When I was about 12 years old, some kind soul explained to me that when you squeeze lemon on an oyster, the reason it scrunches up its whole body is that it’s still alive when you do that. And it’s in pain.
This seemed so barbaric to me that I actually started crying at our big fancy dinner just thinking about it, this poor oyster who was unceremoniously scooped up from the ocean floor, transported on ice, barely clinging onto life, only to have acid squeezed on its naked, vulnerable body before being swallowed whole.
On the way home, I sat silently in the car, tear-streaked face turned towards the window. I couldn’t stop thinking about that oyster. I couldn’t stop feeling what it must have been feeling. My mom tried to console me by telling me that it’s actually a superpower, to feel as strongly as I do. She taught me a new word that day: empathy.
In humans, it is indubitably our superpower. It’s empathy when you’re at someone’s wedding and you’re happy for them. It’s empathy when someone tells you they lost their job and you feel that loss, too. Empathy makes us stronger as a society.
But sometimes, super empathetic individuals bear the brunt of simply feeling so much. There are tremendous upsides, but these four downsides to being empathetic never get talked about.
1. You’re Always Putting on an Act
Super-empaths have a deep intuition about what the people around them want. As such, you’ll recognize the feeling of putting on an act in order to make others happy.
My friend almost changes her personality completely between friendship groups. With one, she’s the clown, always acting up for a laugh. With another, she’s the organizer, setting up events and organizing logistics. You don’t necessarily change who you are, but you do play up the parts you think will get the best reaction, the biggest laughs, depending on what people around you want. It’s exhausting — and it may leave you with the unsettling feeling of not actually knowing yourself.
If you find that you struggle to know who you are when you’re not around other people, make sure that you actively make time for yourself. Go out to dinner on your own. Watch TV by yourself. Find hobbies that don’t involve catering or performing for other people and learn who you truly are.
2. You Feel Like You Need to Help Everyone Around You
I was sitting in a cafe to access the internet to find out what my final exam score was. I can still vividly remember feeling like my world was falling apart as I stared at the tiny little number on my computer screen that told me I’d failed, and would need to repeat the exam, risking being kicked out of Oxford if my next exam wasn’t high enough. My face was stone, but my heart was shattering.
A woman around my mother’s age sat across the table from me. Impulsively, she handed me a cup of tea she’d just purchased. (She was British).
“I don’t know what you’re going through, but I know you’ll get through it,” she said as she set the tea down. She gripped my shoulder silently, and then she left without another word.
Super-empaths have the ability to recognize when anyone around them is hurting, no matter how strong a facade is being shown to the outside world. Of course, this is a benefit when it comes to helping the people around you, but sometimes it’s hard to know when you need to stop — for your own sake.
If you find that you’re worn thin from dealing with the troubles of your friends, families, or even random strangers in my case, it’s time to draw up boundaries. For example, make it a rule that you don’t answer calls or texts late at night, or that you’ll direct people to the relevant resources such as therapists or hotlines, rather than trying to solve the world’s problems all on your own.
3. You Can Only See the Good in People
No matter how badly they’re behaving, nobody believes they’re the bad guy. If you’re a super-empath, this means that you also believe that nobody is ever the bad guy. You find it all too easy to understand someone’s point of view.
One of my friends was caught cheating. Her boyfriend was so empathetic that he actually talked to me about how he could have been a better boyfriend to stop her from straying like he was a 50s housewife. Because she believed she was justified in her actions, so did he.
If you notice that you can’t genuinely say someone’s a bad person, or point out negative qualities in a toxic friend, take a moment to practice empathy on yourself for once. What would make you happy? How are you truly feeling? It’s best to do this on your own, rather than talking with a friend, or else you’re liable to just tell them what you think they want to hear instead of reflecting internally.
4. You Can Guess Things You’re Not Supposed to Know
I was away on a college trip when I noticed two of my teachers were obviously “together.” It was so obvious to me that I actually asked one of them how long they had been dating for.
Instantly she shushed me, looking around to see if anyone had heard. “How did you know?” she asked me.
For me, it was simple — their eyes always found each other across crowded rooms. They found excuses to sit next to each other. It was written plain on their faces when they talked with one another. It looked like a textbook rom-com of star-crossed lovers. But my teacher was shocked I had realized.
Emotions are sticky, particular things. People never realize how much they’re exposing, and when you call them out on it, unintentionally or not, it makes them feel vulnerable.
If you’re known as gossipy or nosy, even though all you are is observant of the emotions of others, it might be time to take a step back and figure out if you’re overstepping the line. Even though situations and emotions are obvious to you, for others it’s their deepest, most intimate part of themselves that they’re not aware of sharing. Reflect on your assumptions before you discuss them aloud, and ensure you’re not bringing something to light that is personal to another.
Super-Empaths Have a Gift and a Burden
Like any superpower, empathy comes with positives and negatives. But while more corporate empathy workshops are being taught, and as we might wish that we knew what everyone was secretly thinking or feeling, it’s worth remembering the downsides, too.
Super-empaths often don’t know who they are when they’re alone. They try to shoulder the burdens of everyone around them. They have a hard time being objective about others, and they often know slightly too much for the comfort of others around them.
If you notice any of these negative traits, you’re probably more empathetic than you give yourself credit for. As long as you maintain your boundaries, prioritize alone time, and take time to reflect deeply on the people around you, you can ensure that your superpower doesn’t overwhelm you, and you can continue to wield it for good.
Zulie Rane is a reader and a writer who believes in the power to change the world through the written word. You can find her writing on ZulieRane.com, posting selfies and art on Instagram at @zulierane and tweeting bad puns on Twitter at @zulierane.
Image courtesy of Hazzel Silva.