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Years ago, while living at home with my mother, she often accused me of being a ‘glutton for punishment’ because my friends and I would have disagreements and rather than close a door and walk away I tried to see their point of view, we would often let bad feelings go and pick right up where we had left off before the disagreement. My mother thought this was a ridiculous way of dealing with friendships. My mother took the position that a friend or family member, for that matter, would never do anything to hurt you, would never fight with you and if they do, they aren’t someone you should be spending time with.

When I entered into therapy the first observation the psychologist made was that I take responsibility for the way other people feel, for their happiness, I try to ‘fix’ things for other people, I’m a ‘rescuer’ type personality and that he understood why people considered me a ‘good listener’, because I showed real interest in the things other people shared.

As we talked, as I began participating in a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Support group, he realized something about me that I hadn’t been aware of. He explained to me that I seemed unable to ‘just listen’ when other people shared their emotions, but rather, I seemed to absorb their emotions, feel them myself and become as upset, hurt, happy, excited, etc., as the person who was sharing those feelings.

While working at my last position my supervisor took me aside and told me I was an “Earth Mother”, easy to talk to, a good listener, BUT I was unable to NOT feel the emotions of the people around me. If someone was hurting, I was hurting, if someone was angry, I was angry. She saw this as a problem in a ‘disability rights’ organization where we offered ‘peer support’.

I’ve caught myself, when my Godson was venting about his mother, my best friend of 34 years, feeling gradually intensifying anger at her as the result of how he was feeling and simultaneously I would be angry at him, listening to her talk about the way he appeared to be disrespecting her. I found it increasingly difficult to be around the both of them because my own emotions were so conflicted.

Recently, when my sister-in-law began sharing her opinions and feelings about her son-in-law with us, I found it very difficult to not be ‘influenced’ by her feelings. I knew nothing about him, had no previous exposure to him, so it was easy to accept her opinions as fact.

My sister-in-law is not someone who is emotional. I don’t think that I have ever seen her cry. She’s good at ‘angry’, but other than anger, she doesn’t really seem to ever let anyone really know how she feels.

She began sharing with me how much she disliked and didn’t trust her son-in-law. She cautioned my husband and I to not believe anything he said because he exaggerates and makes things up. She went on to tell us that he didn’t want to work, thought it was okay to live on welfare, in public housing. She told us how she’d gotten him a job where she works and that he’d had other jobs, but he always seemed to either get hurt or get fired, not able to keep a steady job. She told us that he lied about losing these jobs, telling people he was laid off, rather than admitting that he’d gotten fired or quit.

I found it very difficult to take him seriously, as a result of her opinion of him. When her daughter became pregnant she asked for our help putting together the things her daughter was going to need. She was concerned that with the ‘track record’ they both had with working, quitting jobs, that they were living in subsidized housing, had no health insurance, etc. they weren’t going to be able to provide the things the baby would need.

She told me that her son-in-law was very controlling and overbearing of her daughter, that he controlled her every move and influenced her to do and say things that would have been uncharacteristic for her. She told me she was afraid her daughter was going to keep the baby from her, that she felt she had no choice but to do what her daughter wanted or risk never seeing her granddaughter. She was distraught when she told me that her daughter and son-in-law had told her she could no longer accompany them to the doctor appointments and she was not going to be able to take birthing classes with them.

I told her how much that hurt me, to know she was being treated that way, because I knew how much she was doing to help them. I expressed to my sister-in-law that her daughter had stopped communicating with me and knowing how she was treating her mother I really wasn’t expecting much from her. My sister-in-law pleaded with us to not turn our backs on her daughter because she was convinced that once the baby was born, her daughter would tire of her husband’s behavior and leave him, she would need us, need her whole family.

She called me and wanted to call off the baby shower. She told me her daughter and son-in-law were evicted and moving back in with his mother. She said she told her daughter she wanted to baby sit and her daughter told her she would probably only get to babysit on weekends when they both were at National Guard weekends and my sister-in-law said since her son-in-law had not ‘re-enlisted’ in the guards, there wouldn’t be many opportunities for her to babysit. She was heart broken.

I was so emotional, so stressed. I wrote about how much it hurt me to see my sister-in-law hurting like that, knowing what she was trying to do for her daughter.

I feel what other people feel, it gets absorbed, becomes part of me. I find it very difficult to separate myself from the emotions. When other people hurt, I hurt.

She saw what I had written and twisted it all around in her mind to be some sort of an attack.

My husband said to me today that he thinks of me as an ’empath’, someone who is overly empathetic to the feelings and experiences of others, and that we compliment one another because he is able to ‘hear’ what someone is feeling and let it go, he never lets it fully get inside. In this way, I feel things and need to express my feelings, so he is able to listen without becoming overwhelmed, letting things go without being negatively effected.

The question then becomes, is this something that I need to work on? Is it something in me that I need to ‘fix’ or ‘change’? Is it a valuable characteristic that allows me to be a better support for the people I love?

I think I need to find a ‘happy medium’, a way to stay empathetic and sensitive, but to not allow myself to get so overwhelmed by the feelings of others, to detach more, let more of the stronger feelings ‘roll off my back’, the way my husband does. I’m afraid though, that to do so, is to deny part of myself. It’s a difficult place to be.