social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke
political and social change ~ Elizabeth Thomas
I don't just imagine the bad things that could happen to my loved ones... I live them. Every single tragic occurrence that I imagine could happen, plays out in my head and heart as if I am right there in the crosshairs of unbelievable horror or ecstasy. Like there is a whole other zone in my mind where I exist in virtual reality.
It happens on a regular basis- all of a sudden I am transported to a virtual world where the things I fear are really happening- When I worry that something may have happened to my teenaged daughter because she is late coming home from an event with friends, I am all of a sudden in another twilight zone, standing on the side of the road as I receive the horrible news of a child who wrecked a car and isn't coming home...
When I warn my little ones to sit carefully in their car seats because they aren't being safe, I immediately feel the terror of the potential errant driver side-swiping the side of my car with my baby in the back seat as if I was right there while it happened in another life.
When I think about how few years we have left with the older generation, and I think of how much I will miss having my mom someday, I am almost brought to tears by the emotions that overtake me and transport me to her funeral in my imagination, and the sadness surrounding the knowledge of her not being around anymore.
I have been to way too many funerals in my mind... And seen way too many horrific things happen- crashes, fires, poisonings, maimings, desertions, bombings, shootings... you name it, I've seen it. But luckily most of these things happen in my head, instead of in real life.
It's not just sad things, either. It's exciting things too- like imagining how it will be to have my next child on the graduation stage. Or meeting our new foster children. Or getting a new kitten. Or meeting someone and immediately knowing whether or not we will be close friends.
Those happy feelings and being transported ahead in time in my mind make me anticipate events even more strongly. If someone questions why I'm jumping up and down and almost crying from the idea of something wonderful coming, it's because in my mind I'm already there and experiencing the joy, ahead of reality and it's amazing.
I think of those occurrences as glimpses into a future that may or may not ever happen, but the glimpses are so emotionally engaging that for a minute I wonder if I am tapping into someone else's happiness or pain... Seeing something that has happened to someone else, somewhere else... Or if maybe I am doing what some researchers claim is reacting from the emotional experiences of my ancestors, that I am experiencing because it is coded in my DNA. (See http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes)
No matter what the origin of these glimpses, they have caused me to be extremely empathetic. I see not only the facts of a person's immediate situation when I read or hear about what is happening in their life, but I also sense their emotional response and I can predict (and experience my own emotional response based on that prediction,) what they will endure because of the facts and their emotional ties to the event. In other words, I can imagine how something may turn out for them, even before they experience it, because I've engaged in their hopes and fears and have seen their virtual reality movie playing in my mind before they get to that next step. All of the experiences from past events that I've experienced through my own life (or from reading about or hearing about or witnessing in person,) come flooding in and my mind puts them all together in (often worst-case type) scenarios. And I feel their anguish and their fright and their deep sadnesses before they even get there.
People with this level of perception and empathy are also sometimes called empaths- meaning when a person's "perceptions and sensitivities allow them access to experience the feelings and sometimes thoughts and experiences of others."
And this is fitting, as one of the necessary skills one must possess for true empathy is being able to see what others are experiencing. As researchers have found, in order to empathize, one must have "the skill of "mind reading," meaning "an understanding of another's thoughts through careful observation of body language, vocal tone, facial expression, etc."(https://www.verywell.com/do-people-with-autism-lack-empathy-259887). Which also means that you must have a strong "theory of mind," meaning that you possess universal understandings, like knowing that when someone hides they are just not visible but they still exist, and unexpressed emotions may not be obvious to others, and not everyone likes and dislikes the same things we do, and that if you don't communicate something well, others may misunderstand. (https://www.verywell.com/can-children-with-autism-mind-read-259891).
Not everyone has the ability to understand even the basic truisms in these theories of mind that many learn before kindergarten. People with autism often struggle to understand other people's motivations and interests, and some people have other conditions that limit their abilities to understand or connect with the thoughts and experiences of others. When someone has not only mastered their own theory of mind basics, but also has insight and deep empathy and awareness of others' situations and emotional responses, they connect with the world at a different level and that connection can be overwhelming.
