Empathy Part Four- An Update
I wouldn’t have noticed had a co-worker not inadvertently pointed to it with a bloody finger. Someone I rarely see at work came looking for super glue after having ripped a finger nail off. She showed everyone the injury, a bizarre rite of passage in the workplace, and I flinched. It was the first time I could remember ever recoiling from someone else’s injury.
I knew that I’d been recovering my emotions. The small reactions in the car were coming more frequently. I had bigger responses to news stories and videos I saw online. Music was moving again. When I reached back for the hard moments, I found that I cried and raged more easily than ever before. I no longer needed a primer to get there. I could feel that things were shifting, but the one way I knew to test if my empathy was coming back online didn’t yield any results.
I thought that if I’d really recovered some level of empathy, I’d react to blood and gore in horror, and I still didn’t. Jump scares also had no effect. What I didn’t consider was that I’d seen entirely too much of the genre to not always see it coming. I didn’t clock the fact that I was always looking for the seams in the monster suits and the anatomical imperfections in the gore. Watching horror, I always caught myself laughing. When I watched Midsommar, my response to the first death scene was, “Did the art department forget about skulls?” That to me seemed to scream that my empathy was not back online. I was disappointed but had long since resigned myself to the fact that I might not ever have emotional empathy again.
That moment with my co-worker is what finally made it all click. I wasn’t all the way there yet. I still wasn’t at a place where I felt anything in my body when I was told the relative of someone I barely knew had died. I didn’t have an emotional reaction to other peoples’ tears. I did have a response to other peoples’ injuries. That was new and that was an improvement.
I didn’t say anything to my therapist about that change. I felt like if I made a false move, I could jinx it. It was like I’d been presented with an incredible house of cards, and one sneeze could destroy it all. Over time, though, I started to notice that I had reactions to other peoples’ grief. When a friend told me her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, I felt my stomach drop. When there was a gun found in a local school it took a lot to not cry at work.
Slowly, my empathy started coming back online. The more I knew to look for it and to ground in my body to feel those sensations, the more present my newfound empathy became. After a few months, I stopped needing to look around me for other people’s reactions in order to respond in an appropriate way. I started trusting my own responses. I could also switch my emotional empathy on and off. If I didn’t focus on my body, I could avoid having a reaction altogether. That meant that when a co-worker came into my office to rage quit, I could keep a level head and process later. For the time being, I have the best of both worlds, though I don’t know if I think that will last.
I’m still not where I want to be. I’m still learning to stay present in my body instead of defaulting into dissociation. I’m still working on consistency and forming new habits. But after years thinking that I would never be able to experience emotional empathy, after years of thinking I’m irreparably damaged, those little moments mean more to me than I ever thought they would. They make me feel more human and more connected to the people around me. I find myself laughing with people and engaging earnestly in situations that before felt pointless. The more attention I pay to my body, the more I feel like I’m a part of the world and not constantly dissociating a few inches above it.
Still, it bothers me that not having emotional empathy ever made me feel inhuman to begin with. On the one hand, I know that focusing on being able to feel my emotions is what put me on the path toward empathy, and I’m grateful that I sought help, did the work, and shouldered through the hard moments for long enough to see this glimmer of light coming through the other side. On the other hand, I do wonder what that path would have been like had I not been told from the start that experiencing empathy in the way that other people do was impossible for me. Had I not been told over and over again that I’m a monster, that I can’t be trusted, that I’m so damaged as to be disposable, what would this journey have looked like?
I can’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that I am incredibly lucky to have found the support and the understanding I needed to have gotten even this far. I’m not done yet, and I know that, but for the first time it feels possible, and I think that’s a moment worth celebrating.
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