July 2021 – Unseriously Sincere Ideas Write-Up #11

Here’s an unfun fact: I’m a bit of an emotional hurricane behind the curtains and lately I’ve had a few issues with the constant crowd of emotions having dance parties within my chest. 

Basically, I had some disputes with people I luuuurve and my coping mechanism was to burrow down into a rabbit hole of online resources discussing emotions and empathy. I wanted to know why it is that I consider myself to be effectively empathetic and compassionate towards people and their emotional states on an everyday basis, but when the music gets pumped in the dirty disco behind my sternum, my equilibrium becomes nothing short of volatile.

I don’t know if I managed to figure it out but this got me all around some bigger issues which might also affect you.

Emotions and their cousin empathy

Empathy, as a concept, has only been around for about a century. This means that 100 years ago we didn’t have fridges to keep our food cold, no Sudafed for sinus issues and there was no way to describe why we felt sad because our homeboys did. Whereas today we have chilled oat milk, modern medicine and a great word to describe exactly what our partner’s lack when we fight with them.

I’m not trying to point out how greatly things have changed for the privileged, just that the definitions of empathy are young and still evolving in ongoing conversations between psychologists. What I’m about to discuss on the matter of empathy is based on some of the wisdom moving around the internet (and possibly your domestic disputes) today.

My definition of empathy has always been the ability to feel the emotions of others, as opposed to sympathy which is to be moved by the emotions of others. This isn’t totally wrong, it’s just not totally right either. It turns out that empathy is far more layered than that, there are different types of empathy. And while I do have a variant strain of empathy, I don’t yet have the full collector’s suite yet. 

Emotional overload 

It’s come to my attention that in the same way I would make for a terrible psychopath because I would sympathise far too greatly with the pain and suffering of the victims, I make for a terrible horror-movie enthusiast because I empathise far too greatly with the pain and suffering of the victims. I can’t exactly feel the kitchen knife striking through a person’s back, but I can feel an intense emotion of fear as if it were me with a crazy-ass maniac on my tail.

I’m what they call an emotional empath, but more specifically, an affective empath. This means I’m capable of involuntarily experiencing intense emotions when I observe or hear about the suffering of others. This can either incite compassion, or just plain old personal distress. The other day I quite literally had an uncomfortable emotional response to hearing about my dad copping a driving fine. I just knew how much it would annoy the poor guy, so my subconscious set off to making me suffer for it.

As an affective empath (or a total wimp empath), I sometimes have to run out of the room when shit gets too real on the TV. I find tragic news stories physically confronting and I get around bearing the emotional weight of fictional characters and reality TV-stars. This is probably why I have a bad back.

I haven’t worked out if the high intensity of my emotions is a result of my empathetic abilities or my empathetic abilities cause the high intensity of emotions. OR, if they are completely unrelated. But sometimes it does feel like an unfortunate combination. 

Empathy is a useful tool for compassion when you’re hearing about the world’s woes or comforting a hard done by friend, but with this variant of empathy, you do burn a lot of unnecessary emotional energy watching MAFs or hearing about driving offenses. 

Herding your emotions

Because my emotional wiring makes me highly sensitive to certain external stimulations, the area of empathy that I’m weak in is emotional regulation. Particularly when my surroundings become overwhelming.

Emotional regulation is where a person, who definitely is not me, has a certain knack for managing their emotions without it feeling like they’re herding cats. When emotions are well regulated, it helps us connect with people better. It gives one a sense of control over all the emotions and feelings and impulses that intermingle within. 

Think about a surgeon who goes to work with the possibility of having to break the news to a family about the loss of a loved one. The last thing a family needs is some sobbing mess in scrubs telling them that Barry didn’t make it. They need someone who not only understands the family’s emerging emotions but someone who can also hold together her own.

Another example would be a judge in court. Can you imagine the infuriating scenarios and heinous scumbags you’d regularly come face-to-face with? It would take a seriously good emotional regulator to not bring that home every day.

One of the things I’ve realised is that, while I might not fit the mold of an emotional herdsman, I do still regulate my emotions in a sense:

You see, I have this emotional disco running in my chest 24/7 so I’m actually non-stop battling against that potential flare-up. People say that they sometimes feel like they’re walking on eggshells around me but I’ve worked out that these eggshells are actually the remnants of my current best efforts to regulate. With a constant flurry of unprovoked emotions twerking in my bosom, I’m working overtime to ensure the output is eggshells instead of the hot flame thrower it could be. 

It turns out people aren’t as annoying as I thought. It’s not you, it’s me. 

