If I had a superpower, it would be the ability to feel what other people feel.
Note: I am not saying that this is the superpower I would choose. I’m saying that this is the existing part of my life that would most likely get projected into a Marvel or DC universe. Of all my talents, of all the things that come easily to me that do not necessarily come easily to other people, this is the one that figures into my day-to-day life the most.
It is, to grasp at cliches, a double-edged sword. Most of the time–at least, much of the time–sympathy in its most literal sense is a boon. Boss is strangely quiet? That lump you’re feeling in your throat is keeping you from making a joke that’s not going to land. Actually feeling joy when your friends get good news and anger when they get screwed over is good for friendships. At my most sensitive, I feel like I have psychic powers. I can save this dinner with my intuition about that vibe between the host and the new arrival! Let’s bring this awkward train to a stop before it hits the party bus!
The flipside is getting sad or angry or anxious on the behalf of someone else when there’s nothing you can (or should) do about it. The most extreme example is in fiction. One of the wonderful things about books and movies is that they give you emotional experiences–you laugh with Will Ferrell and cry with Old Yeller. Either way, though, you’re meant to find the experience pleasant (I admit: usually. It can be intended to shock or appall or disgust you, but the idea is that you gain something from it).
I sometimes have trouble with this.
As a kid, I had a hard time watching episodes of “Full House” because the wacky sitcom situations made me so uncomfortable. When I saw “The Dark Knight,” I almost had to leave the theater because of all the incidental deaths and because I couldn’t handle the feelings of the people in the ferries who knew they were playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma with their lives. I recently watched “Titanic” at a party in a well-lit room during the entirety of which people were making fun of the movie. I started crying. No one could believe it.
I spent yesterday morning relatively isolated and happy. I went for a nice run, texted some friends, and listened to music. I came to work, and things were going well. A little slow, maybe. I talked to some coworkers about some issues they’re facing in their lives. Two co-workers got into a fight. My friend was unhappy. People online were reacting viscerally to statements about rape and abortion, many of them triggered by past experiences. And by three pm, I was absolutely miserable.
Maybe this isn’t that unusual. It’s a lot of sad stuff to have around. The problem was that I spent quite some time thinking that the sadness was mine. As in, stemming from my life. Caused by things happening directly to me and because of choices I’d made.
It’ll happen in smaller ways, too–the book I’m reading on the train will involve some internal conflict (like a narrative, you know, requires) and I’ll get verklempt, then carry that feeling through my day. I’m not saying when major characters that I care about die–everyone cries then–but when a character is merely upset, even if I know that it will all get resolved in a few pages.
The thing I’m trying to say is not that this happens to me and no one else, or that I’m somehow special or “win” at the “having feelings” game. The thing I’m trying to say is that it can be hard to tease out why you feel the way you do, and harder to stop feeling that way until you’ve figured it out.
This is where friends and family are so valuable. I do a lot of processing (of information, of possibilities, of emotions), and I’m never more effective at it than when I’m talking it out. I guess that’s a large part of the theory behind therapy. In explaining what’s on my mind, it becomes easier to see why it’s bothering me. Most of the time I figure it out for myself mid-sentence. A lot of the time it turns out that it has little to do with my life.
I guess that what I’m saying is, thanks to everyone who bears with me when I come to you with a creased forehead and damp eyes. Thanks for listening when it turns out that the TV show I was just watching is the reason I’m having trouble breathing. Thanks for your patience when my best friend loses her job and I’m no fun to be around. In return, I promise to notice when a conversation goes in a direction you don’t want it to go, and to gracefully help you avoid situations that will upset you. I promise to be genuinely thrilled for you when you win that free trip, and I promise to “get it” when you need to sit at home and watch “Project Runway” for hours because everything else is too overwhelming.
But maybe let’s not watch “The Pianist” at our next shebang.