The Exhaustion of Empathy

Empathy can be exhausting.

Yeah, I know. I’m the asshole. I revel in it. It used to be that I could verbally tear into anyone without remorse on little or no notice. I still can, and occasionally enjoy doing so, but those times are few and far between.

Dealing with other people’s emotions can be harrowing at times. I’m stubborn, but every few years, my mental health and interpersonal relationships suffer and I need a day. I put it off for far too long, and the effects are apparent.

When it comes to family and friends, I’m extremely sensitive to their needs, moods, and health states. It’s not some mystical mumbo jumbo, but the result of the combination of my DNA, my upbringing, and a youth spent as a people-watching wallflower.

I pay attention. Some say too much attention. Sometimes I agree with “some”. Today is one of those days.

I pick up on the smallest differences in demeanor, tones of voice, facial expressions, body language, etc. of the people I care about, and I am deeply affected by them. I inadvertently mirror and amplify the signals I am receiving from those around me, and, ultimately, the person I am mirroring ends up believing that I am just in a really sad, needy, clingy, angry or whatever negative mood.

This is a huge misunderstanding on their part (and it was only about 5 or 6 years ago that I figured out what was really happening).

My baseline mood, barring some serious sleep deprivation, specific event, etc. is pretty much the same every day…until I interact with someone I love and/or remotely care about.

From 2010 to 2014, I worked in a sleep lab that was 2 beds. That meant that I was working 12 hours a night, alone. The lab I worked at was also an hour away from home, so that meant that, for 14+ hours per day, I was alone, with little to no human interaction, other than with my patients (with whom direct interaction is limited, as the majority of their time is spent sleeping).

In this situation, my mood was totally my own. Given that I worked 2 jobs (the second of which was even further away), this was my norm for the time I worked there. My moods were almost totally my own, which meant that I was generally in the aforementioned baseline mood, with little variation.

In 2014, I lost that job, and started working for a larger sleep center about 25 minutes from home. In 2015, I added a second job about 35-40 minutes from home. It was also for center that was larger than the original lab.

Both of these positions involved interacting with other employees just about every night. As I reunited with former coworkers that I had friendships with and befriended new faces, I started noticing changes in my emotional states.

I started noticing that I was taking on the moods of my coworkers, but, in most cases, more intensely. If a coworker came in upset about something, it wasn’t long before I was ranting more loudly than they were.

“Damn, dude. It’s not all that.” is a common comment from one particularly animated and easily-irritated coworker.

One day, I noticed when this was happening.

I generally show up about a half hour or so before the official start of my shift in order to get paperwork together, check patient assignments/special needs, etc. For this 30 minutes each day, I was generally myself.

That changed when any other coworker that I generally got along with or had bonded with came in. If they were upbeat, I started to mirror that. If they were down, my mood would start to take on similar qualities, despite not having any tangible reason for doing so.

If a coworker that I didn’t particular like or generally give a shit about, their mood didn’t affect me.

Figuring this out prompted me to, as I am wont to do, pay attention to my moods around other people outside of work. What I found was interesting, to say the least.

I have been a parent for 22 years. Kids have wild mood swings, and I seem to have put some sort of, for lack of a better term, “protective wall” between my own moods and those of my kids, without losing my ability to recognize and offer comfort and compassion, or otherwise properly respond to their emotional states.

To strangers, unless they are emoting intensely, I get an impression of what they are feeling, but I don’t take on any of their emotional characteristics. If said intensity is present, I will start to feel similarly, but to a much-diminished degree.

I have a very sharp initial-reaction to people I am introduced to. I can’t explain it other than to say that I find myself instantly accepting or instantly distancing myself from most people I meet. These initial gut feelings have a tendency to be really accurate, and I tend to trust them. Unfortunately, this instinctive reaction has been wrong from time to time, and my resulting hesitance has led to me holding good people at arm’s length when I shouldn’t have, possibly damaging what could be good friendships before they ever begin.

With family that I have or had a strong bond with, I feel their moods intensely, even if it has been years since our last contact. For example, I have a stepbrother who I was very close with when we were kids. His interests went a long way toward pointing me in the direction that led me to my own.

We rarely speak. We never had any sort of falling out, but we have led very different lives, and we are both apt to get engrossed in our own lives, to the exclusion of all else. I think about him often, but I am not interested in intruding in his life, and he isn’t, apparently, interested in intruding upon mine.

Through all this, every time we have a chance encounter, it’s like I can read his mind. “Oh, shit. He must think I hate him. I meant to send him an invite to my wedding. How did he slip my mind? I’m an asshole”. Nah, brother, you just have your own thing going on. I get it.

With friends, I feel it all. What they are feeling, I feel. I don’t have to be in the same room, or even the same state, although face to face, the mirroring is much more intense, and depending upon how close we are, if I stay in contact long enough, I feel exactly as they do. In the presence of multiple close friends whose moods are in conflict with one another, I can get overwhelmed and have to physically remove myself from the situation for mental/emotional breaks. For this reason, I tend to keep my close friendships separate from one another, even if I think the friends would get along well with one another.

When I am single and dating, my empathy can be a blessing and a curse rolled into one. On one hand, it helps me to navigate conversations more adeptly than I would normally be able to. My social skills aren’t the best in the world (an overall effect of that same empathy is that I withdraw from social interaction–which is in direct conflict with my natural low-key extroversion), so being able to sense and address the emotional needs of someone I am dating is very helpful.

On the other hand, I tend to over-analyze and pick apart every single interaction when dating. Having had many conversations about this with people over the years, this seems to be fairly normal, but the empathy seems to amp it up a notch, causing it to be an occasional hindrance. Add to that the mixed emotions that accompany dating, and for empathic people, it can become downright crippling at times. Honestly, I think that the only reason I have ever had any success at dating at all is that I am more stubborn than I have any right to be.

Now we come to the spouse situation.

If I have made it past the perils of dating, fallen in love, and a domestic arrangement has come into being, things take a decidedly more intense aspect.

Relationships present their own unique versions of all of the above problems.

All of the above empathic traits are in play, at all times, even when I don’t necessarily want them to be. “Protective walls” aren’t happening. There is no distancing (from my perspective) that occurs unless the relationship is crumbling (at this point in such a relationship, it’s all over but the shouting, if I’m being honest, and this is usually a result of denial on my part).

What causes me problems, empathically speaking, is that all the above are ratcheted up. If my partner is in a good mood, my mood is elevated above hers. If she is in the basement, mine is digging 10 feet deeper. When I fall in love, it’s “next level shit”. I pour everything I have into it, and I have no regrets about being that way. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way about it, and I have had people walk away or relationships turn sour due to my being too “much”.

This “amplified mirroring” that I do has smaller, but ultimately more destructive effects as well.

If my partner is slightly annoyed (even if they don’t consciously recognize it yet), I pick up on it immediately, and then, in the process of trying to not annoy them, I end up becoming more annoying…and boom…spiral. The same happens with other moods, but you get the point.

Every interaction I have with someone I care about is a series of conscious decisions that I have to make. I don’t have the option to “wing it”. I also have to be careful of the emotions that I bring out in others. If I am not cautious enough when interacting with a loved one, even when angry, the emotional consequences are too much to risk by acting in a flippant manner like I have seen so many others do.

None of this should be construed as me whining or somehow claiming some esoteric/new agey superpower. It’s just a statement of fact. I abhor the term “empath” because of the context in which it has been used for decades, but I have not been able to find anything else to adequately describe what this is.

All this adds up to mean that I have to sometimes “check out” or take breaks. I hope that the people who I love and care about understand. I truly do love you all.

Likely more than I can make anyone understand.


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