Empathy may just be the thing that defines us as an organized society and as a creative, innovated race. The ability to not just feel similarly to someone else but further yet, entertain the idea of someone else’s personal existence as theoretically our own is simply an incredible leap of consciousness. It’s something that I marvel at frequently.
Most of my friends are “feeling” people. We experience our emotions deeply, and we do our best to accept them for what they are. We encourage each other to explore our feelings and to get in touch with the pieces of ourselves that are hard to describe in words. In this way, we try to overlay each other’s experiences with our own respective lives in an attempt to understand our actions and our motivations behind those actions. My friends are, in short, masters at empathizing, and it is a great joy in my life to know that the thoughts unique to me are not so incomprehensible.
These types of relationships encourage a healthy, emotional positive feedback loop. In our pursuit of understanding one another, we can find insights about ourselves, and in that practice of introspection, we ultimately wind up with more to offer each other by means of support. It’s a beautiful system. It is also a very fragile system.
It is a system incredibly easy to hijack.
Feeling types are constantly on the hunt for connection with whatever they can get their emotional hands on. Feeling types are more likely to be artists because finding connection between ideas comes a bit more natural than it would for “thinking” types. That is not to say that thinkers don’t feel or that feelers don’t think. It is to say that feelers are constantly tethering their identity to emotionally resonant stimuli at a rate that more analytical types typically don’t.
While this tendency for empathy is the hallmark of quality emotional development, what would it look like if one were to begin empathizing with fiction? Well, we would probably see people crying in movie theaters and at the end of a good book. We would see melancholy, nostalgic sighs when Patience by The Lumineers begins to play its first few dulcet tones. We would watch our neighbors cock their heads in bemusement at splashes of paint on a canvas. If you haven’t been living in a cave for the past several thousand years, you will have noticed that we do observe all these things. In fact, emotional evocation at fiction is pretty common place, and it’s as fun as it is meaningful. It is less of both when we don’t realize we are spending our precious emotional currency on fiction, though.
So, again, what happens when we empathize with illusion, with a fiction that we don’t know is fictitious? A lot happens, honestly, and it is typically to our detriment. Originally, I was going to focus this article on empathizing with the illusions presented by narcissists and emotional abusers, but there is a huge swath of fiction that is peddled as reality that we could fall prey to. Keep that in mind as we proceed.
Empathy is sort of like a psychological dinner party. When we empathize, we pull our consciousness into the emotional living space of another. We can walk around their emotional living room, and rummage around the emotional medicine cabinet of their feelings bathroom. During our stay, we can more easily envision what it is like to live in that person’s life. Sometimes, it’s all set dressing though. Sometimes everything at the table is just props, but we are polite enough guests to not pry too much and take a bite of that apple to find it is little more than a decorative ball of foam.
This is the shame of being duped, and it is probably my greatest fear in a social sense. When departing from a relationship with a narcissist, a lot of us survivors wind up swinging pendulously from having been a doormat to being territorial and suspicious. I’m speaking from experience when I say that the paranoia can be crippling at times. The abuser that I had fallen in love with was about as illusory as they come, and after my severance with them, it took me a painstakingly long time to begin to trust people’s intentions again. Put shortly, after being bamboozled for nearly four years, one learns that the most dangerous weapon that you can hand someone is your trust in them.
As I began navigating the healing process, I unconsciously began subscribing to a false dichotomy that left me feeling pretty heartless. I felt like I could proceed with my life by A. trusting people as they come because I’ll never really know their true intentions and cutting them out if they betray my trust or B. being initially and intentionally suspicious with any new encounter I have, going the extra mile to sniff out a fake before they even have a chance to betray me. I went with the later, again, unconsciously.
That systematic installation of constant paranoia soon affected everything, even long-standing friendships. I had traded my fear of being alone with a fear of vulnerability, and from what I can tell this is a common phenomena. Fear swapping felt like I was making progress simply because I had “solved” a problem, though I wasn’t admitting that I had replaced it with a new one.
I compulsively began divulging my darkest, strangest skeletons to everyone around me.
“Doesn’t sound like you were all that scared of vulnerability if you are going to open up like that,” you may be saying.
That was the point. It doesn’t seem like I was terrified. It seemed like I was bravely exposing the truth about myself and my past when I was really just heaving piles of trauma into walls of exposition around me. My mentality was, if everyone knows everything about me, then no one can use it against me. I always prefer to acknowledge the elephants in the room, especially if they are my own. It gives me a little power over the situation, but in this instance, I was taking it to a desperate extreme.
Here is something that I wish I would have realized years ago: it’s not your fault if you get bamboozled. So often when we are lied to or tricked, we point all of our fingers at ourselves and wonder how we could have been so stupid. We don’t even realize that we are holding ourselves to a standard bordering on omniscience. That’s not all that fair, right? It’s an impossible, ever-shifting goalpost. When we fall in love with a lie, it can be one of the hardest things to unlove, because the emotional attachment has solidified our notion of that false reality. To change one’s mind in this way, is to change one’s perception of reality. It’s not an easy realization or an easy process.
That’s okay, and in those moments when you feel like you have to bend the universe back into shame, you aren’t an idiot. Far from it. You are becoming more proficient at being the master of your life. Exposing and recovering from long standing, deep rooted lies is a psychic surgery that hurts, but when you heal, you find yourself in a more wholesome place.
People are going to put up fronts. They will guise themselves to your detriment some times; it’s just going to happen. When the mask falls, though, you are not to blame for finding ways to appreciate a masterfully crafted deception. That same energy can be redirected back at yourself in the form of patience and even more understanding.
When fiction is exposed and the fog clears, the light can be blinding. Allow yourself some time for your eyes to adjust, because when they do, you will only find more clarity in a world so much brighter than it ever had been before. That transition may take a while especially if it involved being hurt by someone you care about deeply, but its okay to take your time. It’s okay to squint for a bit until things come into focus.