Why empathy is a superpower

I have been debating whether or not I should tell you, but… I have a super power. Not a secret identity, though – my super self is my everyday self. Which is just how it should be!

empathy-superpower-s

You may be snickering or rolling your eyes now. Empathy? What a lame super power! Well, if you’ve got a minute, I’d like to explain why I do think it’s indeed an incredibly valuable skill, one that, in theory, 99.9% of all humans possess, but that is not really valued enough in our culture, relegated to the realm of ‘feminine’, ‘bad for business’ and optional’. As a consequence, many people do not realise the full potential of what being empathetic really means, and how tremendously useful it can be.

I know what you’re thinking

The short version is: The Mentalist. Boom. Nobody would argue that reading minds is not a super power, right? Well, the thing is, that’s what being really empathetic boils down to. (Okay, almost.) I know, for example, that many people have difficulties pegging me when we first meet, or even dislike me at first. That’s okay. I’m kind of shy and reticient – and it used to be much worse -, so new acquaintances may simply be having some trouble gathering enough data about me to decide whether I’m likable, which makes them sceptic. They don’t say it, they’re not unfriendly, and for a while I thought I was being paranoid. But the thing is, people usually come around after a while and start to like me, and several of them have admitted, after years of friendship, that they found me a little odd at first.

So I know I wasn’t being paranoid. But you know what’s even better? I can tell the exact moment when someone begins to like me, and it’s beautiful. It’s that moment when people give me a tiny little look that they probably don’t think much of themselves, but suddenly, there is a warmth in their eyes that wasn’t there before and I know they have made up their mind that they like me now. That feels really good.

Empathy is also really helpful in difficult conversations. If you’re open to receiving the signals your conversation partner sends, you will know exactly when you just phrased something badly, or touched on a point that hurt or upset them, and you can rephrase, be clearer about your criticism, or add in some much needed praise for things that went well. Also, empathic people know when they’re nailing it. Which can really give you a much-needed boost of self-esteem, because, like any other super power, there’s a downside to being a king or queen of empathy: we worry. A lot.

High sensitivity

If you’re an HSP (highly sensitive person) like myself and, in fact, 20% of the earth’s human population, I’m sure you’re familiar with the issue of worrying your head off. (That isn’t to say that only HSPs worry, of course… We just have our own lovely reasons to.) We always know when we did something ever so tiny to upset – even when it’s something so small that the other person wouldn’t have mentioned it. We always know.

If we keep asking “Are you mad?” or “Is something the matter?”, it’s not because we’re paranoid; it’s because we know very well that something’s up; we just can’t say it that way or it would sound totally creepy. (“I sense a disturbance in your inner self, my friend…” Ugh. No.) Other people may not wish to talk about it, which can increase our insecurities – “Did I misread that? Am I too touchy?” -, but, in my experience, my spidey senses are right 90% of the time. When people say “It’s nothing”, it usually means “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I’m busy repressing that, thank you”; only very rarely does it mean “I really am fine”.

It took me a long time to trust my gut on this, but now I do, and it’s really helpful. The only thing I still slip up on is texts and emails. Some people just have a way of writing that I would ever only use if I was so pissed off, but for them, it’s perfectly normal, even though they communicate very differently face-to-face. So text is still difficult. Isn’t that ironic, given that I’m trained as a literary scholar… But if you’re talking to me face-to-face? I’m in your head. I know what you’re thinking. Boom, empathed. You know, like “lawyered”? … No, wait, I can feel your reaction to that awful pun. I take it back, I take it back! Damnit.

Sound familiar?

Is being highly sensitive your super power? You can take a short but, I think, pretty good test here. It’s developed by Elaine Aaron, the leading researcher in the field of high sensitivity, who first described and started working with this now widely recognised phenomenon in the 90s. The test is not 100% definite, of course, but you’ll catch the general drift of the description and probably know if that’s you. Heck, I checked everything except two things on that list, so I’m pretty sure. (I’m weirdly unaffected by caffeine, you know.)

There’s nothing wrong with you

For a long time, I used to think there was something wrong with me because I get so nervous and overwhelmed with busy situations, draw back from meetings and phone calls that other people seem to take completely in stride, and, let’s be honest, sometimes I feel like curling up under the snacks table, hugging myself and rocking back and forth softly, rather than face one more stranger at a party. It used to make me feel inadequate, (even more) insecure and very confused. When I learned about high sensitivity, I realised that there’s nothing wrong at all. Turns out, I have a superpower.

In this case, though, ‘superpower’ doesn’t mean a unique talent – and that’s a good thing. I was really relieved to finally lose the sense that I was abnormal, facing troubles that no normal person – as I used to believe – had to deal with. But I’m not alone. Every fifth human being on earth is an HSP. So think about your circle of friends… one out of five may be able to read your mind.

Show some pride in your empathy

superpower-xsIf you’re a very empathetic person, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “too sensitive” or “touchy feely”. Be proud of your empathetic mindset, because this world would be a much better place if all people felt acutely whatever pain they inflict on others. Here’s a cute free printable celebrating your superpower! You can download it here.

Are you an HSP, or one of your friends or family? When did you realise it? Leave a comment and tell me about it – that is, if you wish! I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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