One of my super powers is my capacity for empathy. I truly can see the people who I disagree with, or even people who disgust me, in a way that spotlights the circumstances that led them to that position in the first place. I don’t even have to try, it comes very naturally to me. But – I also have a capacity to feel deep pain at the mercy of others and this means that sometimes I tell the voice of empathy inside my head to shut the eff up while I’m hurt and angry.
I have struggled in the past with these two parts of me, wondering how they can co-exist so easily. How am I able to so easily be hurt while also so easily understanding those doing the hurting? And honestly? I still don’t know how these to parts of me exist inside one person to the degree that they do on some days.
But, I have learned to rely on walls.
There have been some people in my past who have been able to hurt me so deeply that I’ve built up walls to protect myself, and those walls also tend to mute the voice of empathy in my brain. The voice that says, “This person treats you like shit because their own shame birthed in them from a terrible childhood makes them incapable of healthy relationships,” is often quiet because it’s muffled behind the wall I’ve constructed to protect myself from future hurts.
I used to be disappointed in myself about this. Why can’t you feel as much empathy for these people in your life as you do criminals in jail or corrupt politicians? I used to think of this as a character flaw, but the more I actively acknowledge the walls in my life in certain relationships – the more aware of them that I am as a form of protection – I’m learning that it is because of my capacity of empathy that they’re needed.
In order to truly feel empathy for someone, I have to acknowledge my own soft spots and how they’ve affected me. I know how a person can be shitty because I am very in touch with the times in my life where I have been the shitty person in relationships. I know all too well about bad decision made in desperation. I know how being in pain can make you inflict pain. I know how you weigh legalities when desperate for safety. So, when I am offering up an understanding of how a person can do the thing they do that seems ugly or evil, I am simultaneously looking at my own vulnerabilities and acknowledging their power in my life.
This is a great exercise when you’re trying to have empathy for a category of people (like refugees trying to cross our border) but when it’s one specific person who you interact with personally, that vulnerability exposes the softest underbelly of your heart. So the capacity for empathy makes it important to also be able to recognize those people who will take advantage of that vulnerability and prey on you – intentionally or otherwise.
“Why did this person have the power to hurt me so deeply?” is something I’ve asked myself in the past. And the answer is always the same, because they were emotionally close to the exposed underbelly of my heart as I offered them empathy towards their own pain. On paper I’ve had plenty of people say and do plenty of hurtful things to me, but not all of them cause me deep or lingering pain. It’s only the times when I have allowed the person to see my own weaknesses as I open my heart of empathy to them…those are the people who can hurt me. And therefore, I have learned, those are the people who have to live behind the walls in the future.
I offer this all up to you in case you are hurting and feeling bad about the hurt. If you are an empathetic heart like I am, you can almost feel guilty for the hurt other people cause you because you understand the steps that lead the person to hurt you. But listen, those two parts of you, the empath and the injured, are equally important and one does not negate the other. Empathy makes you vulnerable, so it’s important to recognize the people in your life who have hurt you before and it is okay to protect yourself from future hurts…EVEN IF IT MEANS MUTING THE VOICE OF EMPATHY IN YOUR HEAD.
I hate to keep talking about the importance of personal walls when there is another wall I do NOT find important being discussed perpetually by our government – but 2018 is the year I started opening up to the value of personal walls. The trick is – you don’t put the wall up around YOU, you put the wall up in front of the person whose hurt you still feel. That way your heart is still open and your empathy towards others can still light the fire of love in your soul. The walls you build should be specific because it’s important to offer vulnerabilities to build strong relationships, but if someone has repeatedly used those vulnerabilities to hurt you? Then they don’t get access to that anymore. And that is okay. They live behind the wall YOU built in front of them, but other (more deserving) people can still have access to all of the love and empathy you have to offer.