Unfortunately, when tensions run high between me and another human, shit really lights up inside. The DJ pumps the volume, my emotions pop their glow sticks and the bass starts to drop. It becomes really difficult for any emotion to find its cousin empathy in the crowd and I can just be a bit of a jerk.

What I’m trying to figure out now (and I’m doing therapy so that should help) is whether this is a case of emotional dysregulation, an issue I have with mood, or even a disorder of sorts. 

I’m not a psychologist so I won’t attempt to self-diagnose. What I do know is that…

“…emotional dysregulation can be confused with the descriptive distinctions between emotions, moods and disorders […] Emotions can be momentarily intense and overwhelming, but moods are more persistent states and cause you to see everything in a particular light. A mood is not felt as an aspect of experience; it encompasses experience If an emotion is like being in a rainstorm, a mood is like being underwater.”

Writing for Emotional Balance, by Beth Jacobs, Ph.D. 

Did you know that psychopaths have empathy??

Another variant of empathy, which I see as a potential tool to overcome my emotional ails, is cognitive empathy. It differentiates from affective empathy in that cognitive empaths understand the emotions of other people, they discern what someone might be going through without necessarily sharing it with them viscerally. 

‘Cognitive’ suggests that this is a process of acquiring knowledge and understanding of emotions through thought, experience and the senses – like doing therapy and going down a rabbit hole of research on the subject. Similar to ’emotional regulation’, it’s more of a skill to obtain than ’emotional empathy’, which just kinda happens.

Being more like a skill, it makes sense that cognitive empathy is something your therapist is expected to have acquired and possess. What is kind of surprising, though, is that cognitive empathy is also a skill that your local psychopath might acquire and possess.

Your therapist will know and understand what’s causing you grief and try to alleviate it with some psychological tips and tricks but your psychopath will know what’s causing you grief and will be incapable of giving a shit.

That’s actually the creepiest bit of knowledge I’ve gained this week – that psychopaths can empathise. While they tend to lack certain emotions like fear and sadness, they can still successfully regulate the emotions they do have, plus understand other people’s emotions from cognitive learning. 

What they can’t do is sympathise, they don’t care about people. This is what makes them very good manipulators and murderers but very bad friends and school teachers. 

The good news is that most psychopaths keep themselves in check. I assume, like most people, they don’t want to do murders. Most are not violent. Most just get around with their gloomy views of the world, laughing at other people’s misfortunes and not helping old ladies cross the road.

Interestingly, psychopaths are also said to be a lot better at moral reasoning than the rest of us because they don’t let emotions get in the way of rational thought. Research suggests that individuals with more than ya average psychopathic traits typically demonstrate more utilitarian responses to dilemmas. Like in moral dilemmas such as the famous trolley problem:

“In this thought experiment, people have to decide whether to push a person off a bridge to stop a train about to kill five others laying on the track.

The psychopath would more often than not choose to push the person off the bridge. This is following the utilitarian philosophy that holds saving the life of five people by killing one person is a good thing. So one could argue those with psychopathic tendencies are more moral than normal people – who probably wouldn’t push the person off the bridge – as they are less influenced by emotions when making moral decisions.”

The Conversation

The uncomfortable side of empathy 

In a popular opinion piece that Nicholas Kristof wrote for The New York Times, he claims there’s far too little empathy in the world and we should all be proactively harnessing more of it to introduce greater compassion towards our fellow humans. This obviously suggests that empathy can be learned (cognitive) and as an advocate for compassion and social change on local, national and international levels, I say hop to it. 

I understand this is an easier pursuit for some people than others. Finding the headspace to care more about the people in the world around you when you’re suffering with the biological and/or environmental misfortunes that toy with your zen is hard, man. People who haven’t been predisposed to emotional turmoil are much better placed to jump on the cognitive empathy bandwagon and throw compassion confetti all about. But I’m sorry to say that very few people can get away with using their emotional hangups as an excuse. 

It is everyone’s responsibility to use their cognitive abilities to learn empathy in order to empathise with themselves. By doing this you can adopt the skills and tools and fuzzy feelings you need to empathise with other people. True empathy should result in some sort of action, this counts as a first step.

On a personal level – while I am still a master at derailing conversations when I get overwhelmed by emotion – I’m improving on my self-awareness to be able to take more responsibility and be more objective. My hope is to progressively get better at spotting what’s happening when it’s happening in order to suffocate my emotional partygoers before they pop and slut-drop. But on a more worldly level, as I grow in this space, I hope to get out of my own head a little more and truly open my eyes and heart to the real pain and suffering of the world. Not just my dad’s goddamn penalty notices.

How about you? What are your battles? Do tell.

That’s all from me chicos. 

Jess from Comfort is for Wimps

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