When I was growing up, I thought everything had feelings. Especially things with faces. I had a pair of fuzzy slippers with a smiling moon on one foot and smiling star on the other that I loved more than most humans in my life at the time. I wore them to my summer camp’s pajama day…which included an impromptu excursion for Slurpees from 7–11.
My mother, being the Rational Adult Human™ she was, threw them away when I returned home with them, completely mud-soaked and ruined. Continuing her rational decision-making, she didn’t consult me before throwing them away because she knew I would protest — dramatically. She hoped I would forget about them over the course of the summer so, by the time slipper weather returned, I would have been able to adjust to life without the smiling sun and moon.
Oh Susan, so well-intentioned. But so naive.
I did forget about them for a few months, but around Christmastime I struck up a search when my feet began to feel the cold of our hardwood floors. I can still see her increasing panic as I searched through the entire house — even at one point deciding “maybe they fell behind the entertainment center” (for reference, the entertainment center was at least 1.5 Katlyns tall at this point in my life).
Finally, my poor mother came clean and told me she threw them away. I remember throwing my entire, sobbing body at her feet in extreme distress, wailing that “I didn’t even get to say goodbye! They’ll never know I loved them!” In my young mind, she had completely betrayed me. And the slippers. It was the most devastating moment of my life so far.
That poor woman. She had gotten me replacement slippers with sheep on them for Christmas that I initially rejected because “they’re not the same.” Eventually I came to love them just as much as the star and moon, and I think I was even of enough emotional maturity to throw them away myself when the time came (or at least be told before it happened).
I remember making her host a funeral for our toothbrushes (while she was in the bathtub). I remember saving every drawing with a face on it (even if it was a failed one I never finished). I remember saving the shavings of my butterfly wallpaper when we repainted my room. I remember my mother having to literally sneak around to throw away clothes I’d outgrown or shoes I’d worn through because I couldn’t bear with how “sad they would be if they knew I didn’t love them.”
I hoarded almost everything because I couldn’t cope with the thought of hurting its “feelings.”
When I was in college, my therapist had me take an emotional intelligence test which showed my levels of empathy were (are) super elevated. While I no longer worry my toothbrush will be sad if I throw it away without a burial and no longer hoard clothes that don’t fit (unless they’re really, really cute…), I still just…feel things. A lot. And intensely.
Part of having too much empathy means I absorb the emotional energy around me, which can be good for reading situations and practicing empathy. It also means I can be kind of like an emotional pirate, hijacking the feelings of those around me and feeling them as completely as they do — without the full emotional context. It also means I feel my own feelings in a more heightened state than most people (kind of like when you bump a part of your arm that’s already bruised).
I have spent most of my life being told I’m “too sensitive,” taking things “too personally,” or “too high strung.” Which, yes, can sometimes be true. For better or worse, the fact that I am a profoundly emotional person is largely out of my control. It’s kind of like how an overactive immune system sees everything as an existential threat — my amygdala sees most every situation as a major emotional event, and feels the feelings of those around me like they’re my own.
This can make it hard to separate myself from the atmosphere of a stressful situation, because I feel my own stress and the stress of everyone else around me. It is super frustrating for me because I’m feeling more than “my fair share,” and probably equally as frustrating for the people around me because I’m responding to more than “my fair share” of the emotion in the room. So what seems like a minor situation to people with normal levels of empathy feels a lot more intense to someone like me who’s wired with too much. It’s kind of like an allergic reaction — my emotional t-cells often overestimate their reaction to a given situation.
I’m learning to recognize those intense biological reactions so my emotional t-cell equivalents don’t latch onto everything like it’s the emotional equivalent of swine flu (and that they only latch onto my emotional energy instead of the emotional energy of everyone in a ten-mile radius). Note to brain: just because you’re feeling all the things right now doesn’t mean crying or panicking over that missed parking spot is the best reaction.
I’m also learning that it’s okay if I react to a missed parking spot like it’s the emotional equivalent of swine flu. Or sob at a commercial because that puppy was just too freakin’ small. Or sometimes feel with others in a given situation. It’s okay to be imperfect and emotional because that’s one of the most beautiful and human things about me. I own my emotions completely and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s taken me a long time to understand that I don’t need to apologize for having more empathy than the average person. I’m still beginning to understand that. While I can definitely grow to control my responses to those emotional impulses and to relinquish the emotional burden of everyone around me so I can focus on myself, I’m learning to be comfortable with the depth with which I feel.
Feeling is okay. Feeling deeply is okay. Feeling intensely is okay. As long as you aren’t harming anyone else or inhibiting their ability to feel and live, feeling in the way you need to feel is completely, totally okay. Even if it means throwing yourself at your mother’s feet over a pair of slippers sometimes.