I’m a thinker. Tried and true.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a therapist’s chair and proudly explained how I felt about a situation. As someone who, like many others, repressed negative emotions, I’ve been in therapy to work on processing said emotions, so I feel proud of myself when I can name them. I would sit back in my therapist’s chair almost smug.
That’s right, I know and understand my emotions. Look at how well-adjusted I am.
But my therapists have always responded in the exact same way:
“Okay…” they begin, clearly trying to find a way to word their answer that won’t completely burst my bubble, “but you just told me what you think.”
My mind whirs blankly as my compulsive need to please authority figures makes me scramble to figure out what I did wrong.
“…I asked you how you feel.”
But…didn’t I just do that?
As it turns out, as a thinker, feelings and thoughts can be hard to distinguish. My head will always be how I approach problems, but that doesn’t mean that I’m doomed to be the least empathetic person ever, does it?
The one true way that I can tell that I’m talking to a feeler is that they assign emotional meaning to things about myself that I have absolutely no reaction to. Those who, when I say things that I would consider facts like: “Yeah, that outcome sent me spiraling into a depressive episode,” make a sad face and look like they want to pet me. No no, it’s okay, nothing brings me joy anymore and I can’t get of the couch, but I’m cool with it, please don’t feel the need to comfort me…
When I was in college and struggling with being away from home for the first time, I really relied on the empathetic friends that I made on campus: those who really seemed to care about how I felt without even understanding! Wow! How did they do that?
Up until that point in my life, I had been functioning with the smallest amount of empathy possible. I wasn’t great at relating to others and was quick to anger when someone felt an emotion that I didn’t really understand. After interacting with my empathetic friends for a few months, I realized that I wanted to become more like them. I wanted to be able to have deeper connections with people that were not only based on mutual interests, but also on the emotions and quirks that made us different. It’s been a few years since I started practicing empathy, and, while I will never fully become an empath, I’m proud of the strides I’ve made.
My first step in becoming empathetic was to become aware of my own emotions and how I respond to the world around me. This was a fun part of the process for me because I actually enjoy learning new things about myself. I love learning how my mind works and what makes me tick. As ever present as my self-hatred can be, it has never stopped me from digging deeper into my brain.
The side-effect of all of this self-exploration is that I started on an endless loop of self-assessment. I now struggle to actually live in the moment because I’m constantly checking in to see how I feel. Which can be awesome and insightful, but also really irritating. Who knew that focusing on how you feel could have such long lasting effects?
With the knowledge that I gathered using this newfound self-awareness, I was able to decide how certain words or situations made me feel based on my own experiences. In the end, I became a kinder person because I stopped saying or doing things to others that would have hurt me.
I truly believe that none of this self-improvement would have been possible without therapy. I started going to therapy for my depression, but it also helped me become a kinder person by enabling me to become more sensitive. From the safety and comfort of my therapist’s couch, I was able to crack my own tough exterior and allow myself to be more vulnerable. Recognizing my vulnerabilities, and that I didn’t want them to be attacked, made me want to actively try to not attack others’ vulnerabilities. Being honest about my own emotions meant that I could allow others to be honest with theirs.
Once I took stock of my own emotions and started being a bit kinder, the next step was infinitely more difficult: accepting others’ emotions even if I didn’t understand them.
First, I would need to recognize that others have different triggers than I do. I changed my strategy from only avoiding saying things that would have hurt me to learning how to word my thoughts in a sensitive way to avoid hurting anyone else. I knew the topics that my loved ones found triggering, and I began speaking as carefully around them as I could. I paid attention to how I worded certain things and how my words could be perceived by others. It was important for me to understand that, despite my best intentions, I could still hurt others with my words, and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
The last, and most important, part of this journey has to be acceptance: giving others a space to be honest about their emotions and being tolerant of those emotions. I’ve begun letting others know that I am happy to support them in any way that I can, while recognizing that the type of support that they need may not necessarily be the type of support that I would have needed. I just allow others to be themselves and accept them as they are.
I will never be an empath. I will never be able to walk into a room and immediately sense how people are feeling. I will probably always struggle with reading body language and always tell my therapists what I think instead of how I feel. But I’ve come a long way from where I started, and I think that’s worth celebrating.
Photography by my talented fiancé. You can find him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/hope_grows_here/