxiety. Books can pull me into their pages and make me over-relate with characters who exist only in the ink on a page. Horror and gore are things I cannot stand, even a little. Disconnecting from or not engaging with certain types of media has been essential to my survival as a hyper-empathetic person.

Over time I’ve gotten better at both selecting media and at recognizing when I’m over-empathizing. These are some things that help:

  • I don’t usually watch reality TV (well, that’s not just due to empathy…).
  • I avoid depressing or distressing movies or shows.
  • I mostly avoid going to the cinema (big screen=big impact, plus no pausing).
  • I’m very selective when keeping up with the news.
  • I remind myself during difficult scenes that actors aren’t really in the situations they act in.
  • I mute dramatic music when I notice it affecting me in a scene.
  • I do something else while I watch to ground myself in reality and disconnect more from onscreen emotions.

I’ve found that a healthy mix of avoidance and coping mechanisms means I can enjoy more media. I still tend to watch mostly children’s shows, cartoons and anime, and fantasy/scifi movies and TV though. The rest just don’t usually interest me and these genres pose less of a potential threat to my mental and emotional health.


So there you have it! This is another post that makes me feel vulnerable and I’m still processing why that is. Maybe because I’m tackling a stereotype that is still so widely believed. Maybe because I’m afraid people will see my sensitivity and empathy as weird or signs of weakness. Maybe because I’m afraid people will discredit and invalidate my experiences. I’m not really sure yet, but I also think it’s important for me to be honest and share true insight into the way I experience the world.

The next time I post about empathy, I want to focus more on the positive aspects of being hyper-empathetic!

Click here to read 20: Empathy (Part 3) The Good!

 

[image description: A pink and green succulent with ragged thorns around the edges. The center is textured with white flowers that sit partially in a pool of water.]