If you are like me, you’ve taken dozens of personality tests, be they for work, general interest or even those “super scientific” ones you find on social media – for some reason, I am kind of curious about which Real Housewife I am. With the legitimate ones like the True Colors test, StrengthsFinders or Myers-Briggs, my results always indicate that I am empathetic. Not just sympathetic, but empathetic. While I go back and forth on how I feel about personality tests, I can’t deny that this is spot on. I have known for as long as I can remember that empathy is my superpower. I always try to understand where people are coming from and how they may have gotten to that point. True empathy is difficult and in many ways unattainable, but I try to put myself in other people’s proverbial shoes, to think about how they might feel and how I would feel in their position. This has always come naturally to me and has served me well. This, along with my quiet, observatory demeanor means that I can often read the pulse of a room when others can’t, that I can talk with my students and genuinely hear them and that I can generally see multiple sides of an argument – one of many reasons I will never be a politician.
Yet, something has happened. What I once saw as a strength has of late caused me a great deal of consternation and heartache. My natural inclination to empathize has become my kryptonite. What happened, you ask? Well, I can pinpoint exactly when my empathy became too much to bear. It happened on October 6, 2015 – the day my daughter was born. I was admitted to the hospital at 7 a.m., took drugs to induce around 1 p.m. and delivered at 11:22 p.m. that night. To pass the time before the heavy labor started, I turned on the TV and quickly found Law and Order SVU. I have always loved this show – great acting, compelling stories and you can almost always find an episode, no matter the time of day. It also seemed appropriate, as I had watched SVU almost every night of the prior three months while struggling with pregnancy insomnia (like I said, it is almost always on).
But that day my daughter was born was the last time I ever watched SVU. I haven’t been able to watch the show since. I even cringe when I pass it (and really any of the Law and Order shows) while changing channels. It’s not that I associate it with the difficulties of childbirth or anything like that; it is because of the heightened empathy that nearly has me curled up in a ball thinking about the storylines addressed on the show. Where I could disassociate to some degree before, after having a child of my own I simply can’t… I just can’t.
And it isn’t just SVU. Not that I have a lot of time these days to watch TV, but I can no longer watch Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones or anything else that includes stories of mothers separated from their children, let alone any type of death – be it human, animal or mythical creature. I hide social media posts, avoid watching commercials and have to prepare myself mentally to read the news – something I do continue to do because it’s important, but it takes a toll. And my increased empathy hasn’t just impacted my television viewing habits. While I was always someone that donated to good causes, in the last year and a half I have given to over a dozen gofundme pages of people I don’t know, and have almost taken in six dogs who needed emergency placement (thankfully, others rescued these poor pets).
Cutting back on some of my TV watching and giving to people and pets in need isn’t a bad thing, of course, but the truth is, I often feel crushed by the weight of my empathy. And sometimes I can’t escape it. This is particularly tough considering that I teach courses focused on international terrorism, the refugee crisis and human trafficking. While these are always difficult topics, now certain lectures can leave me depressed and lethargic for hours, if not days.
So here I am, with my daughter soon to be two years old, still overwhelmed by this heightened empathy. And I find myself at a loss for a solution. On the one hand, having a child has given me greater insights into the lives of my students, and particularly the concerns of their parents. It has expanded my range of emotion and perspective. And this is a blessing. Yet I haven’t quite figured out how to manage these heightened feelings or how to harness them.
Surely, I am not alone here. I know that many others have, at one time or another, had their positive characteristics become negative – their superpowers become kryptonite. What have your experiences been and how did you manage?