At what point does empathy cease to provide clarity in the understanding of other’s actions, and begin fogging the lens of discernment between honest mistakes and intentional mistreatment?
Continuing to wear the life-long label of the shy but magnificent listener, I learned to move past the resentment I had once had for it. Being told that I will grow out of something that is inherently me formed a callous, of sorts, over the ignorance of those who, because they could not personally relate, could not fathom trying to understand.
Being a listener doesn’t mean that you are unable to speak up, but that you observe before doing so. You take in the room wherever you go. The conversations. The arguments. You read facial expressions and body language like a book, and you learn to sense change in tone of voice or emotion.
Being a listener means catching what others miss. The longing eyes of one soulmate as they watch the other walk away. The outcast’s short-lived bravery, chiming in to crowded conversation, only to be ignored as his eyes find their way back to his hands.
Being a listener means you are an observer. And being an observer, I have found, builds empathy like nothing else, because you see what others fail to see. You recognize the details in how others love, how they cope and how they break. You learn to feel for others in a way that most either don’t understand, or don’t care to.
I used to find myself at an advantage, viewing my ability to feel so deeply for others as the glue that would strengthen my relationships, and keep them holding together in the most difficult of circumstances.
In my mind, I could always see the other side, and understand the intention behind a decision, regardless of how it physically manifested itself. I could excuse the inexcusable, because I had the ability to look past the situation, to forgive when others were apologetic and to convince myself that X, Y and Z made it okay. In my mind, others could not feel the way that I felt for people, and they could not understand. But when there was a problem, I could understand.
To the shy ones, the good listeners, the empaths, the whatever you’ve been labeled to be—do not let empathy replace your judgment. Just as often and deeply as I try to understand others, I now try to understand myself, my gut reactions and my better judgment. Because too often come moments where the best thing to do is to walk away, yet I tell myself that the brave thing to do, the understanding thing, would be to stay.
In both our professional and personal lives, we owe ourselves knowledge of the boundary between what deserves our effort and emotion, and what willingly and purposefully drains it.
Not every wrongdoing is an honest mistake, and not every action deserves justification. In the effort to lead a life that is both healthy and fulfilling, I must remind myself, as we all must, to notice patterns of behavior, thoughtlessness and toxicity where it exists.
Blunt as it may be, allowing yourself to become too empathetic often places a welcome mat at your door for those who see you for who you, in your most vulnerable state, are—the one that will always forgive, instinctually justify and struggle to let go.
In finding balance between empathy and sound judgment, I often find it helpful to ask yourself questions that reveal hard truths. If I put myself in their shoes, would I have done this? Is this the first time, or has this been addressed, in some capacity, before? Is this an honest mistake, or do I just want to believe that it was? If the roles were reversed, would they be okay with me doing or acting the same?
As the overly emotional observer that I am, slowly, but surely, I am learning; learning that you can feel for others, and they can still be in the wrong. You can allow yourself to be angry with mistreatment, even if you are not an angry person. And you can still be empathetic without sacrificing your backbone.
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