The Problem with Empathy

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.)