A while back I saw a post where someone said that they had been brought to tears after seeing an old man crossing the street. While it was interesting to see the amount of ‘yes, me too’ replies, what was even more interesting was that there didn’t seem to be anyone saying that this emotional reaction had prompted them to actually help. This got me thinking; is having an empathetic reaction really just a prompt to action? Also, are HSPs sometimes drawn into an empathising vicious cycle to such an extent that we are unable to see that call to action? Finally, is pursuing that call to action a way of diffusing that vicious cycle of over-empathy that HSPs can have?
Let’s go back to the old man. Seeing him could trigger a wealth of thoughts from the HSP ranging from remembering a beloved old relative, to their own mortality – what will happen when they get old, how will they cope; to the man himself, are they in pain, are they suffering, has he got family… and so on, until you are no longer thinking about a man crossing a road, but building up a whole story around him.
Meanwhile, this old guy has walked across the road and is probably at home halfway through an episode of Corrie. Yet it is the nature of the highly sensitive beast that this event and the subsequent knock on thoughts will be revisited, until it becomes almost removed from the initial event.
HSPs are already attuned to be more empathetic – it’s the E part of the DOES attributes which stand for emotional reactivity and empathy. So not only are we are far more aware of what is going on around us and with other people, but we are more inclined to empathise too – and there’s nothing wrong with that. What can be problematic is the extent to which it affects us.
It’s like the adverts on the TV ‘Here’s a small hungry child/abandoned dog/refugee family/neglected kitten/dying Dad/sick Mum’. They focus on one person because as human beings we are more inclined to have an empathetic response if we can make a one on one connection. They are deliberately made to shock, knowing that the more harrowing it is, the more donations that way – one charity got over £100k more in donations because of the advert so they will take something that is already emotive and take it several steps further. Unfortunately for HSPs, just a whiff of those words and our brains are off empathising away – we don’t need the gory details or even a picture. We are there and feeling that pain. It is what makes it so hard for us to cope with the deluge of pain and suffering that is all around us. And why it’s often a way of survival that we turn away from these images.
Of course, there is turning away and pretending these things aren’t happening, and there is turning away and still being present enough to do something. This distinction can be where HSPs can get in a pickle.
HSPs can reach that stage of destructive empathising far quicker than non-HSPs, and with that, we enter into a debilitating vicious circle where we can’t stop building upon these empathetic thoughts, along with the feelings of helplessness and anxiety.
For non HSPs this tends to be a slower process. The trigger, having an empathetic reaction, and then the opportunity to act upon what they are empathising with, all happens at a more manageable rate without a tidal wave of emotions. In turn the action which provides a release for the building empathy and reveals itself as an option, instead of just being overwhelmed with FEELINGS. For example if someone is having a bad day, you empathise, then you talk with them and then there is the release. If you see someone struggling across the road, you empathise, take action in offering help, then there is the release knowing you helped. Often HSPs seem to be stuck on the first part, stuck like a rabbit in the headlights.
It turns out that this is an academic concept which C Daniel Batson called the ‘empathy-altruism hypothesis’ – that by feeling empathy you act. As a society, we are less influenced by religion telling us to love and care for those less fortunate, so instead that role has fallen upon our leaders like Obama and celebrities like Angelia Jolie and Richard Curtis. This has created an environment where we are told that we should as a global society be more empathetic, while showing us the consequences in the most emotional circumstances in the hardest hitting way possible. Yet in the face of all this suffering, no wonder HSPs are often overwhelmed by the amount of empathetic reactions that the world demands of us. Even Mother Teresa spoke about how overwhelming the mass of suffering can be and that to cope with it you simply concentrate on helping one person at a time instead.
I think that as HSPs, we can often become frozen in our own thoughts and feeling when it comes empathy. (I also wonder whether the severity of this is often what gets people labelled as Empaths, but that is a discussion for another time). This knee jerk reaction means that we are often taken away from the situation in hand, and straight into our own heads – where we are probably less than helpful to the people we are empathising with or ourselves.
So what can be done?
Know your limits.
I do not need to know and have the agony and suffering of people and animals spelt out in gory neon lights in order to elicit an emotional response, so I will turn over the TV channel if certain adverts come on and I will limit my exposure to the 24 hour news cycle. I used to think that it was my duty as a human being to witness all the horrors humanity has done, even (and especially) if it upset me. Then I realised that as an HSP, I could still feel as much, and be engaged – even more so without full on exposure. Allowing yourself breathing room is not failure.
Going back to the old chap walking across the road. If you are getting an empathetic reaction, if you can, go and help. He might be grateful for your help, he could also tell you to bugger off. Either way, you are stopping that descent into over empathising where you are creating more scenarios in your imagination by being present in that situation.
Help can also be making blankets for animals or children, donating food, a simple pay it forward at the coffee shop, signing a petition or contacting your MP, or it could be donating money.
Recently there was a picture of a Syrian gentleman selling pens in the middle of the street, carrying his sleeping child. Amazingly thanks to the internet, he was tracked down and a fund was created for him and his two children. Now raising over $191k and rising, he wants to help other Syrians. Now what started out as a small gesture to an unknown man will be helping many more people.
When I feel that I can’t help I resort to the Buddhist practice of Tonglen breathing in all the pain and suffering and breathing out kindness and compassion. Does it help? Maybe. It’s better than dwelling on it.
Finally, it’s also important to remember that having an empathetic reaction is never about you and is always connected to external stimuli. When the line is crossed and it becomes about an inwardly facing empathy, it immediately loses perspective. You might feel like you can sum up who that person in front of you is and what they are feeling, but in reality you can’t, no-one can.
HSPs need to realise the importance of distance, and that distance with regards to empathy doesn’t mean that you care less but you are creating enough breathing space to actually use that empathy that you are feeling and hopefully respond to it in a productive way. There are no bonus points for over empathising, especially when you end up triggering anxiety being overwhelmed by catastrophizing, or suffering more than the person you are empathising with.
As HSPs we have these different attributes that actually help the world around us and give us purpose , we just need to manage them so they work as effectively as possible.