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Mental Health

I Can’t Always Turn Off My Empathy and It’s Tiring

I’ve always felt as though I’m a fairly empathetic person. It’s a trait that I’ve either inherited or picked up from being around my mom. Her ability to sense the feelings of those around her has always been part of her character, just as it is now part of mine. I would generally view this as a good thing. If I were to sit in the same room as another person, it isn’t uncommon for me to almost feel exactly what they are feeling. When described like this, it sounds a bit like a cool but everyday superpower.

However, unlike flying, invisibility or having bulletproof skin, the ability to sense and understand (to a certain extent) the feelings of those around you can’t just be turned off. Of course, this metaphor assumes that sudden hovering and turning invisible is a choice and that the bulletproof skin wouldn’t also include other unpleasant side effects like having pores with the texture of an armored vehicle. Regardless, empathizing with those around me has always been a favored trait of mine, but I also can’t say that it doesn’t come without its disadvantages. 

Woman staring at phone at night
Photo by mikoto.raw from Pexels

As mentioned, I generally have a pretty good handle on what those around me are feeling. While it makes understanding them as people and why they may act the way they do much easier, this empathy is usually paired with an excessive amount of caring as to how that feeling pans out.

If they happen to be in a negative mood, this irritating and insistent itch to check in with that person or try and fix their problem will appear and refuse to leave until they feel better or I am not longer in their presence. Unfortunately, moods and emotions are often too complicated to simply be “fixed,” and this has resulted in some tension when I try. It’s okay to feel bad, and it’s okay to want help or to be the one helping improve this. What’s not okay is me disliking my heightened awareness of that other person and giving in to the pressure to try and force them out of it. 

Two women sit at a table and talk
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I was speaking with a friend of mine recently who is also pretty empathetic. We started discussing this shared trait, and when I complained about being unable to “shut it off,” they became very confused. Apparently, not all empathy equates to feeling obligated to fix the feelings of those around you. I’ve never fully understood how to sit by someone I know who’s in pain, and instead of acknowledging it as something they would ask for help with if they felt the need, I feel a constant gnaw to change their emotional state.

Some may not even notice there’s an issue in the first place, and while I want to be aware of the wellbeing of my friends and family, this also sounds like a very relaxed way of existing. Ignorance is said to be bliss, and occasionally, I really want some of that; I’m still not fully sure if my need to help is more based on them simply feeling better for their own sake or just because my brain no longer wants to deal with the fact that they’re upset.

Their emotional strain should be the focus, but by existing nearby, I absorb those feelings like a tired, psychological sponge. Obviously, this is by no means their fault, but it is an interesting and extremely annoying aspect of myself that I’ve become more self-aware of as I’ve grown up and been around more people with a wide variety of complex feelings. 

smiley face balloons on carpet
Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels / Original Illustration by Her Campus Media

According to Emmett Fitzgerald in the “Contemplative-Based Resilience Project, empathy is something “you can run out of. As a normal physiological response, you cannot give yourself again and again without replenishing.” Apparently, hitting the limits of your empathy without getting the appropriate time to recharge can actually result in feeling less from those around you. Jessica Dolce, a self-help specialist and professor at UFL, claims emotional overexposure causes desensitization, minimizing the pain of others in the hopes that it will no longer cause you personal distress.

It can turn from constantly feeling the need to help and change to no longer listening to changing the subject. Wishing to cause a positive difference transforms into indifference, an apathetic response created solely as a way of preserving your own feelings. As dramatic as all of this sounds, it simply means that as much as being empathetic can be much like a superpower when it comes to understanding and interacting with those around you, it is also the emotionally draining kryptonite of any given situation (yes, I am still very much focused on comparing myself to superman, bulletproof skin included).

Pacing myself and realizing that what others feel is both their business and responsibility (as much as I am willing to help) has been a personal goal over the past few months. Thus far, although I haven’t yet been able to attain superman or spiderman levels of power, I would also say that it’s been good for me in the long run and if you struggle with the same issue, consider taking a step back to give yourself and others some emotional space. 

Emma Ostenfeld is currently a Junior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying psychology. She is interested in creative (or any other form) of writing and has joined Her Campus in order to improve her skills and experience in this field. Originally from NOVA, she loves everything about living in Richmond Except that she had to leave her three cats at home and misses them dearly. She loves her friends but is enough of an introvert that alone time is a necessity for the sake of her mental health and the sanity of those around her. She is an extreme foodie and always appreciates any restaurant recommendations.
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