This post was inspired by something someone wrote on a social networking site. They explained how being an empathic person did not mean they were necessarily nicer people. For them, empathy was a source of data about the world around them. I disagreed.
I think it’s important to make a distinction between high emotional reactivity, rejection sensitivity, social intelligence and empathy. Many of the people I meet who say they are empaths or HSP seem to be remarkably bad at sensing how I feel. It seems they are mostly very highly emotionally reactive, and they end up projecting their high emotion on me, thinking that what they are feeling must be what I am feeling. They come across as very un-empathic, insensitive and closed off from the world around them. It’s all about them, their feels and it’s almost as if I don’t exist – all while they keep repeating how in tune they are with others.
High emotional reactivity is a real thing, and could be correlated with high general sensitivity. I’ve noticed how my own emotional reactivity varies, depending on how well I am doing. I remember when I was really tired and kind of worn down from some stuff that was going on, and there was a video of a girl in Syria who cried she didn’t deserve anything that was happening to her. It hit me like a fucking brick. When I am doing well, it’s as if my emotional ‘padding’ is better and I can absord the emotional impact of witnessing emotion in others. When I already used up much of that reserve for my own stuff, the pain of others causes more raw responses in me. It’s when people say they can sense tension in the air when they enter a room, and they have a hard time enduring it.
Emotional reactivity is all about our own responses, our own feelings about what we perceive in the world around us. People who are generally high in emotional reactivity can get a bit caught up in their feels about the feels they feel about the feels they feel exist in others. They end up really far removed from the experiences and reality of others, so deep in their ‘feel festival’ that any chance of empathy is out the window.
People with high emotional reactivity are peaks of ‘being’. They have passionate emotions that sweep over them like a strong wave. They love like an avalanche, their loyalty is unmeasurable. They go deep into the abyss and bring up these wonders of intensity and happiness and pain and craving. When I’m with them and I am present with my own pain, they might crumble, not because they are empathic and sense I am crumbling, but because their mirror neurons work normally but they crumble under the pain they feel from me. I’m okay with my pain. But in them, everything is echo’d and mirrored. And they tell me, tears in their eyes “I can sense you’re dying inside” and I’m like “bitch don’t even fucking even”.
Dealing with someone with high emotional reactivity can be lonely.
Rejection sensitivity is not the same as emotional reactivity. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally feel a whole lot about the people I don’t like. It’s just, you know, they’re people I don’t like and my emotional landscape is filled with other stuff. But people who call themselves empaths sometimes describe how difficult it is for them to be around people who don’t like them, because they strongly feel how that other person feels, and they internalise is, causing them to dislike themselves. But I don’t think this is empathy. What they describe is not just feeling what the other person is feeling (as in, they don’t like you), what they describe is how they’re making it personal. They don’t like me, so I must not be likeable.
There’s nothing wrong with personalising rejection, I think we all experience this. I mean, I know for a fact I feel pain when people reject me. It’s one of the most painful feelings in the world. Internalising this isn’t empathy, because empathy is about the other person. Internalising their rejection is about us, about ourselves. It’s about not being liked, which is a small thing to them but huge to us, and about our own response to that.
I do better at dealing with rejection and people not liking me when I am doing well, when I am in touch with myself and most importantly, when my empathy is high.
I deal better with people not liking me when my empathy is high.
I work as a psychologist, a therapist. Part of my job is understanding and feeling into what my client is experiencing, but specifically, what they are experiencing from their frame of reference. It’s about placing myself in their shoes, looking at things from their perspective. I don’t think of myself as a necessarily empathic person. I consider empathy a skill, and I work at strengthening it every day. Empathy is not about me, how I feel or my emotions. Empathy is placing myself in their shoes, looking at things from their perspective. It’s about broadening my perspective and including theirs.
I like the idea of holding space. I like the idea of being space for them, being an arena for the other where they can kind of place it all and look at it, without me adding all of my stuff. Empathy is about them.
When I am high in empathy I can understand why some people don’t like me. I can see things from their perspective, and I don’t bring myself into it. I can see how I hurt them without immediately considering what that says about me or how I feel about me. Empathy is not about my ego or about my needs. From empathy, compassion follows. It makes us a better, nicer person.
And then there is social intelligence.
That’s the thing people on the autism spectrum experience trouble with. People with autism can be plenty emotionally reactive, having allll them feels. And they can be sensitive to rejection, just like anyone else. People with autism can be amazingly empathic. But social rules and cues don’t seem so obvious to them.
They seem obvious to psychopaths. Psychopaths lack emotional reactivity or empathy, but they know how this shit works.
All of these things can exist independent from each other.
Emotional Reactivity and Empathy
I have this feeling that emotional reactivity and empathy might be a bit negatively correlated. When you’re all up in your feels about the feels you feel about how they might feel… that’s not about them. That’s not being sensitive to how the other person is feeling. I’m amazed how people who call themselves empaths are so often wrong about the feelings of others. They often seem to project what’s inside of them.
Empathy is about allowing the other person to be everything they are, and being curious about it. Tapping into it. Trying to place yourself in their shoes. When they don’t like you, that’s part of their experience and that’s that. They have their whole landscape of consciousness, such an amazing spectrum of experience, and their feels about you is so marginal…
I’ve found people low on emotional reactivity to be generally more empathic, because they focus on the other. They don’t assume to know how the other feels because they have all these feels. Instead, they are interested to know. There is room for me, because they are not full of their emotions. They hold space. Empty space, inviting space, not just triggered responding space that is all over itself.
I like my people intense. I like avalanches. I love their entire universes and hope to invite them in, so I can experience it with them. I care about my own emotional experience and I think it’s important to delve into it, embrace it, and feel free to share it with others. I think that raw vulnerability is a part of real intimacy, connecting with others. We are more than arena’s for others, we are more than our ability to place ourselves in another’s shoes. We have our own shoes, our own perspective, our own experience to fill.
But I like having the occasional empath around. They are nicer, kinder people.