The Paradox Of Being A Selfish Empath

I tend to over-empathize with other people.

Empaths typically enjoy a lot of praise from the general public: most people want a partner, a parent, a friend who personally understands what they go through. Those who can feel what others experience tend to make the best listeners and most supportive allies. Empaths have a stake in their loved ones’ wellbeing and will work to help them through the hard times and bolster the good ones.

However, it’s possible to care about others too much. I make this mistake repeatedly: I invest myself too deeply in someone else’s emotional health. While this is a boon when they’re in a good place and I cheer up with them, it can ruin whole relationships when we both spiral downward at the same time because they’re not doing well. Even if their problems are completely unrelated to me and I have no personal investment in the outcome of their choices, whatever path they end up walking, I walk right beside them.

I have a mood disorder, which in my case means my default state is depression. Most of my energy goes toward hoisting myself out of that dark place. When I do have the good fortune to experience a healthy day, I usually choose to spend it with someone I care about. If they’re not having as easy a time, however, they can quickly pull me down beneath the waves of sadness with them. It’s not their fault; it’s just my nature.

In order to avoid this nasty circumstance, I often go out of my way to improve the spirits of whomever I’m with. I’ve been thanked repeatedly by my friends and family for listening attentively to their woes and giving thoughtful analysis on difficult topics. 

However, I have mixed feelings about the gratitude I’ve been shown. Though I undoubtedly put a lot of effort into helping the people in my life get out of tough situations, I can’t say that I’m doing it entirely for their sake. I think a large, selfish part of me is doing it for mine.

I feel what others feel so thoroughly that when I help guide them through their issues, I’m actually doing it to benefit myself. If they feel better, I feel better. I lend people therapeutic advice from the same part of me that tries to untangle my own struggles. I have a robust survival reflex because of my difficult past with a personality disorder, and it gets triggered very strongly when someone else’s troubles make their way into my life.

In the musical Avenue Q, they sing that when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself, but in my case I think it’s the other way around. In order to help myself, I must help others. I don’t know if I would be so invested in aiding the people I care about if my own wellbeing weren’t so entrenched in theirs. In a strange way, I help other people for selfish reasons.  

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