How to Make Empathy Great Again

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As any of you who've held a conversation with me in the past year probably know, I'm a fiend for podcasts. If a commute is going to take me longer than 15 minutes, best believe I'll be blasting The Moth or archived episodes of Radiolab to pass the time. Unable to get them out of my head, I've become that dreaded anecdote girl. You know – the one that says shit like "100% of rabies cases end in death" with COMPLETE aplomb, but who begs you to Google any other questions you might have 'cause I don't actually have a clue what I'm talking about. I just like to share, you guys.

Usually, I store the lessons gleaned from these stories in the back of my mind and relay them later to people in my immediate circle. So imagine my surprise when a couple of days ago, I tried to give advice I learned in real life to a person on a podcast. As in: I talked out loud, in my car, to a stranger who could not hear me.

On Tuesday morning, bumping along on my typical commute, I started listening to an episode of Death, Sex, and Money – a program that interviews people about the big life stuff we all deal with, but are usually reluctant to talk about. The guest on this particular episode was Tituss Burgess from the Unbreakable Kenny Schmidt who spoke about his childhood in the South. For the first few minutes, I was only semi-interested in this apparently famous human that I'd never heard of who acts in a show I've also never heard of.  That is until about minute five when he began talking about something I know all too damn well: the downfalls of extreme empathy. Even though he didn't put his experiences in quite those terms, when Tituss began talking about being "a very intuitive person" and "feeling people's energy and taking it on," I literally found myself shaking my head with eyes closed and lips pursed, saying, "Not me, not mine, baby!"

Like a fun fact from a podcast, this phrase has become my go-to anecdote since the first time I heard the incredible Aimee Bello say it during the first Sacred Reiki Circle I attended with her at the House of Intuition. What started as a simple reminder to avoid taking on other people's energy in healing sessions, quickly became manta for me when I realized just how often I –and so many people I know – become prey to our own empathy.

The truth is, a lot of us are like Tituss and can easily sense other people's pain. It's all well and good, of course, to be understanding when we see a friend in pain, but when we begin to take that pain on for ourselves trouble tends to set in. I mean, how often have you spent hours recanting your friends' problems to your mom and then been confused when you're suddenly in a heinous mood? Or maybe you've griped over choices your friends/siblings/parents/partners have made and end up wasting valuable time wishing you could help steer them in the right direction only to grow frustrated beyond belief? Chances are, if you have even the teensiest of empathetic bones in your left armpit, you've been there.

What puberty-ridden Tituss didn't understand – and many of us still don't – is that the best kind of sensitive friend acts more like rubber than like glue. Rubber people are the ones who listen to your problems carefully and considerately managing not to dole out their own energy. Instead, they possess a loving ear and a shoulder to cry on all while letting your negativity  bounce right off of them. They aren't like glue people who allow everyone's shit to stick to them and then use up their own energy, fighting to get unstuck. The thing about rubber people is that, by preserving their own energy, they can endlessly support their loved ones without becoming depleted. Meanwhile, gluey Hueys end up spent, resorting to extremes like cutting people out of their lives entirely when their problems become too much to handle (guilty as charged). When we become rubber though, it becomes really clear that it's possible to give empathy without giving away your energy.

Hear me when I say that – considering I did just write an entire article about a complete stranger's life problems from three decades ago – I'm content admitting that this is a lesson I'm still learning. It's a lesson gleaned with a looooot of time and patience, but uttering the words "not me, not mine" when you find yourself getting too deep is a really good place to start. When we use these words as mantra, we can stop ourselves from the incessant need to feel attached to things that never belonged to us in the first place. We can snap out of the pattern of becoming glued to people's problems, letting ourselves dry up along the way. And most of all, we can let things bounce right off of us – our wells of energy just as vivacious and as full as ever.

- Lenea Sims

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