The holidays are a time of giving. They are also a time of needing.
People all around us need to be made safe, secure, confident, loved, protected, sheltered, fed. People need these things from my country, my family, my people, my neighbors and myself. They need them all the time but the reality of the demand seems more acute during Christmas. And in response, those who have, give. I have, so I give. That part is easy. Giving is easy.
The world wants more though, the world demands that I care. That we pull from our deepest pain and through some alchemy, extend goodness and love from that space, a lesson people like Maya Angelou have illuminated at the best of times. I’m a good person, you’re a good person, but neither of us can care about all things all the time. And if we’re not careful, we might end up not caring about anything at any time.
I have empathy fatigue. I can’t care anymore.
I realized this when my unconscious wrote me a note. As a writer, I pull things from my brain and dump them in blank space, so I can capture the thought and return to it once I’ve stepped back from its immediacy. Recently, something came out of some part of my unconscious. I was taking notes on friendship, abandonment—a few things for a short story—when all of a sudden I closed my eyes, turned the page, and wrote:
The pain you put on me I cannot carry any more.
What just happened? I opened my eyes. Blinked. There, neatly drawn, slanting to the right, legible, and very deliberate were the words:
The pain you put on me I cannot carry any more.
Huh? What is this? Who is talking? What pain? Why express this? I looked around. I was alone. This must be about me.
I am overwhelmed by other people’s pain, I don’t know how to care anymore. I have empathy fatigue.
I forget when I started to carry the pain of others, but I remember when it overwhelmed me.
Growing up, I was too saddled with my own issues and development to care about much else. In my focus to survive and thrive, I possessed neither the luxury nor the fortitude to carry anyone else’s pain. Nor the care to communicate about it deeply, honestly.
College was different. I was in a safe and somewhat supportive environment. My natural empathetic abilities began to shine—I saw pain in others, I felt it. I befriended a particular individual, who was overwhelmed by inadequacy and grief in his first semester, common enough at Harvard. He was paralyzed and drowning emotionally. I was his support, I listened, cared, and lifted his pain by showing love. I helped him cope. At the same time, the codependent relationship allowed me to feel useful and valuable. Fortunately, he finally sought professional help, and I was released from my emotional burden.
But by then, I knew I was good at empathy. It validated my Harvard acceptance, something that hitherto alluded me. Sophomore year, I joined Harvard’s oldest peer counseling group, run by students, for students. We were available from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to listen and care. We were advised not to solve anyone’s problems, but to just listen and care. And I did.
As a nineteen-year-old, I cared about everyone, all the time. Everyone except myself.
Insecurity, self-hatred, immaturity, abandonment, rejection, self-destruction, you name it: Harvard students suffered from it. And they suffered to extremes. Eating disorders, violence, suicide, self-harm, depression—all symptoms or coping mechanisms of dysfunctional mental states.
I saw and felt the pain of the small community in which I lived. I was overwhelmed, helpless. No one cared for me. I didn’t let anyone care. Ironically, I never thought I deserved care—my issues were just weakness, fantasy, not real. With all these emotion but no outlet, I barely made it through, pulling myself to graduation with rare knuckles and raw eyes, hoisting myself back from self-destruction over and over with some inner strength that baffles me to this day.
College graduation created a natural end to my situation and put me into a new environment in which I could protect myself and start fresh. I was determined to control my need (addiction, almost) to be empathetic by diminishing it, denying it. I shut people out, developed introverted tendencies, sought solitude, and discarded friends if they showed any emotional neediness. I did not feel good about these choices, but I felt I had no other way.
I also sought individuals who I knew would never need me, thus making them “safe.”
People who had bottled up their own needs like I had and were unlikely to dump them on me.
My now-husband first attracted me because he was seemingly without drama and wouldn’t unload his pain to me in any shape or form. After our wedding, I continued down the path of decisions that would shut people out and give me more and more solitude. I lived in Chicago, hundreds of miles away from my husband, even three years after we were married. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 miles in the forest, all by myself, shunning opportunities to meet or hike with others. Finally, we moved to London, a foreign city where I knew no one, would get no phone calls, and could be extremely, completely alone.
After a year in London, I went to a Marina Abramovic 512 Hours Exhibit at The Serpentine. It was full of unassuming, generous people, who were taking turns sitting in chairs and moving around each other—simply existing in a shared space. After a minute, I began to notice others—you can’t help it, there is nothing else to do in there but notice people. So I did. That is when I fell apart, completely.
I felt people’s pain like bricks thrown at my head.
I saw a woman move to sit in an open chair and get thwarted by someone who moved faster. As she stepped back, I felt her withdrawal. I saw someone else shuffle her large shopping bag on the floor, in her arms, back on the floor. She diminished herself. I felt it. And a third person sat with hair that exploded from his head, matched by his rather fresh and human smell taking over his space in an arrogant way that said to everyone around him: “I am here. I exist. I’m valuable.” I felt the insecurity of everyone around him, who made no such proclamation and never would.
The space closed in. I dug my nails into my palms to feel the pain my mind perceived. I wanted to scream. I panicked and barreled my way out as fast as I could.
I cried passionately in Hyde Park for the rest of the day, got drunk in a pub, stumbled home, wet, cold, dead. Threw up, slept for a day, wrote “The pain you put on me I cannot carry any more” in my journal, didn’t speak to anyone for a few more days, and finally opened my mind to a truth that had been building for a decade:
I had shut myself off from humans so much, I could no longer coexist with humans.
The problem with empathy is when you feel someone else’s pain, you surrender your own needs. It is easy to surrender too much, to lose yourself. Which happened to me. My response was to build walls and shut out everything else so much that all I had was myself. This short-term protection did nothing to build my strength or fortitude, and when confronted with that truth, I fell apart.
If you want to help others, you have to help yourself.
I’ve made some changes in the last year. I am an empath: I am and always will be sensitive to others’ unspoken emotional needs. And I will want to help. That is fine, great actually, but only if it is sustainable.
First, I need to let people care for me. I’ve told my closest friends about my empathy fatigue, my addiction to losing myself in caring for others, and what to look for to know when I’m relapsing or getting in too deep. They say things like “Don’t take on the emotional burden” and are strong when I’m not.
Second, I make decisions about who I help and who I don’t. I’m not a professional and certainly not a savior. My emotional resources are limited and need to be budgeted.
I help people who need my help, not my suffering.
If someone needs me to suffer, so she can feel less lonely or pitiful about her own pain, no. These individuals are easy to spot: they attack, victimize themselves, engage only in emotional arguments, and look for validation, the lack of which is betrayal. They need professional help, not me.
The world is overwhelmed with people who demand and need care. Not just people who suffer materially, but emotionally (which many times is much worse). As a natural empath, I understand the need to want to care about everyone. Most of us—like you reading this—care, feel pain, and want to help.
As you do, please heed this gentle reminder to self-nurture. Don’t take responsibility for others. Don’t carry their pain to the extent that you numb your own. And if you need help and support, ask for it and accept it. Do what you need to do to keep on caring for others.
Especially this time of year.
We must make our empathy sustainable, or we’ll end up with empathy fatigue—or worse, no empathy at all. That is not a world anyone should inhabit.
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