On Empathy

People that get to know me usually learn quickly that I loathe most television and movies. A strong component of this, until recently, has been the ADHD. I struggle to sit through a movie in the theatre when I cannot get up and walk around, pause it, or do something else simultaneously. It might also explain why I generally have an easier time watching cartoons and movies designed for children, with their shorter runtimes and faster-paced editing. Shows with repetitive music and laugh tracks also make me feel overstimulated.

Some recent experiences have caused me to take a deeper look at this.

When I emerged from my zombie-like depression in 2014, one of the issues I was consciously working on was empathy. I felt at that time I suffered from a lack of empathy; however, thanks to my therapist and the MMPI test, I better understand that I am/was burdened by egocentrism. Egocentrism, plainly put, means that it is difficult to distinguish the self from others and to view things from another person’s perspective. I think most people are egocentric to one degree or another. It becomes an issue when it interferes with your ability to function, or to maintain healthy boundaries within relationships.

I have lived a very isolated life, having few meaningful friendships or people I could trust to be myself with or honestly confide in, especially in my formative years. My parents violated my trust irreparably. Friendships with women have suffered due to lack of common interests, often, and male friendships tend to eventually deteriorate due to sexual attraction or romantic feelings. So other than my limited exposure to fiction, I spend a lot of time in my own head.

Now, I have been sort-of passively watching the series Mad Men on Netflix for the past few weeks, on one of my monitors behind my drawing tablet while I work. I am not going to spoiler a show that ended in 2015, so bail now if you must. There is a scene near the beginning of the show where Joan, the office manager, is pushed onto Don Draper’s office floor and raped by her fiancĂ©. In a later scene, she is coerced into having sex with a potential client for the ad agency in exchange for his car company’s business. Though neither scene is filmed in graphic detail, there is enough footage book-ending both acts that your mind is able to imagine the rest. Both of these scenes left me crying and nearly shaking with rage. It was after that I began to notice how emotionally-drained and exhausted these dramas made me, and I realized that the other part of not enjoying them was too much empathy with the characters.

For similar reasons, I cannot tolerate cringe-shows like The Office, where I am supposed to laugh at someone embarrassing or humiliating themselves.

My current job requires compassion and empathy daily, and has even offered me a unique window to compare my interactions with those of my coworkers. It is easy to distinguish those for whom care is “just a job” versus those who actually care about the residents. And through my observations I have seen that, other than sometimes missing social cues, I am relatively normal.

It has been painful to observe people I have known be repeatedly abused by their partner, or engage in self-destructive and self-defeating behaviour. Here I have had to learn to maintain better boundaries, or simply walk away.

And in other instances, because I cared more about not upsetting someone, or put someone else’s happiness before my own, I have endured behaviours that made me profoundly uncomfortable, or left me feeling used and violated. I have allowed other (equally, or more dysfunctional) people to tell me what is “wrong” with me when I reacted poorly, or even reasonably, to abusive or unhealthy behaviours. The further distance I am from these relationships, the more clearly I can see their toxicity; not just my own, but from the other side. I have been burdened and weighed down by a mind-breaking amount of guilt and shame that was never really mine to begin with. And for the most part, I have bitten my tongue, due to fears of retaliation or retribution. I have been fighting this dissonance between my reality as I perceive it, and what I have been told or manipulated into believing my reality “is” or “should” be.

I am wise to this trickery, and it will not work on me anymore.

I have made significant progress in recognizing and eliminating my own toxic behaviours. The quality of my close relationships has improved immensely.

Through building professional relationships with colleagues I respect, positive feedback, and constructive criticism from unbiased sources, I have gradually repaired the damage dealt to my self-confidence. I am good and have value. My work is good and has value. No one can take that away from me.

I am getting better and doing better every day.

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