The Problem with Empathy

 |  Personal

Today’s post was going to be a review of the pizza place that Gaz and I went to on Friday night, but rather last minute I thought I’d swap it out for something a bit more personal; something that has been bothering me all week.

I’ve talked a little before about some of the side effects of having been in an emotionally abusive relationship, including excess empathy:

As a result of spending a huge part of my life waiting for incidents and accidents I’ve developed a weird sort of hypervigilance. I have empathy up to the eyeballs which allows me to very quickly identify with other people’s range of moods and feel spectacular depths of happiness [..] and, conversely, sadness.

Apparently this is quite normal in those who’ve been through abuse:

It is the act of putting oneself second above others, worrying about the needs and wants of others, and being completely reactionary toward others. What that means is that the person in question becomes hypersensitive to the emotions and emotional states of their abusers, in order to adjust their own behaviors, emotions, and responses accordingly. It is a survival mechanism born out of a moment of great need.

Empathic Perspectives: The Abused Empath

The problem is, while I have started to recognise this in myself and how it applies to relationships, and have been working on toning it down using Gaz’s more reasonable emotional response to situations as a benchmark, I still have issues with “3rd party” situations: things that occur that are outside of my personal “sphere”, and oftentimes completely out of my control.

The heavy social and traditional news media focus on the refugee crisis this week has been hugely difficult for anyone with an ounce of empathy, unsurprisingly. I have found it mentally crippling. I spent a huge portion of the week browsing social media with images disabled in my browser so that I wouldn’t have to see THAT photo again. Because to do so would wipe me out for a couple of hours, alternating between hopeless crying and feelings of utter uselessness and despair.

I have had to switch myself back and forth between retweeting and sharing stories / campaigns to raise awareness (and money) and complete emotional shutdown in a desperate attempt to maintain some level of control and be able to function as an adult (i.e. to work, communicate rationally, etc)

I understand why people are sharing those photos: I get it. I can’t quite decide if I think it’s entirely necessary, but I get it.

The problem with empathy is that in my head (against my better judgement and logical thinking) the world’s problems become my problems. And I realise that sounds ridiculously narcissistic, but trust me, it’s not something I actually want to feel. I don’t mean for this post to sound so “me me me”. I’m not telling you this now because I want pity. I don’t want pity. I definitely don’t need pity. This crisis is clearly not about me.

I’m telling you this because I want people to understand that someone who doesn’t participate in extended campaigning, or doesn’t share those pictures, or doesn’t stick hashtags on pictures of their own kids looking forlorn to exploit people’s emotions (thanks for that) so that they (the viewer) stick another fiver on the pile is not necessarily avoiding it because they don’t care, or lack compassion, or don’t want to help this horrible situation. No, it might actually be quite the opposite.

If you have the means to do so, please consider donating your time, your money, or necessary goods to aid the refugee crisis. The Independent has a good list of ways to help. Don’t tell me what you’ve done though, I don’t need to know just to believe you’re a good person (and neither should anyone else.)

Jem Turner +44(0)7521056376

7 comments so far

  1. Amanda said:

    “I don’t need to know just to believe you’re a good person (and neither should anyone else.)”

    I like that sentiment, a lot. It says a lot about a person and their intentions about how fast they tell you all the good things they’ve done — about why they’ve actually done them.

    And you’re right, there is *so much* out there that it’s hard to not get pulled down into a sea of crushing despair because you’ll never be able to do enough. And that’s okay. It’s not up to you, or me, or any one person, to save the world. Small things do make a difference. and it’s no good to anyone if you wreck your emotional stability trying to do too much.

    • Jem said:

      “It’s not up to you, or me, or any one person, to save the world.”

      That’s the bit I have to keep repeating myself, so that I don’t end up thoroughly depressed trying!

  2. Chantelle said:

    I like this post because it raises a valid point: just because someone seemingly ignores something or doesn’t talk about it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care. That’s fine. Everyone has to do what she can.

    But – I also think it’s important for people to talk about the good things they do. Everyone already talks about all of the silly things they do, the stupid things, where they go, what they buy, etc. so I really hate that people feel pressured to donate anonymously and to keep it hush-hush while others feel free to discuss their latest hauls. That’s just BS and it only works to make those who don’t do things feel better about themselves.

    I don’t care about people’s reasons. If they’re helping, they’re helping, whether they have pure intentions or not… So many charities and causes are so incredibly desperate that they don’t give a fuck if someone is simply helping them to show off (because that’s better than getting nothing). Peer pressure is something charities should be able to exploit too.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t have known or even thought about donating to Cancer Research UK if you hadn’t mentioned it, but because you blogged about it, I did. So I wish more people would talk about what they’re doing because that would encourage others to do it too (for right or wrong reasons).

    • Jem said:

      You raise an interesting point about being open about donations Chantelle and I agree – in that I don’t make an effort to hide my donations and I leave my name if I do a public donation via a charity website – but I think the problem comes when there is this expectation to give and be loud about it, rather than choosing ones own path/charity/voice/etc. I hope that makes sense.

  3. adastra said:

    I think I sometimes have similar experiences with empathy, though perhaps not as extreme as in your case. For me, it’s usually related to animals. For example, whenever I’m at the airport and I see a dog in a travel box, I feel like bursting into tears (though luckily that hasn’t actually happened yet). It’s completely irrational and I’m not really sure where it’s coming from – though I grew up with animals, I haven’t actually lived with animals for the last 12 years…

    As for those images… I would never ever share photos like that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care at all.

  4. Georgie said:

    I find this interesting because I recall reading a news article a couple of years ago that suggested to not read the news. News is often full of stories that can affect us emotionally, and make us feel helpless (because we cannot help the people who are struggling), anxious (because wow I don’t want to go on a plane anymore after that incident) and paranoid (because I could totally have my house broken into and be choked to unconsciousness in the middle of the night). The media is unfortunately full of visuals that make us feel this way, so it was suggested that we probably don’t even get much value from watching the news. Even though we know so-and-so about what is happening in another part of the world, it soon means nothing in a matter of days. My mum always complains about my ‘lack of knowledge of world news’ but I don’t think anyone talks about these disasters on a daily basis.

    I guess that ties into what you say too about how just because we don’t actively share these kinds of things, it doesn’t mean we don’t care. Sometimes being exposed to this information affects us too, even though we want to do everything we can to help. We aren’t heartless people. :)