em·pa·thy | \ ˈem-pə-thē
1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner*
While reading about the relationship between anxiety and empathy, I discovered that there are basically two types of empathy: Affective Empathy and Cognitive Empathy.
Affective empathy is an emotional empathy and is experienced by everyone to a degree but is more deeply felt by people who are often called empaths. Empaths feel or take on the emotions of another person, often unconsciously. I believe myself to be an empath. For example, the energy of crowds is often too much for me to handle. When my husband is grumpy, I get grumpy, even if his grumpiness has nothing to do with me. (Hey, it’s possible!) Empaths are pretty good at not only reading a room but adopting the mood of the room as their own.
Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between people with high affective empathy and people who live with an anxiety disorder. Affective empathy can be a good thing, as it fosters compassion, which is empathy in action. But, for anyone living with anxiety, it can increase anxiety to a level that makes it difficult if not impossible to separate oneself from the pain or mood of others. To try to combat the extremes of this phenomenon, I try to stay mindful to what is and isn’t mine, and I think it’s a good practice for anyone with anxiety and high affective empathy. Ask questions: What am I feeling? Why am I feeling like this? Is this mine? If not, then work on letting it go. Take deep breaths. Imagine a bubble around you that keeps out everything that’s not yours. Whatever works for you.
Cognitive empathy is more about our ability to understand how someone else feels without taking on the feelings ourselves. This type of empathy is, I believe, developed when we understand and accept ourselves as we are. For me, my cognitive empathy increased as I aged and began to understand that I was not defective, but instead a person with an active imagination who feels things deeply. I found myself less judgmental of others, and more interested in finding common ground. Now, I am able to sincerely turn to another person and say, “I understand” or “Me too”, or just “I’m sorry that this has happened to you. I’m here”. As Brené Brown says in “The Gifts of Imperfection”, “only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” **
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, that anyone living with an anxiety disorder is amply blessed in the imagination department. But the good news is, we aren’t always imagining worst case scenarios. Sometimes, we are looking at another human being who is suffering, and we are filled with compassion, because we have been in their shoes.
Awhile back, I was reading the book “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle. She was speaking about the gift of imagination and the ability it gives us to build a bridge of understanding between two individuals. “They are imagining themselves into the other human being’s shoes, and that makes them tender because they can somehow-through the magical leap of imagination-see and feel what the other might see and feel.” ***
For years, I worked as a dental hygienist in an environment rife with anxious people. How many of you love going to the dentist? Exactly. And there I was, invading one of the most private sanctums that a person has, armed with sharp instruments. A perfect set-up for an anxiety attack. But because I was familiar with anxiety personally, I was also armed with a deep understanding of how my patient was feeling. So, when I had a particularly anxious patient, I would slow my movements, look them in the eyes, speak calmly, explain procedures, ask questions, and generally just be kind. I knew that by recognizing their distress and displaying compassion toward them, they could stop beating themselves up (which they inevitably were doing in their head), and they could relax their vigilance because they were in safe hands. It’s like I knew how to kill their moths. (See Chapter 4)
When it comes to feeling empathy for those who live with an anxiety disorder, especially if you have never experienced it personally, it can be a bit mind boggling. (You’re afraid of what?) It can be hard to be empathetic to something that can be so vague. To you I say, you don’t have to understand it. You just have to believe it.
I have a friend whose child struggles with severe anxiety. She, on the other hand, has rarely had an anxious thought in her head. When her child’s anxiety came to the forefront, she knew she was out of her depth, but what she lacked in understanding, she more than made up for in empathy and compassion. We talked and she got my insight on what it is like to live with anxiety. But she also took a course for parents of children suffering from anxiety so that she could learn about what her child was going through and find a way to support them in any way possible. She accessed every tool she could, and I cheered her from the sidelines. I still do.
So, am I always empathetic to others, even when I understand their pain? Of course not. I still judge when I shouldn’t and rant from time to time about people doing what I think are boneheaded things. And sometimes, all the self-talk in the world isn’t going to stop me being grumpy around my grumpy husband. I’m human, after all.
But, for the most part, I can feel genuine empathy and display genuine compassion. And I have anxiety to thank for that. So, thanks anxiety.
** Excerpt from The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown. This material may be protected by copyright.
***Excerpt from Untamed, Glennon Doyle. This material may be protected by copyright.