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Backwards empathy is no pity party
Comforting myself as I would comfort others? Radical.
I am an empathic person, which means I feel the emotions of others easily. I’ve done nothing to court this skill. I didn’t even realize it was a “skill”. In fact, for most of my childhood, I thought something was wrong with me.
As I got older, I realized I was taking in more emotional information than most. Although overwhelming at times, it is handy if you want to learn the truth or make connections. I often know the best time to talk, listen, rephrase, or wait, which ups the odds I will be able to offer something helpful.
This skill has gained me a trusted spot in tight places, especially with my loved ones. It takes time to learn the secret language of another being, how to read pain and what is likely to relieve pain. One doesn’t have to be an empath to know this stuff but being one can speed things up.
Last year I experienced my first panic attack. I went to bed with my mind racing, and soon my heart was racing. I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know how it stopped, but I was determined it wouldn’t happen again.
No more being an oversensitive baby. My life was fine. It wasn’t like I was living in a war zone or dying of disease. I needed to snap out of it, be grateful, eat better, and exercise more.
Life got harder, sleep got harder, and my pep talk got harder. I blamed my special skill for my inability to chill. I needed to get tough with my heart, to cut short my emotion, to fence in my empath.
I asked a therapist how to do this.
“You can’t,” she said. “But you can turn the empath on yourself.”
That sounds like a pity party. Pass.
However, when the next Anxiety 500 kicked off at 3 a.m., I was desperate enough to try. It felt unnatural to comfort myself, so I imagined my youngest child. What if I happened to come upon her in this state? What would I say?
Immediately, the right words came to me.
You are safe. This pain is real. Just breathe. I’m not going anywhere. Feel this blanket hugging you, keeping you warm. You are doing so well. When you are ready, let’s get some water. If your brain doesn’t leave you alone, we can watch a show on the couch together. That will give your imagination something else to do. You are brave. You are doing so well.
I never made it to the couch because I fell asleep.
The next morning, I couldn’t stop wondering why it had worked. I have a strong BS meter, especially under duress. If what is said isn’t true, I won’t accept it. But I accepted these words.
Because it wasn’t pity. It was compassion, acknowledging the pain and weathering the fear. When I thought about it, I never solved any of my loved ones’ problems. They always get to the solutions themselves. What I had offered was kindness until the pain passed and clarity returned.
Why wouldn’t that work on me?
No one chooses pain, but you can choose kindness, even for yourself.