I had known Janie for over a year. We had gone to lunch or dinner together once every couple of weeks with a third friend, Billie. We were all writers. Our evenings together were spent talking about writing–and about work and about home. Most nights, my friends talked about their exhausting days at work or about what unkind thing their husbands said the night before. I spent most of my time listening, commiserating and offering suggestions.
One evening, I’d had a particularly bad day at work and when the three of us sat down and ordered our drinks, I remarked about several of the situations I’d dealt with that day. Janie looked at me with an odd expression and said, “I was beginning to think you didn’t like me because you never talked about yourself when we were together.”
I was stunned. Never in my life had I equated how much someone shared of their life with how much they liked me. I’d spent a year listening to Janie and Billie’s problems and offering suggestions and possible solutions. But I never thought that they told me their problems because they liked me. I just always thought I was a good listener and so I listened.
During that time, as Janie said, I had not talked much at all about my own problems, for several reasons. Foremost, because I had already experienced the day. I had no desire to relive it by rehashing it for my friends. To do that seemed exhausting to me. But also, when people talk to me about problems, I listen and try to come up with a solution. To me, that’s being a friend.
I often think about Janie and her concern that I didn’t like her. I’ve always considered myself sensitive to other people’s feelings. I’ve always equated that with being empathic. And I’ve always been fascinated with empathy, as well as telepathy.
Empathy is defined by the Random House Dictionary as the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. That’s pretty dry, even as definitions go.
Berkely.edu provides a slightly more insightful definition. They define empathy as the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity.
According to a number of sites that discuss empathy, my way of befriending Janie and Billie, by opening myself to their problems, listening and offering solutions, is an example of a moderate to extremely empathic person. As is my discomfort with sharing my own problems with them and being reluctant to relive an unpleasant experience (e.g. a bad day at work) by relating it to my friends.
There are a number of levels of empathy. Almost everyone, perhaps excluding psychopaths and sociopaths, has at least a minimal level of empathy. Various percentages of people may be minimally empathic, moderately empathic or extremely empathic. These designations vary from site to site.
Someone who is extremely empathic may actually feel, not only the emotions of another person, but even their physical sensations or pain. Some empaths must touch the person to feel their physical sensations, while extraordinarily empathic people have been said to be able to receive physical sensations across space.
Like telepathy, there are many aspects of empathy that are disputed by scientists. It may remain for future scientists to discover more about these rather mysterious psychological ‘talents.’
There are quite a few sites online that purport to test one’s level of empathy. I’ve taken several of the tests. The tests I took are interesting and a little enlightening. Every test I took had questions that seemed directly targeted to me. You can find these sites using Google.
Are you slightly empathic or extremely empathic? Have you had experiences that would lead you to believe that you’re empathic? I’d love to hear about your experiences.