Learning to deal with heightened empathy

By  Jenna Ebener

I went into the movie theater expecting a moving story. I did not expect having to leave during the movie because I was so distraught. In the middle of a gory battle, I could acutely feel the soldiers’ terror, pain and hopelessness.

I have always been sensitive to others’ emotions. But I first learned in college that there was a term for this heightened sensitivity. At that time, I saw a particularly heartbreaking movie that left me unable to sleep. When I confided in a social work professor some of my unrest, I finally had a label for what I was experiencing: I have a thin empathy barrier. She helped me to realize that the reason I can get so emotional or sensitive is because I feel what others are going through.

Over the years, I have grown in my knowledge of what it means to have a thin empathy barrier. I know it is one reason I am so drawn to the vulnerable population I work with. I also know it is a double-edged sword; the more I feel, the harder it is to recover from intense situations. I knew working in an intense school would push me to the limits. I have seen families with medically fragile children struggle to provide for their family; children who cannot speak and who hurt themselves to try and communicate what they need; and children who pass away long before their time. I worried that with constant exposure to these experiences the emotions might become too much and eventually I would start caring less. What I did not anticipate was heightened empathy.

I have gotten to a point in my life where I need to carefully monitor what I expose myself to. News stories, movies and books can easily put me over the edge. Even movies I once used to love can bring me to tears. I am learning what it is about these experiences that make me feel so much. I am also learning what particular experiences I am most vulnerable to, for our perspectives are shaped by our past experiences. I know one of my two biggest triggers is when individuals are self-injurious or unable to love themselves. The second is when others are demonstrating their love of others, whether in a positive or negative situation, such as a birth or a death. I am affected by these scenarios because I am filled with compassion for the individuals and their situation.

I know that the intensity of the emotions I feel are just a fraction of what God feels for us. Initially, I was limiting my exposure to these triggers by avoiding movies, etc., in an effort to establish some control and to give me a break from those intense feelings. While I still need to monitor what I expose myself to, I am being more open to seeking out these situations, especially the positive ones.

I know what I feel is a gift from God and a beautiful sample of his love for us. I know the intensity of my feelings are part of God’s plan for me and make me stronger and more compassionate. Now, whether I am crying tears of joy or pain, I see God at work in the world and am reminded that God is crying 10 times harder than I am.

“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

(Jenna Ebener graduated in 2015 with a Master of Social Work from St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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