Toby arrived soon after I moved into my first house. A six month old rescue dog he was like a shadow, following me wherever I went with a worried expression permanently fixed on his handsome face. Night after night I would hear him pacing about in the house never settling and, when I went downstairs in the morning, he would have consistently left me the sort of “surprise” I could have done without just before breakfast. Week after week, month after month, his constant need for attention soon became wearing to the point that I couldn’t sleep and my own health was suffering. Empathy was in short supply.
Left for more than twenty minutes Toby would find something to shred. A shoe, the carpet or, on one occasion, an antique table which belonged to my girlfriends family. At the end of my tether I told my mother that I didn’t feel able to cope and that I thought it best to have him re-housed, for both our sakes. She was angry, disappointed and, apparently, ignorant of anything other than the needs of the dog. After a string of volcanic disagreements and bitter conflicts she said, “Graham, it will make me ill if you get rid of that poor animal”. I hadn’t been prepared for the demands of a traumatised recuse dog, and I hadn’t been prepared for the total absence of empathy towards me from my mother.
Clare tells me about her relationship. Blamed as the cause of any row and leant on for money to pay the rent when what little they had has slipped through her partners hands. Obviously deeply unhappy I ask her why she stays.
“I can’t leave him. I’d feel so guilty”
Bound in the drama of his mothers life Paul works hard to make sure she doesn’t feel lonely, and is able to cope with declining health in her twilight years. As I watch him sink under the strain I ask what happens to his life as takes ever more responsibility for hers. His reply is instant.
“I don’t matter”
While regular reports would have us believe that empathy levels in society are drifting, there is a consistent underbelly that find it hard to draw the line between healthy empathy and a destructive hyper-empathy.
My response to my mother’s distress and emotional blackmail was the same as it always was. I catapulted back too far the other way, neglecting my own needs and focusing solely on hers.
In desperation to avoid causing any disappointment to my mother, I toughed it out. As a result my love for my dog grew in parallel with my resentment towards my mother.
Empathy operates on three levels. Cognitive, the level at which you understand someone else’s emotion (even psychopaths can do this); emotional, which is the ability to “tune in” to someone else’s emotion; compassionate, which is the understanding and shared feeling combined with a desire to do something about it.
It is in over use of emotional and compassionate empathy that we risk psychological exhaustion. Unable to separate our own feelings from those of others, and driven by an insatiable and futile drive to keep someone else feeling happy by “fixing” everything. So why don’t we know where to draw the line?
When we feel misunderstood, unheard, overlooked or emotionally diminished we experience a sense of disconnection. When the person we most want to understand and support us shows no signs of doing so we feel cast adrift at a time we most need to connect, and so we take on more of the work, we strive to close the gap. Often through a complete disregard for our own needs and a singular focus on theirs.
What makes the problem harder is that if we over use our empathy, we might imagine that to ever put ourselves first means we have become selfish. This binary thinking serves only to help us stay stuck and emotionally inferior.
Sometimes it is necessary for other people to hurt and for us to allow them to rather than to use empathy as a shield to protect us from abandonment. It is a mistake to believe that constantly taking care of others while neglecting ourselves will make us indispensable and safe.
In an ironic twist the lack of understanding I felt from my mother gave rise to a lifelong search for my own form of healthy empathy. I continued to get it badly wrong year after year but, gradually, I began to learn when to hold on and how to let go. Toby never learned that particular skill. If I threw him a stick he would take it away and never bring it back. But seventeen years later, when he finally closed his eyes with my hand gently stroking his head, I knew that I would never have let him go. I just hadn’t wanted to feel that my mother would let go of me.