Tag Archives: relationships

Empathy and Emotional Reactivity

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.

Emotional Reactivity

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

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.

Empathy

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.

Social Intelligence

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.

If Romances Movies Were Feminist

Abusive relationships are romanticised and even fetishised in popular movies about love. If a man really loves you he’ll disrupt your life, cross clearly stated boundaries, stalk you, coerce you, and argue that he’s helpless in doing so because his overwhelming love for you just forces him to do all these things. He just loves you so much, so that must mean it is true love. Parents let their teenage children watch Twilight as if there’s nothing wrong with modelling such destructive and unhealthy relationships in movies. We get a warning if there’s any boobage to be seen, warningbut I wish there more awareness of the dangers of romanticising unhealthy ‘love’. How awesome would it be if Twilight started like this:

WARNING: The following show features abusive behaviour performed either by professionals or under the supervision of professionals, Accordingly MTV and the producers must insist that no one attempt to recreate of re-enact any activity performed on this show.

Remember the “tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?” lyric in Grease? It’s a classic, obviously. But even in more modern movies, some really creepy, rapey, stalky stuff comes out. Jealousy is framed as romance, possessiveness is framed as love, stalking is framed as caring. And yeah, movies about healthy everyday relationships would be boring, but the scary part is that all this abuse is never used as ‘bad stuff’. If a man hits a woman it’s “oh my heavens look what horrible things she’s going through” but if he watches her sleep… for months.. without her knowing.. that’s supposed to not freak us out?

Violent Agreement

When Robin and I were in Australia I met up with this great guy that I just couldn’t stop agreeing with. Ever have those conversations where half of the time you’re going “exactly!”? Yeah, it was like that. He called it violently agreeing and, obviously, I couldn’t agree more.

I get that when I watch Esther Perel and Dan Savage. Violent agreement.

Sometimes I just get so happy knowing the world is inhabited by numerous great people who are doing and saying amazing things, and although I know I won’t get to meet most of them, it just feels so rich. I could go anywhere and there’s people there, amazing people, everywhere. Connections to be made, things to be learned, experiences to be shared, violent agreements to be had. It’s like knowing your fridge is stocked when you’re not hungry. My friends are amazing and so many other people are too. Violently loving <3.

Cheating Is Bad, Ok?


Dan Savage probably became my hero when he got the president of the United States to tell gay kids that things get better. I mean honestly the whole It Gets Better project was amazing, but that was a whole other kind of amazing. We’re certainly not where we have to be regarding LGBTQ rights, but that was such a powerful thing to happen.

I agree with Dan Savage a lot. Like, a lot.

(Fuck first! GGG!)

But not always.

It took me a little while to understand his position on cheating. I tend to be a bit too black-and-white when it comes to morality, and since lying and deception fall in my ‘bad’ category I’m a little bit unforgiving when it comes to cheating. I think consent is very important in intimate relationships, and having sex with other people without your partner knowing is just so disrespectful. Either let them know you intend to be non-monogamous, allowing them to break up with you if non-monogamy is not for them, or don’t sleep around. I really don’t think lying so you get to keep your relationship is an acceptable thing to do.

But Dan Savage has argued that sometimes, in some situations, cheating might be the lesser of two evils. If you and your partner are financially dependent on each other, or your partner is very ill and breaking up with them would mean they lose health insurance or housing, if there are extreme circumstances, sometimes maybe you need to do what you need to do to stay sane. I guess. I can see that sometimes cheating might be the best option in a collection of sucky options, so it’d still suck, but other options would suck more. I suppose. I’ve become a little bit more open-minded about that, sometimes the world is just not fair and there are no right choices.

And I also agree that, as a society, we’ve placed too much importance on sexual monogamy. Given the fact that a very, very large group of people cheat sometime in their life, perhaps we should take a bit more of a pragmatic attitude towards monogamy. It seems we’re not really good at it, generally. Many of us try, because we desire a monogamous relationship, but many of us fail. Dan Savage thinks we should look at monogamy the way we look at sobriety – it’s hard, sometimes you fall off the wagon, you get back on the wagon. If you only fall off once or twice in you life, you’re good at monogamy, not bad at it.

I guess.

unscrewpooch

I need this on my wall. So Much.

I don’t know. I’m not monogamous myself, but if I found out my partner had lied to me about such an intimate, personal aspect of our life, I would be devastated. Not because I care much about who he has sex with, but because honesty and respect are fundamental to our relationship. By violating that he would violate something that our whole relationship is based on, it would violate my trust.

When weighing different options, we should take the harm cheating causes into account. People who have been cheated on often feel traumatised, not because they feel sex is so important, but because their trust has been broken and one of the closest relationships in their life was affected. Our connections to others are so important, our attachments so central to our well-being, harming that harms a person in their core.

Losing a loving relationship hurts too, obviously. Being open about wanting to have sex with other people and finding out your partner does not want to be with you if that’s what you’re going to do, that hurts. But the harm you cause when you cheat and they find out is huge. We should not be too nonchalant about cheating in situations where the other options (not cheating, or being honest about wanting sex with others) are actual possible options.

So in this case? I completely disagree with San Savage. Instead, bring the subject up with your husband. Treat him like an adult you can talk to, an adult you can trust, an adult who has the right to make his own decisions about his life. Tell him “hey remember that fetish I have? I’d like to explore that, how do you feel about that?”. And he’ll tell you if he wants to know about it, if he’s okay with it, you can discuss a Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell agreement, or perhaps he’d like to set some boundaries on sexual acts. And if he simply rejects the whole idea and tells you no, well, then you’ll have to decide if cheating is the best of all options. But I think we owe it to each other to respect the trusting, loving relationships we have, and respect each other as adult human beings who get to decide, given all the facts, if they want to be in a relationship with you. Deceiving others into staying is not okay…

A Lovely Triad

TRIADRemember when Dan Savage pissed off the entire poly community by saying he had never been to a poly 3-year anniversary? There’s lots I would like to say about that, including how polyamory actually accommodates relationships of different durations and how that is a good thing, but I just wanted to share with you the following video by a triad couple I’ve known for.. what, I think about 5 years now. They were together before I met them. They recently got engaged and I think it’s a tragedy they cannot marry yet. I love the song, their commitment to each other and how they are trying to change the world for the better simply by visibly being who they are. In love :).

From the web

scienceinprogressAlmost a year ago a fantastic guest column was posted on the Honest Courtesan. I have a passion for research and science, and it frustrates me to see how terrible research on sex work usually is. Kevin Wilson explains not only what is wrong with studies on sex work, but also why we can be optimistic about the future of this field. Which gave me a happy.

“It’s probably fair to say that, historically, the sex workers’ rights movement and the academic study of the industry haven’t had a good relationship; much of the time the field has seemed to be implicitly working for the other team.  Nevertheless, as the objectivity and quality of research improves, and as we learn more about the industry as a whole, fabricating “facts” about sex work becomes less and less effective a tool for pushing dangerous, wrong-headed policies.  As was the case when Canada’s sex work laws were tested in the Supreme Court earlier this year, the ability to decisively cut-down prohibitionist myths in real-time and in front of a panel of judges can be a powerful tool in fighting for sex workers’ rights.”


A Dutch politician thinks it’s wrong to demand Morocco ends the prosecution of homosexuality, because that would be the same as asking the Netherlands to allow child rape.  Thankfully, he resigned. What an idiot.

So, to end on a more positive note, I present to you the most romantic song ever. Aww!

And if I may conjecture a further objection, love is nothing to do with destined perfection
The connection is strengthened, the affection simply grows over time [..]
And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience
And the synergy of a kind of symbiotic empathy or… something