It’s true that some of us are better at being empathetic than others, or will have a natural ability for empathy. We shouldn’t, however, call it a personality trait, it’s more of a skill – in that sense, that means anyone can develop it. Even the most selfish, powerful or mean spirited people can one day become empathetic.
This, however, doesn’t mean that you should let people take advantage of you. The definition of an empath I found online is “one who can sense emotions; someone who is empathic or practises empathy. A person with extra-sensory empathic ability, capable of sensing the emotions of others around them in a way unexplained by conventional science and psychology”. This doesn’t translate to “one who becomes an emotional punching bag to the toxic human beings around them, selflessly gives their energy away to the ones around them and neglects their own needs and requirements”. It’s about seeing or feeling other people’s emotions, even if you’ve never been in their situation.
I would call myself an empath, but also a hardcore cynic. Most people who have met me but haven’t peeled the layers of the onion would say I’m a bit of a jerk. I have an uncanny ability to see through the stories that people tell themselves. We are constantly writing our own story, where we see ourselves as the hero. To me, being empathetic fits perfectly with rationality. If you can see the rational answer to a situation but can identify the feelings someone is experiencing, you have the power to steer them in the right direction.
Crying at a sad scene in a film, mourning the death of someone, listening to someone’s problems and offering to do a good deed doesn’t necessarily make you an empath. The empath will do these things without seeking the metaphorical carrot that’s being dangled in front of them. Being an empath to me is telling someone the truth, regardless of how much it will hurt them, acknowledging that it might hurt them, but doing it in their best interest without caring if they thank you or not.
I’ve struggled with a lot of people in the past because I’m not much good at lying. By lying, I don’t mean telling someone that I’m okay when I’m not. I mean genuine dishonesty. I’ve never been good at telling someone they look great when they look like shit. I’ve never been good at trying to get my own way when I’ve known the immorality outweighs the gains. It doesn’t mean that I go out of my way to do these things, but I’m the wrong person to have on your friend list if you need shallow comfort.
This has made me a bit of a handful in the workplace. Protocols that don’t make sense, a manager telling me to do something obviously wrong or not in the book, having to push prices up when the service isn’t increasing in value – despite understanding the business logic behind it when I sense something sleazy or dishonest I’m often the first person to object. It’s not won me many friends. It’s not about being a reformer, “changing the system” or some idealistic quest to make everyone feel good. In our minds, we see ourselves as a white knight in shining armour, glorifying our good deeds, feeling proud when we stand up to injustice. If you are doing this in the notion that you will be seen as a good person, well guess what: you’re far from being a true empath.
I had to learn the hard way. The truth is, becoming a salesperson almost 4 years ago was only the opening to the gates of empathy. I wanted to be that idealistic salesman, the one who didn’t come across as sleazy or “just in it for the money”. The fact that I tried so hard to be that person made me come across as being fake. It went on into my personal life. My friends were constantly complaining about being depressed, and were oblivious to their poor lifestyle choices (excessive drinking, drugs, smoking, lack of exercise, toxic friends, excessive consumerism, promiscuity etc) wasn’t necessarily the root but it was definitely a large part of the cause. Being that guy who’s given up smoking, picked up a productive hobby, discovering their true nature only pisses everyone off around you. Encouraging people around you will only piss them off even more. They’ll start seeing you as the person who’s too good to be part of the crowd, and resentment starts to build. Empathy is the ability to say “you’re going through the motions right now, and I’m gonna leave you to it”. Let people work at their own pace. Nobody is as enthusiastic and accepting of change as someone who’s already had the light bulb moment.
In one of my previous articles, I discovered my “dad syndrome” and expressed my desire to be a bit more social. The truth is, you become the 5 closest people in your life. If you’ve not found people on your wavelength, it’s probably best to stay indoors and keep working on yourself. Nowadays, when I’m in conflict with people trying to resist change, I find myself utilising sentences which often come as passive-aggressive, cheap or cynical. The truth is, I understand what it’s like to be dormant, and did if not have my first light bulb moment, I’d probably still be there with everyone else. If you’re in a heated argument with an empath, they’ll probably use these sentences (or modifications of them, dependent on context) – don’t be offended, I’ve included a translation:
- “You do you” – “You’re being a moron, but if I tell you you’re only going to get mad at me. I’d rather you keep trying until you realise your solution/perspective might not be the ideal one in this scenario”
- “You keep telling yourself that” – “You’re being dishonest with yourself and/or the people around you. Is that really what you believe? Stop for a minute and think about what you’re actually trying to achieve from this situation
- “Are you done?” – “Your rant was utterly pointless and you’re starting to bore me. You’ve insulted me and not achieved anything with all this negative energy”
- “You’re insecure” – “You’re insecure, but I’m not using this against you – I’m pointing this out to you so you can actually see that your only enemy is yourself
- “Okay” – “Oh I’m sorry, are you here for my advice, an argument or just for me to agree with you? Jog on.”
- “Is this really necessary?” – “If I didn’t have bigger brains than you I would have uppercutted you into outer space”
- “Please, just fuck off” – “I’m being polite here, but you’re just out for blood. Go away”
- “What is your point?” – “Are you just taking shots at me or is there a different meaning behind this interaction?”
- “No” (strongly) – “Just because I’m more aligned with myself, happier than you and that I do have a desire to help people doesn’t mean I’m going to follow you down this road to doom”
- “I really need to be alone right now” – “I’m not saying this because I’m losing an argument, and this isn’t to feed your ego. You’re being toxic right now and I think you should go away and think about it”
- “If that’s how you see it” – “You’re choosing to see this negatively. I haven’t actually insulted you” (similar to “you keep telling yourself that”)
You get the general hint. A lot of these seem like things someone would say when they are losing an argument. The truth is, I don’t think empaths see arguments as a win-lose kind of thing. Once shouting, insults, malice enters an argument, the person who’s triggered it loses, but so does the other person. Every interaction can be positive or negative, and usually, when it’s negative it’s for both parties. Even someone who gets off hurting other people will eventually have their feelings catch up to them.
Empaths are not extroverts, but usually ambiverts or slight introverts. It’s the people who have been hurt, been through a toxic phase in their life, and rose above it. It’s people who have seen negative sides of humanity and chose to keep pressing on regardless. Your most antisocial person with their walls up constantly might be an empath, they might just be in hiding. Being in hiding is often a case that the person isn’t ready to open themselves up to others. You cannot expect to help other people if you don’t love yourself at this present moment.
That’s why you’ll find empaths often are the ones who like to be isolated, have their walls up, have had substance abuse problems in the past and suffer from mood swings. They seem themselves alone in a world full of people who don’t know how to utilise their feelings. They’re surrounded by people constantly self-jeopardising, and grew tired trying to help people who they don’t see as deserving or worthy of their attention. They see the flaws in their own behaviour. They’re super-sensitive, hate loud noises and will be the first people to run upon smelling malice or insecurity within the air. But more often or not, it’s shaped by experiences first, personality second. In other news, that’s why I’d also argue Geralt of Rivia is an empath. He fits the criteria of everything I’ve written in this article. He’s an asshole but he can see through people.