A Reluctant Quasi-Empath

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There is a woman in my life who sometimes says things that she doesn’t understand are hurtful. If someone calls her on it, she minimizes her culpability in the exchange. Sometimes she deflects it totally. I know her mental health is not good, so I excuse the behaviour. Recently, after a conversation with this woman, someone else mentioned it to me:

Her: That was a pretty hurtful thing she said to you.
Me: She doesn’t realize that’s how it comes off.
Her: Still. If someone said that to me, I’d be pretty hurt.
Me: She won’t even remember saying it. Or she’ll tell me that’s not what she meant.
Her: I’ve noticed she does that a lot.

Yeah, she kinda does.

I get that when someone is in mental crisis, you don’t have to solve the problem, you just have to show them how to get help. You don’t have to put out the flames, you just have to call 911 to get the firetruck to do the dirty work. I get that she doesn’t have many close relationships. But I find myself wanting to spend less time with her if she’s more of a burden than a joy.

I feel badly about this.

I mean, where are we if we abandon those who most need our support? But I also don’t want to be the single point of failure for this woman’s ability to function. It’s not that I have a problem cutting people out of my life. It’s usually just that I’ve done it to people who don’t need me to help them get their oxygen mask on.  I’ve read the mental health literature about not taking things personally when someone with depression lashes out at you.  And not blaming them when they say something hurtful.


That’s where my commitment to ending the stigma starts to waiver – right at the Keep Taking It, Turn The Other Cheek stage of helpfulness. But I have the good old-fashioned Catholic guilt to go with that, so I dunno.

Semi-related: my boss accused me of being empathetic in a review meeting, and I was all, “What did you just say to me?!?”

Looking through the lens that people see me as empathetic, I’ve been unboxing someone saying hurtful things that she (maybe) doesn’t know are hurtful. Until someone else noticed, I was able to dismiss the caustic things this person says to me as “just the way she is”, or “When she’s hurt, she lashes out at whomever is there, it’s not about me”. In the process of trying to be empathetic, I’ve made it easy for someone to try to bleed off the pressure of her own pain by offloading it onto me. She’d have a different take on this if given the chance to defend herself – she always does.

But it occurs to me that Bossman might be right. I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, it doesn’t mean I will also not employ a full arsenal of passive-aggressive tactics to help Karma teach someone some manners. Or fully aggressive tactics, if that’s warranted. One of my particular skills is finding the button that someone most hates having, and pushing it like I’m waiting for an elevator. I can totally be a jerk. But I try really hard to not let an innocent bystander loiter in the scorch-zone. If I’m going to light you up, you’ve likely already doused yourself in something flammable.

So what’s a girl to do? I mean, of course I want to help friends and loved ones. Absolutely. But I also feel like maybe I want to be able to tuck the Empathy Blankie back into storage at will. You don’t want to leave that thing casually draped over the back of the couch, right? Maybe you do.

I had a different friend, a long time ago, felt like people weren’t inviting her out and weren’t including her in social things. I listened to her tell me that I was a bad friend, and I finally had enough. I told her that she was invited to things all the time, but if she chose not to go because that wasn’t a failure on the part of the person inviting her. My lonely friend wanted one on one time with someone… anyone…, so when she was invited to dinner with a group, she declined, and felt like no one was making time for her. That relationship withered – I haven’t spoken to her in years. I hope she found what she needed from her social group.

And maybe that’s why it feels a little distasteful when I say that bossman “accused” me of being empathetic. It’s not a character flaw. He meant it as a compliment – he mentioned it as a skill that I bring to our team. When you’re legitimately empathetic, though, it’s easy to get pulled under by someone else’s need. There must be some kind of risk mitigation or contingency or something that lets the indiscretions of mental illness roll off you, like water off a duck, right?

I feel like there are choppy waters ahead.

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