Empathy is a powerful and painful gift, and those who lack it can’t truly understand it. In its purest form, empathy heals the world. Empathy is what drives those with abundance to help those who are impoverished, and the joyful to lift up the sorrowful.
Empathy, in its most practical form, can bring food to the mouths of the starving, and it can bring a community together to rebuild their neighbors’ homes following a natural disaster. In its more abstract state, empathy is what connects us and allows us to understand each other. It’s what compels us to drive to a friend’s house at 4 AM to help console them after a breakup or the death of a loved one. Empathy is our fiber cable into the cellular and energetic network of humanity, and it allows us to actually feel things at a much more profound level.
Chances are, if you have been compelled to begin the long journey of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development, then you— like myself— carry an empathic gift, though it might sometimes seem like it’s really a curse. You may be able to feel so much of what people are giving off at such a deep level that sometimes it can be overwhelming. You may have extremely accurate intuitions and insights, and struggle with the fact that so many people seem to be ignoring things that are so obvious to you.
Not only do you feel the pain of others, but in some sense, you share it with them. You take it on, because your compassion compels you to do so.
It may be extremely hard, or entirely impossible, for you to shut off your receiver, which can lead you into toxic relationships and situations that end up taking advantage of your empathy-driven heart. You might try for years to reach someone because you feel so deeply for them.
You might feel like your spirit is being crushed when someone close to you rejects you, betrays you, insults you, or withholds affection, at a much deeper level than those without the empathic gift can understand. Because you feel things intensely, cruel or callous actions can cut you like a knife. When this happens, you aren’t being overly dramatic or childish, you genuinely feel this pain in ways that many people will not understand.
The empathic nature that exists inside of each individual is kind of like one’s ability to hear different spectrums of sound. Due to age-related degeneration of the inner ear or other factors, some people simply cannot hear very high frequency tones; even if someone were to blast a super high-pitched frequency directly at them through a speaker, they couldn’t hear it.
Now, let’s take someone who can hear that high-pitched frequency, like the sound of a turned on television. It actually hurts their ears just listening to it. After a few seconds of hearing that sound, they’d start to get pretty annoyed. A few hours? They’re ready to break the television set. A few years? Well, some people would lose their minds.
For those with the empathic gift, it’s kind of like hearing that squealing sound all of the time, except actually picking up on people’s emotions, intentions, struggles, and overall energies. Without first understanding and learning to honor this gift, it can really generate a lot of trauma in our lives, and prohibit us from having healthy relationships and viable careers. But if you can come to fully understand and love your empathy, then you can start peeling back so many more layers of your own trauma, and help the world heal its trauma.
To perceive is to suffer. -Aristotle
We must remember the dualistic nature of any gift: it can both heal and harm you and those around you, and like anything powerful, once it is understood and respected it becomes capable of doing far more healing and far less harm.
It certainly took me a long time to understand and respect my empathic gift. I was convinced at a very young age that I was fragile and broken because of how much I actually wanted to do something about the suffering of people around me, and the seemingly horrific state of the world. I was born to a single mother and lived in efficiency apartments and the houses of relatives throughout my childhood. There were tough times, and I always felt like I wanted to help my mother; I couldn’t accept that life had to be like that.
The city I was born in, and later only lived a three-minute drive from, had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the United States. I saw and heard some really terrible things happen there, from sick family abuse to muggings and homicides.
I was deeply affected by conflict in my family, and I couldn’t understand how to fit in with the popular kids, who expressed zero concern for almost everything that I felt was substantial. I couldn’t just go spray paint bridges and go to parties where kids stole their parents’ alcohol. I wanted to do something meaningful, whatever I thought that was at the time. I felt the pain of my family life, I saw the pain in my friends’ lives, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just fix it.
Empathic people generally tend to have challenging upbringings, and face self-worth issues, alongside a tendency to pursue toxic relationships. That tragic reality is the price we pay for a beautiful gift. Those who struggled with low self-esteem and had to fight for their own survival in childhood make the world better, because a wounded heart often wants to heal the hearts of others. And that’s just what those with the empathic gift can do so well— help heal the hearts of others, because they understand their pain.
So don't be ashamed of your gift. You aren’t broken, you are exactly what you are meant to be. All of the beautiful and terrible things that you have experienced in your life had to happen so that you can be exactly who you are now— someone who can help heal the world. Empathy is the highest form of intelligence, even though it may be one of the most painful.
Virtually all of the greatest spiritual teachers and leaders use their capacity for empathy to fulfill their destiny by awakening people to an entirely new level of awareness. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy for them to accept their gifts. Most of them have wished at various points throughout their lives that they could just somehow stop caring so deeply, and give up on trying to help people. But the truth is, you can’t just stop caring, because this compassion that is within you is not something that you can turn on and off, it is your life’s calling.
When you start to embrace your ability to feel things at a much more profound level, you open yourself up to so much purpose. You open yourself up to the full extent of your gift, which is to bring healing into this world.
“…Let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds...”
- St. Francis of Assisi