A few weeks ago I was talking with some coworkers about empathy. They both concluded that people become more empathetic as they get older because life experience makes you more aware of the needs of others. I was dumbfounded—mostly because in my case the opposite is true.
As a teenager I proudly wore my heart on my sleeve. It was so easy for me to put myself in the place of others that I often felt exactly how they did. This was especially challenging when I served as a peer counselor. I always left sessions feeling completely drained of energy and had to take long naps to recharge. It felt as though the weight of the world was on my shoulders, and in a lot of ways it was.
If a friend had a problem, I agonized over it for days because I was trying to figure out ways I could help. I hated watching shows like Candid Camera because I couldn’t bear to watch people being embarrassed—even if it was all in good fun. I spent a lot of time agreeing with people I didn’t agree with because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
Feeling the need to protect others has always been a part of me. I didn’t like to see people feeling hurt, intimidated, or angry, so I did whatever I could to prevent that from happening. I didn’t know at the time that in protecting others I was ignoring myself.
It was completely unrealistic for me to think it was my duty to be the guardian of everyone’s feelings. It’s a kind gesture, but shielding people from the unpleasantness of life only serves to give them a false sense of security. I have learned more about myself in times of difficulty than I have when everything is going well. I had to give others the same opportunity.
I’m still empathetic, but now my emotions are tempered with logic and rationality. While it is true that my coworkers learned to put the needs of others before their own, I had to learn that helping others doesn’t mean sacrificing my own needs completely. I guess you could say I acquired the ability to lead with my head as well as my heart. The balance has made all the difference in the world.