On the Heart and Being an Empath

I used to think the impassable shields I carried were what saved me. That the walls and burrows I intricately constructed were the foundation that I needed to survive.

I so deeply believed that suffering in silence was the highest pillar of strength and that feeling things through were for those who could not persist. Something taught me, from a very young age, that sensitivity was not to be taken seriously, nor was it a signal of anything but weakness in many forms. In hindsight, I think that being a woman has a lot to do with the trepidation and hesitation I often feel in expressing my heart and embracing the depth of what I feel, because this world has made it clear that, for a woman or a girl, being outwardly emotional or vulnerable is synonymous with hysteria and an inability to behave rationally or thoughtfully. I know better now, and that thoughtfulness breeds from the heart; there is no thought or purposeful engagement with the workings of this world without the heart’s input. Still, early on, I had engrained into my mind that I could not both feel things deeply AND be intelligent/successful, for these were mutually exclusive. Human beings couldn’t possibly be exemplars of both simultaneously, for the execution of one wholly and completely discounted the other. This is the narrative that I told myself, and this is the narrative that both enabled me to survive and was ultimately harmful and non-serving to the life I wish to lead.

I denied my being an empath for as long as I could. I longed to not be a feeler, one whose heart is so moved by everyone and everything that it often bears an impossible weight. I concluded in my own mind that I valued my mind and what I knew it offered me more than my heart and any speculations of what it could potentially give me. I trusted that my mind could lead me to the places I belonged, the things I needed to know, and the life I wanted to have. It hurts me now to know that I discounted and disparaged the power of my heart for so long, and for no reason other than to avoid pain and all kinds of feeling that stemmed from the cracks leading to my own brokenness. The heart, I now understand, only brings more meaning and fulfillment to life in every form, and the mind’s limits illuminate the endlessness of the heart’s affections and what the brain deems unreachable. I allowed years of my life to be spent in the darkness, forcing a lack of feeling in my own heart and body, because I feared it would lead me away from truth and splendor. With time, I have found that the heart is the creator of this truth and splendor I so desperately sought, and to diminish its sovereignty was only to diminish the meaning and size of my life.

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Everyday, I’m actively working to dismantle the theory I have accepted and embodied over the years that stoicism was the highest virtue achievable in human life, to be apathetic and uninterested was an overt display of fortitude and courage, and to lean into how deeply and fully I felt things in this world would only lessen my capacity to be competent and worthy. I understood emotionality to minimize the ways in which I could interact with the world rather than seeing it as an optimizer of connectivity, community, friendship, and love (arguably the most important things this life can offer us). I can vividly recall countless times in my life that I’ve forcefully shut down feelings I may have been experiencing, because I held onto the false truth that the expression of sentiments was unattractive and chaotic. Although my awareness now allows me to see the danger and shortcomings of beliefs like this one, I cannot deny how very real it felt to me for so many years, for women are undeniably set up to find scrutiny and judgment on the other side of emotional freedom. Even today, I must deal with the daily debate I have in my own mind: can I have a heart like the one I do and also find success in the career, professional, and intellectual world? Can I be everything all at once?

Life is messy, confusing, heartbreaking, uplifting, ugly, and so very beautiful, all at once. So why can’t we be everything all at once? To deny our malleability, capacity for evolvement, imperfection, and corrigibility is to deny the significance and unique experience of our humanness. Compassion and empathy is what people DO. There is value and meaning in what is uniquely human, and that is reason enough to lean into what I have been most afraid of my whole life. I find it unforgivable to allow myself to restrict my own capacity for flourishing any more than I already have, and I hope more than anything in this world that you will not do yourself the same disservice that I did or embrace the wholly incorrect idea that feeling equates to weakness. To feel is to be human, and to feel deeply is a gift. Life is surely more difficult and harrowing upon allowing oneself to acknowledge and accept every passing sentiment the heart incurs, but awaiting us at the other side of feeling is understanding, truth, and beauty, all of which are extraordinarily subdued if the potential of the heart is kept in the dark. I found comfort in the darkness for longer than I care to admit, and I expected the discovery of light to be found solely within the capacities of my mind. What I never anticipated to be the truth, though, is that the true source of light for most people, and surely for us “feelers,” lies in the chambers of the heart. I always knew the depth of my feeling and any level of emotionality I experienced to be a dark mark on my strength, demerits on what I thought was what made me special or great. I created capes of perfectionism and stoicism to make me stronger and braver. But maybe feeling is a superpower, and that’s the cape we really need to soar.

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Although part of me wishes I could have arrived at the gratitude and fullness I now feel upon hearing and acting with the heart I was given, I’m appreciative of the perspective I was able to gain from how fearful I used to be. I wish I could go back to being that little girl who read books, became so deeply attached and invested in every character I saw love and goodness in, and cried over their trials and tribulations that had no impact on the unfolding of my life whatsoever and tell her that she isn’t abnormal. Nor was she wrong. I was never a broken person who failed to see the line between reality and fantasy— I just felt so much and so profoundly. The intensity of my reactions and sentiments connected to people I’ve never meant, their struggles and suffering that kept me up at night, and how badly I wished to carry their pain and wear their burdens on my own shoulders was not something I should have been so fearful or suspicious of. Rather, I should have nurtured and cared for that part of me, for acting on it is what has brought me the most joy and fulfillment of all things in my life. It is also where I most see and feel my mom closest to me, for she remains the most heartfelt and empathetic human I’ve ever known. I thank her and the beautiful, compassionate, and courageous friends who hold such a special place in my life and in my heart, for they have taught me more than any book or exercise of the mind ever could. They have allowed me to see that vulnerability IS power, that emotion is to be felt, and that expression is a gift. That life is a conversation, and sometimes being brave means listening to the scared and childlike voice in your head that just wants to feel seen and protected. I think I’m finally starting to see that the meaning of life isn’t to make yourself as small as possible. It’s not my life’s work to make my voice, my feelings, my opinions and intentions, my beliefs and strengths, my mind, my body, or my life as insignificant and non-threatening as I can in order to make others comfortable, for their satisfaction and approval is not what I’m fighting for— mine is. The questions I (and maybe all of us) should be asking myself are: “Am I satisfied and fulfilled with the life I’m living?” and “Do I approve of my choices and the way in which I consciously carry out my days?”

As of today, here is what I know to be true:

I feel best when I write.

I feel best when I read.

I feel best when I create.

I feel best when I find beauty.

I feel best when art surrounds me.

I feel best when I love.

I feel best when I can hear and be heard.

I feel best when I understand.

I feel best when I see and embrace love.

I feel best when I feel.

Being and embracing the empath deep inside my heart and my soul has not been simple, but experiencing the gift that is feeling deeply and wholly is not one I would have willingly abandoned. I’ve come to appreciate my desperate need to help people through their trials, my insatiable desire for a career in which I continually learn while being available to others and their journeys, my irrational connection to fictional characters, the tears that fill my eyes while watching TEDTalks and quite literally every movie ever made, my crying over global issues and suffering that I simply cannot solve on my own, and how often I ponder the meaning and substance of what comprises my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be fully comfortable with feeling everything all at once, but it’s okay when I do. I’ll never be able to do it all, but what I choose to do, I wish to be purposeful and fulfilling while I have the time on this earth.

“I don’t think that I’m broken at all. I no longer think that I’m a mess. I just think that I’m a deeply feeling person in a messy world.” -Glennon Doyle

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