I have had to learn to block some of those images, so as to not hinder my real life too much. It's difficult to not react intensely to the images that briefly overtake my heart and mind at times, but I would seem like an emotional disaster if people who don't know me well had to watch me fall apart with every image or video that plays out in my head.
People see the world in different ways when they are thinking about the world around them. So I think others experience this type of connection to potential emotionally intense experiences in other ways than my realistic "glimpses" too.
Temple Grandin, who became notorious for her journey growing up with autism and succeeding both as a university professor and for her expertise on livestock behavior, speaks about the way she sees the world in pictures:
Here's how my brain works: It's like the search engine Google for images. If you say the word "love" to me, I'll surf the Internet inside my brain. Then, a series of images pops into my head. What I'll see, for example, is a picture of a mother horse with a foal, or I think of "Herbie the Lovebug," scenes from the movie Love Storyor the Beatles song, "Love, love, love..."
Her ability to formulate connections between words that are spoken and the snapshots in her mind makes her effective in seeing connections between different concepts in abstract ways. Yet she said she first struggled to understand concepts such as being "nice," as she explained, "... If my mother told me to be 'nice' to someone, it was too vague for me to comprehend. But if she said that being nice meant delivering daffodils to a next-door neighbor, that I could understand." This did not mean she was not empathetic, as her work to make livestock animals more comfortable prior to slaughter shows she connects deeply with the ideas of compassion and helping others. In fact her ability to connect words in association with photos of prior events in her mind seems like it could be similar to the intensity of the videos of potential future events that pop up in mine. Which is one of the ways some people who have a diagnosis of autism, (and who are often stereotyped and misunderstood as not being empathetic,) are able to connect their understanding of their own feelings to actual emotional situations. It has been found that when people with autism have a hard time gauging others' feelings or showing empathy, it may be the result of a lack of skills rather than a lack of feeling. (https://www.verywell.com/do-people-with-autism-lack-empathy-259887).
If showing empathy requires a mastery of certain skills, it seems reasonable that keeping empathy in check also requires certain skills.
I have to continue to fine tune my skills because I can feel flooded by these glimpses at times. I try not to be overbearing about safety concerns, while my heart feels as if it's breaking over the potential for death or destruction with one unfastened seatbelt or forgotten bicycle helmet. My son Nikolai once said, "when I was little, Mom wouldn't even let us out of the house without goggles and knee pads!" He was exaggerating, but I still smile at his recognition of my anxiety about bad things happening to him. My children are my world, and I have seen the devastation of losing them play out in my head thousands of times. I have to try my best to keep them safe without smothering them.
And whenever something happens to someone else's child (while they are young or even grown,) I cry for them. To the point where people may question whether I was personally hurt too, because the pain keeps resurfacing whenever I think about that incident, even years later. When I was a child and the space shuttle, Challenger exploded, I cried for weeks and wrote about it extensively in my diary. I still could cry about it if I let myself go there in my memories. But that's a trick I've learned- I have to avoid the triggers for memory emotions as much as possible, because otherwise they would overwhelm the day to day emotions I already experience. There are so many awful things that have happened since the Challenger explosion, so they each get tucked away after I've cried about each one. And then I use the coping skills I've discovered from each instance, in order to grow and become not only more strong regarding masking the pain they cause me, but also more fine-tuned to the feelings of people going through hard times. My empathy skills grow with each sadness I encounter, be it my own personal losses or those of others in our world community.
I use those understandings in order to sympathize, but more importantly I feel a duty to try to make a difference so that those horrible things don't keep happening. Just as Temple Grandin uses her photo recall in her mind to connect emotional concepts, I use my video library in my mind to connect upcoming events with past events, and potential dangers to present situations in my life. It can make me seem anxious. But that anxiety makes me behave carefully and to provoke careful behaviors from others and set up situations in ways that otherwise could provoke danger.
