Imagine you are out with your friends, maybe having a nice meal or something. When suddenly, one of your friend decided to bring a guest. Maybe its a sibling or a significant other. But it is your first time meeting that person.
Instead of being a normal individual and engaging in banal chit chat, you decide to there and then, announce your candidacy as the greatest douchebag in the world. You start insulting yourself, and telling this newcomer of all the stupid things you’ve ever done.
Or, you might go the other way and ignore the newcomer as just another body. You continue chatting, only really engaging with this new person when they directly motion for you.
Maybe you immediately engage in conversation. Deep conversation. Like, really, really deep. You start asking about their jobs and family, how they do things in excruciating details.
If this sounds like you, you might have a case of hyper-empathy.
Hyper-empathy is weird. It’s one of those things you don’t really think about, because of how prevalent and daily it is in the lives of people who have it. Slowly, you would just come to think of it as a personality trait.
It is what happens when a person has too much empathy. I’m not talking about just simply caring too much, but rather, able to read emotions and cues a step over what normal people do.
It’s also very hard to put it into an intellectual or practical explanation, as you end up having to try to break down actions, emotions, and social cues to a logical ending. But that is what I will try to explain here.
There’s a reason why I gave the above three situational examples. They are things that I would do, and are reactions that I have managed to somewhat break down into understandable bits.
The above three are what I deem as the optimal way of getting on someone’s good side on a first meeting. I’m not talking about becoming friends. I’m talking about making them happy and not hate me in the quickest and most effective way possible.
I do this in three quick steps. I take in the entire scenario, evaluate the newcomer’s personality, and react. This might seem like something that everyone does, but for someone with hyper-empathy it’s on a whole different scale.
How do you walk? Did you smile when we first meet? Was it a wide grin with teeth? What’s your tone? How are you dressed? Where did you sit? Did you sit first or after your friend? Are you seating closer to a stranger? Corner seat? Eye contact? Who starts the conversation? Fidgeting? Are you carrying a bag? Do you have a book in your hand? What kind of phone are you using? Sick? Runny nose? Lazy eye? Vocab? Mother tongue? Tone of voice? Who did you talk to first? How did you react?
Like I said, somehow, I take all those things and compress them into the few seconds and decide how to react, which is why when I’m within a large group, I freeze up, as I can’t analyse everyone fast enough. But in small groups of one-on-one, that’s a whole different story.
If you are someone who’s more self centred and unfriendly, I prod into your life, get you to talk about yourself. If you have low esteem, I make myself the butt of the joke to prop you up. It’s easy to like me if who I am is likable to you.
This is just one of the few small ways in which a hyper-empath leads their lives. Another quick example is this. I had an email exchange with Alden Tan (a fellow Singaporean writer and blogger) the other week, and he is a very vulgar-casual writer. He uses vulgarity as words without insults, and is very straightforward a person.
Even though I had never met him before in my life, after reading his blog, I took on more than a little of his directness and attitude in my email exchange with him, using vulgarities freely as well. In short, I changed my personality to suit his. And this changing of personality to suit others is done all the time, on the scale where two groups of people who know me will have completely different ideas of who I am as a person.
That doesn’t just mean that my family and friends sees me differently from co-workers. It means that my elder sister and younger sister will experience a completely different me. And I might be completely unrecognisable to a co-worker in a different cubicle.
Again, this is not just an ordinary want to be liked. It is almost a compulsion. And it’s not like you are being a people’s person either. More along the lines of being able to ‘read’ a person to an almost annoying degree. Imagine if every time you asked your significant other if the sex was good and they say, “Yes.” But you know they are lying, every single time! It’s kind of like that. Except it’s all the time when you don’t need it to.
Now you might think, “That sounds awesome! Understanding and getting people to like you on instinct!”
Normally, sure, it’s pretty great. I don’t consciously do it, but yeah, it’s nice not having anyone hate me on sight. But it also has it’s down sides.
It’s very hard for me to make friends. The process is excruciatingly long and painful, as once you are passed the point of merely ‘liking’ you, it becomes much more complex. You have to build on that first impression, get into arguments and fights and disagree. That’s very hard when your base instinct is don’t hate me.
You can go to great lengths to want to please people. It’s one of the reasons why I entered conscription without declaring that I was possibly mentally ill, an action that nearly killed me.
It also makes it hard to keep a job. I have an instinctual need to do my utmost best when a stranger (like an employer) is counting on me, and I would often work myself to the literal breaking point. And unless my employer is understanding, they would just think I am a hard worker.
This means I could finish three days worth of work in half a day using the exact same amount of energy as it would take in three, and my boss could go, “Good job. Here’s more.” While I was about to collapse.
Overworking has happened to me more than once, and on one such occasion, I managed to work myself to a heat stroke and passed out. That was after I managed to finish the work on hand though, so you know, props on that.
Because employers don’t usually need to care about their workers. They just need them to do their jobs. And if they can get more work done for the same amount of money without killing someone, so be it. All the better for the bosses.
Which is why I still do not have a stable job, as a stable job means stable work. Something which I can’t instinctual do without severely straining my body in the end. I used to do project-based work, but due to the stressful burst nature, I kept falling ill after each project, and I’ve now waned off it. At the moment, I’m doing part time and freelancing here and there. It doesn’t earn much, but at least I’m not halfway to death all the time.
Hyper-empathy, for the above reason, is also why most people who have it suffers from some underlying mental illness or another. It’s sort of a defence mechanism in my opinion, where to prevent people from thinking you are crazy, you try your best to make them like you.
It’s great fun in the same sense as having bipolar disorder is great fun. Sometimes, it is amazing and helpful. And the other half of the time, you must be prepared to be strangled and killed by it.
Addendum 1: It has been pointed out to me that I might have been talking about codependency by one of my readers. While I do not completely agree on that statement, I find it a fascinating food for thought to put out there, and I encourage readers to draw their own conclusions base on research and information.
Addendum 2: This post has gotten quite a high number of views, and is constantly growing. While I will not change anything written in the above post, as it is a blog of sorts, I would just like to point out that the term ‘Hyper-empathy’ is not a medical term, and merely something I came up with to identify the recurring life experience. It is my hope that being able to put a word to the feeling can help people come to better terms with their lives and conditions, and perhaps clear some questions and misunderstanding, and even help describe their problems to counsellors and therapists for better treatment.
(Note: For more links on resources, blogs, or articles about mental health and services, visit the Links and Resources page.)