Empathy is a Superpower

Being human can be hard. In this shared experience of being in separation, we will at some point, experience suffering. It may be physical pain, mental torment or emotional anguish. Suffering can feel inescapable and never-ending when we are in it. Humans have a deeply ingrained reaction to get as far away from pain as possible. We may try to tune out our pain or distract ourselves by turning to different addictions. We do this for physical pain and emotional pain alike. We don’t really distinguish between the two. It’s all to be avoided. Why? Because pain of any kind might mean death and that is the number one thing to avoid from the point of view of the human ego.

With regards to emotional pain, one common tactic for avoiding feeling it is to retreat into the head. I remember feeling the sting of rejection when my first boyfriend ended our relationship. I felt intense physical and emotional pain in my heart and thought, “This is what heartbreak feels like.” My whole body felt inflamed and then I felt myself shut those sensations down by going into my head. From that space I proceeded to think and ruminate about the breakup, the person, and what I could have done differently. While that wasn’t pleasant, it sure felt a whole heck of a lot better than feeling that pain.


Now I eventually processed and moved on from that heartbreak but that can be harder to do if the emotional pain is continuous. What happens when a child is abused or neglected and never receives the love or nurturing needed to develop and access healthy emotional intelligence? They may shut down by retreating into the head to numb out the pain in the heart. This is a common, and sometimes necessary coping mechanism that can help us get through an unendurable situation. The problem arises when we stay in that disembodied state and never process our emotions, because when we numb out one thing (the potential for pain) we tend to numb out everything (the potential for joy). The heart space is also the center of human emotional connection so if that area is shunted off, there is a sense of being even more alone and isolated in our experience. The heart feels bereft and the mind is confused as to why it’s so difficult to feel a sense of connection.


Over time if this dynamic goes unchecked and unhealed, some people may engage in unhealthy ways to fill this emotional void. In a desperate attempt to feel something, they may attempt to exert power or control over others. Taken to extremes, we can see this behavior in people who are in positions of power and abuse it. The little hit of power that comes from the vindictive pleasure of belittling or mistreating others can become an addiction that is hard to break.


Another choice lies before us in navigating painful emotions, one that is infinitely harder and requires more courage. That is to allow ourselves to feel exactly what we are feeling without resistance. This goes the same for witnessing the pain and the suffering of others as well. We may want to turn away, distract ourselves, or mentally justify their experience. Again, what is infinitely harder and requires more courage is to really see, and feel and be with the pain and suffering that another experiences. When we choose to do this, to truly empathize with others and to feel what they feel as if it were our own, something transformative occurs. We realize that the pain we were so afraid of doesn’t kill us. We learn that what doesn’t kill us not only makes us stronger, but more compassionate and more human.

That is a superpower. 


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