This isn't a bad thing, in fact, researchers have connected high levels of general anxiety with high levels of intellect. In other words, people who are thinkers often think deeply about what could go wrong. As researchers from a SUNY study put it, "an anxious mind is a searching mind,” meaning those who worry are constantly putting things from their environment together and analyzing them from different angles. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9202935/Worrying-is-good-for-you-and-reflects-higher-IQ.html). This is one of the areas that clearly illustrates the meaning behind giftedness being both a blessing and a curse. Gifted people may be more anxious, but that anxiety may save them from having to experience some of the awful situations they envision happening if they didn't worry. Gifted empaths may not really know what the future holds, but we have seen enough to make some pretty accurate conclusions about what could happen in certain scenarios.
Other researchers have found that those with high levels of anxiety also may have higher levels of sentinel intelligence, meaning they are able to better see things that others don't. They can focus on real threats even while bombarded with other distractions, so this is a trait that is desirable for the preservation of the species (http://portal.idc.ac.il/he/schools/psychology/homepage/documents/tsachi-scared%20saviors.pdf), although it may not seem desirable to those who experience the actual anxiety!
It is more and more important that those of us who care so deeply and feel the pain of others so intensely, appropriately use our empathy skills, and that we not try to hide them, as tempting as it may be to do so at times. Recent research from the University of Michigan shows that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/). It is interesting to note that this is "self-reported" empathy, because that in itself is questionable, as many young people may not want to admit how much they do empathize. Or perhaps they may not truly understand what empathy means and all the ways it can be exhibited, such as with connections between words and action, or even photographs like Temple Grandin.
Or perhaps it is as Sissela Bok coined the phrase, "compassion fatigue," saying that "Empathy and fellow feeling form the very basis of morality. The capacities for empathy, for feeling responsibility toward others, and for reaching out to help them can be stunted or undermined early on, depending on a child’s experiences in the home and neighborhood.” (http://godfatherpolitics.com/acquired-violence-immune-deficiency-and-compassion-fatigue/) Perhaps all the violence on television and video games and in the news have made our society less interested in engaging in empathetic feelings because we are exhausted already from all the sadness and horrors. I certainly am worn out by experiencing my empathetic reactions over and over again and sometimes I need to escape from the media world (and even social media, where others post their emotional reactions to the news and their own hardships as well.)
But if it is true that our culture is leaning towards a lack of empathy, it makes it even more important that people who do experience deep levels of empathy, fine-tune their coping skills and use their abilities for the better. Rather than turning within ourselves and avoiding social situations, we need to be activists and speak up about things we feel are dangerous or wrong, and embrace those around us who are suffering through the disasters and hardships we envision and fear through our anxieties. We need to talk about how much we feel the weight of the sad things that happen in our world, and point out the warning signs so we can have important discussions as fellow human beings. There are no easy answers, but the discussion may be the most important part because by sharing our emotional experiences with each other, we may share better coping mechanisms too. Instead of reacting out of fear and hiding behind violence or locked doors, we may bring our society closer to identifying the ways we are more alike than different, and walk through some of the scariest doors together.
It's up to us in the gifted community to decide whether to acknowledge the abilities of highly gifted and sensitive people to perceive so much about what is happening or could happen to others. We need to support the furtherance of research into the science coming from this field, rather than hinder it. And that we must start talking about it- "softly but out loud- and with each other..." (http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/newsletters/november-2015-gifted-empaths).
We have a lot more to learn about the human mind and the ways that intellect and empathy and danger-avoidance work together. But we do know that people who are gifted often feel a need to make a difference and to do things that truly matter while they are alive and able to contribute to society. It seems reasonable that this sense of care and altruism, combined with our need for justice and fairness, and our potential to be highly sensitive and perceptive and even anxious, can all combine into one amazing ball of passion and power if it is focused and directed well.