I recently read an article where a reader had commented that he was sick of people who categorise themselves as ’empaths’ and ‘introverts’ believing they were more special than ‘normal’ people. He commented that everyone has the capacity for empathy and compassion, and that we make a choice whether or not to demonstrate care for others. He also stated that people who demonstrate empathy for others are just doing what humans are meant to do, therefore there is nothing special about it.
I agree that having high levels of empathy doesn’t make a person more valuable than anyone else, but I don’t agree that everyone can feel empathy, or that everyone is even meant to. Empathy, like all traits, operates on a continuum. At one extreme we have empaths – those who literally take on the feelings of others as though those feelings were their own. At the other extreme we have psychopaths, those who are oblivious to the feelings of others and their experience of a situation.
Psychopaths are not necessarily the serial killers, mass murderers and dictators we tend to think of when we hear this word. They can also be CEOs of major corporations, successful business people and yes, politicians. We need people at all different points along this spectrum in order for our society to operate successfully.
Less sensitive is a gift too
If we were all empathic, the world would not progress. We’d all be too worried about hurting someone’s feelings or feeling guilty about breaking rules. It’s often the person with little regard for the feelings of others that will create profound change.
Steve Jobs changed the world with his pioneering ideas. However he was also known for his bullying behaviour. He didn’t hesitate to fire someone if they weren’t on board with his ideas, he didn’t concern himself with what would happen if he couldn’t meet deadlines, and he didn’t work within existing limits and regulations.
He rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, taking huge risks that were considered inappropriate even within his own team, and managed to get himself fired from the company he co-founded. But in the midst of all this, his single-minded ambition changed millions of lives, revolutionising the fields of personal computers and digital music. That doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but it does highlight his ability to push the world forward where others might struggle due to the constraints of louder consciences.
In the caveman days, we needed people who could go out to hunt and fight, without being traumatised by their experiences. We also needed others who could intuitively sense danger, who could nurture and comfort others, and provide emotional support to those on the front line. In modern society, it’s often the more sensitive among us who will highlight injustice, but put us on the frontline and we fall apart. It’s too painful to be present with so much suffering. So it’s the less sensitive who will go out and fight injustice successfully.
Less sensitive doesn’t mean less caring.
There are many people who are caring and compassionate who are not empaths. They are the mid section of the continuum – they see suffering and they feel compassion and the need to change things, but they don’t take on the actual suffering as though it was happening to them. I remember a veterinarian telling me once that there are people who love animals, and there are people who love working with animals. As much as I would have loved a career working with animals, I would have been completely useless as a vet. I can imagine being constantly in tears or consumed with outrage, whereas he was able to work with animals in pain and distress effectively because although he cared very much, he didn’t take on the animal’s (or owner’s) distress as his own.
Being an empath or an introvert is not a trophy or a badge or honour. It does not make someone ‘special’. These labels are simply ways to understand certain aspects of our personality and behaviour. They don’t define all of who we are, and it isn’t a competition. Being an introvert is not ‘better’ than being an extrovert or vice-versa. Introverts can exhibit extroverted tendencies in certain situations. Empaths may be sensitive but it doesn’t mean they can’t behave in self-serving or insensitive ways at times.
We all have different strengths
We all have things that come more naturally to us, that become our preferred way of processing information and interacting with others. Empaths and introverts are currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity because for years they were given a bad rap – it was not cool to be ‘quiet’ or ‘too sensitive’. There were a lot of judgments made about these behavioural characteristics and now the pendulum is swinging back in our favour, unfortunately it sometimes means judgments are thrown back in the other direction as well. Whereas extroverts were once seen as the ideal, they are now sometimes denigrated as introverts regain lost ground.
It’s true that a less empathic person will need to work harder on their relationships so they remember to consider other people’s points of view (some should probably avoid close relationships altogether!). But an empath will also need to work on not overreacting to things that have nothing to do with them. An extrovert might need to learn to make room for other people in their conversations, but an introvert also needs to learn to share their feelings rather than keeping them bottled up inside.
In the end, it’s our differences that help us work effectively together for the sake of humanity. We each bring something unique and special to the table, and if we are able to embrace our strengths rather than feeling marginalised or shamed for them, we have a much better chance of finding our true calling.
This not only improves our quality of life and allows us to reach our full potential, but it means you’re more likely to bestow your unique gifts on the world before you leave it…whatever those may be.
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