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A girl is waiting for the school bus. She’s black, maybe 15-years-old, with her hair pulled into a tight bun. She’s wearing black flats and a yellow sundress that barely touches her knees. She’s holding a textbook and folders close to her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around them. She doesn’t look scared, but uncomfortable, and maybe a little sad. The corner on which she stands is in a city famous for poverty and crime.
It’s autumn already, with temperatures cool enough to make you zip your jacket, so why is she in a sundress? Maybe that’s what was clean or she doesn’t own a jacket. Maybe that’s how she gets attention or she’s desensitized to being harassed. Maybe that’s what her family insists that she wears.
She’s clearly a high school student, so why doesn’t she have a backpack? Maybe the school doesn’t allow them anymore or her family can’t afford one. Maybe hugging books to her chest makes her feel less vulnerable.
I saw this girl for six seconds as the bus drove past her. I haven’t seen her since, nor have I had any interactions with her. Yet, I created an entire life story for her. The oldest child in the family, she’s responsible enough to finish her homework but young enough to feel defeated after an argument with her mother before she left the house this morning.
She’s out of sight, but for a moment I feel her sadness and her defeat. Just for a moment, I am with her.
For people who experience unusual levels of empathy, that can happen a dozen times every day. While others may think it’s a gift, it’s utterly exhausting. Empathy is one of the most difficult feelings to experience intensely.
But you should.
What It Does (And Should) Mean to Empathize
When we give the most basic definitions, we tell children (and college freshmen) that sympathy is when you feel bad for someone although you’ve never experienced that pain, and empathy is feeling bad for someone because you can personally relate to what they’re going through. For the most part, those definitions hold true and when someone tells you they had a rough day, you might reply “I can empathize” and then launch into your own story.
But empathy shouldn’t be an easy segue or conversational lubricant. It should be the emotion that naturally arrives when you feel for someone, want to understand their point of view, and turn off your self-centered mind to focus on someone else.
For regular people, empathy often requires listening, and thus silence. It’s a temporary state of being during which you acknowledge the other person’s feelings, attempt to comfort them, and offer support.
For the hyper-empathetic, it is a pain in your gut, a sincere agony in the core of your being.
Where to Find the Hyper-Empathetic
Often you’ll find the hyper-empathetic (also referred to as "empath"), compassionate, understanding souls in schools and nonprofits. It is the desire to improve the lives of others, to diminish suffering, that draws people to these professions.
Yet, teaching a child whose parents refuse to acknowledge a learning disorder is distressing. and physically removing a child from the arms of a neglectful mother is gut-wrenching. His screams echo in your brain; her cries pierce your heart. Those sounds will infect your dreams and break you.
Nevertheless, if you need comfort and understanding, visit your friend who practices compassion for a living. They have the power to soothe.
There’s a debate about whether hate is easier to feel than love. Apathy is certainly easier than empathy. It is our immediate reaction to judge someone who snaps at the store clerk or nearly causes a wreck on the interstate, and it’s true that sometimes these really are just rude, hateful people. They exist and they make the rest of our lives worse.
But with the exception of the random jerk, these people are no different from their calmer counterparts. Maybe they’ve had a tough day and were scolded by their boss. Maybe they’ve had a tough year and recently lost their job or are grieving the death of a close friend. Maybe they’ve had a hard life, facing never-ending obstacles and fighting a daily battle to tread water.
So the challenge becomes—without excusing horrible behavior--understanding that you can’t hold these people to unreasonable standards, nor can you see them as less than you. Viewing them as people who struggle, as we all do, makes them real and their feelings valid. Once you humanize them, it’s easier to let go of your animosity.
You have the ability to minimize the damage. Tip the waiter who was insulted. Let the ill-tempered mother go ahead of you in line. Show extra kindness toward the clerk or driver. Hopefully, when they go home your moment of kindness will resonate within them longer than the argument with their boss. You’ll feel better, too.
Practicing empathy—and being able to experience that feeling--has some benefits. You’ll learn to let go of the small things and you won’t become as upset at the minor annoyances. You may find yourself less overwhelmed or stressed. Also, being kind has positive psychological effects.
Nevertheless, it will be hard. It will be a heavy burden that may lead to knowledge you cannot unlearn. You may become aggravated by apathetic individuals who refuse to see a different perspective. You may need to seek counseling or learn to compartmentalize.
It is excruciating. But compared to the alternative, it's absolutely worth it.