Dealing with Empathy

You may recall from one of last month’s posts that I’m an empathetic person. I am generally annoyed by personality tests, because they don’t tell me anything really about me, but I took the Gallup StrengthFinder test several years ago and BAM. It knew me. My top strength was empathy, and here’s a partial quote from StrengthFinder, explaining it:

You can sense the emotions of those around you. You can feel what they are feeling as though their feelings are your own. Intuitively, you are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective. You do not necessarily agree with each person’s perspective. You do not necessarily feel pity for each person’s predicament—this would be sympathy, not Empathy. You do not necessarily condone the choices each person makes, but you do understand.

Reading this, especially paired with my other strengths, was so weird—there were areas in my life that I never fully understood, and I had started to believe they were weaknesses, not strengths. Ever since then, I have tried to understand the way empathy influences me, and I’ve put together a list of how you can understand the empathetic people around you! So here we go.

7 things you should know about your empathetic friend:

  1. They care. A lot. This is obvious. When a person is naturally strong in empathy, they deeply care about the people around them. If you are their friend, they want to hear your updates. They want to hear what’s going on, not because they’re nosy (although some may be—nosiness and empathy are independent qualities, but not mutually exclusive), but because they feel involved!
  2. Give them a break. If you’re friends with someone who’s empathetic, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them get all swept up in an issue they care about, whether it’s a particular person’s situation, or a larger humanitarian cause. Don’t automatically dismiss them as annoying or over-emotional, realize that they might simply need to vocalize their passion so it doesn’t burn up inside of them!
  3. They don’t need to agree with you to feel your pain. Even if your empathetic friend seems to be taking the villain’s side, don’t automatically assume they are. An empathetic person can feel someone’s pain and hurt for them, even if they don’t agree with the choices that got them there. For example, when I watch The Amazing Spiderman II, I definitely am not a fan of the fact that Electro tries to destroy Spiderman and take away the city’s electric supply. But the empathetic person is inside of me saying “HE JUST WANTED A FRIEND!!!” …understand?
  4. It’s exhausting. Being empathetic isn’t easy. Taking on someone else’s burdens is not all kicks and giggles—go figure, right?! Being emotional over your own issues is bad enough as it is—taking on someone else’s is double the pleasure, double the fun.
  5. Sometimes, they need to turn it off. After a while, feeling everyone else’s emotions simply drains a person. It’s easy to get to the place where the empathetic soul learns to turn a blind eye or not let someone too close, because of pure exhaustion. The problem with this is, the person is attempting to turn off a God-given gift, which will ultimately leave a hollow spot.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” –1 Peter 4:10

  1. They’re often in the background. The gift of empathy is usually not an attention-seeking gift. You’re not out there with the gift of leadership or teaching, just feeling. The thing about listening to other people’s problems and joy is that it involves just that— Closing the mouth, opening the ears. As a result, this person is often the silent support to the person in the front. They’re the encourager, letting the leader know that they’re understood, that they have a friend, that they’re loved.
  2. They want to be understood. An empathetic person wants someone to feel their pain, to feel their joy, to understand them! Even if you’re not naturally empathetic, you can still be a good listener. (Duh.) Take the time to listen to your empathetic friend. Let them let go of the burdens they’re carrying. Let them know that they have a support system too.

Now I know this post is a bit long, but before I wrap up, just two little pieces of advice for the fellow empathetic people in the room:

  1. Don’t close your heart. I know that sometimes it seems like you just can’t get away from the feels. Like you don’t have a choice but to feel other people’s hurts so deeply. But, trust me, you can It may be unnatural for you, but from experience I know that I can let my heart be hardened and while I still may be able to perceive someone’s feelings, choose not to let it get to me. It’s exhausting, after all. But as I mentioned in #5 above, we are called to serve! God has given you this gift for a reason. It’s a strength. So don’t close off your heart. Keep praying “Break my heart for what breaks Yours.”

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” –Galatians 6:2

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” –Romans 12:15

  1. Remember it’s not all on your shoulders. Your job is to carry them to Jesus. He is the one who can take care of your friends. If you try to carry everything, you will only let yourself down. Jesus is the One who can handle your burdens!

“Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous be shaken.” –Psalm 55:22

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” –1 Peter 5:7

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30

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