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Auntie SparkNotes: Have I Lost My Sense of Empathy?

Dear Auntie,
I have this… interesting dilemma. For years, I’ve been plagued by feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and inadequacy. This isn’t surprising: I’m an overweight teenage ballerina with a sprinkling of friends and an eye condition. Your typical bad-high-school-movie-bullying-victim. My parents, who also struggle with their weight, project their insecurities on me.

In tenth grade, I was lucky enough to meet two people: my choreographer for our school musical, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. These two women helped me on the path to overcoming so much of my insecurity to the point where I hardly recognize my 13-year-old self. Sounds like a victory, right? And it some ways, it is. But in one major way, it isn’t: I feel like I’ve lost my sense of empathy. At my lowest points, I drew validation from knowing that I could at least lift up others, if not myself. As I’ve become more comfortable in myself, I’ve had a harder time relating deeply to others’ struggles. I can’t seem to say the right words to comfort people anymore. When people are vulnerable with me, I can’t experience their emotions with them as I used to. I don’t really know how else to explain this and I hope I’m making sense. I just feel like my skin has become too tough to see others’ humanity, and that’s really hard. I fear that I’m letting down my friends for the selfish goal of being a little more okay with who I am, but I keep justifying who I’ve become via that same logic: I’m okay now.

Am I a bad friend? How do I strike a balance between helping others and not hurting myself? I don’t want to go back to who I was, because that was miserable, but I also want to understand people’s pain again. And, (selfishly) most important, is my loss of empathy reflective of something deeper—that I haven’t actually overcome many of these struggles, I’ve just suppressed them so that now they’re lurking and building up under the surface until one day everything will be worse than it ever was?

For starters, Sparkler, let’s talk about what’s actually changed for you—because despite what you may think, it sounds like your sense of empathy is still perfectly intact.

What’s different is not your capacity to understand other people’s pain, but your perspective on pain itself. You used to be truly unhappy on a day to day basis, and hence, you used to have easy access to a deep, dark well of misery from which to identify with other miserable people’s struggles. Hell, you didn’t just have access to it. You lived in it! All day, all night, wallowing around, up to your eyeballs in a viscous muck of terrible bad feelings that defined your life—and in which the only bright spot was occasionally giving a leg up to the odd person who’d happened to temporarily fall down into the Bad Feelings Pit to keep company with you.

“At least they got out,” you’d say, bravely watching them scramble away to freedom, as an unseen muck creature slithered between your toes and all the lights went out.

And the thing is, of course you would, because that’s what human beings do when we’re trapped in such a crappy place. We tell ourselves a certain kind of story, one that allows us to imagine that there’s something noble, useful, romantic, maybe even a little heroic about being unhappy. Suddenly, your pain has a purpose! And suddenly, you’re a martyr—which isn’t awesome, but it is a step up from the names you usually call yourself.

But that was then, and this is now, and you don’t need to tell yourself that particular story anymore. You don’t have to romanticize your unhappiness! Instead, you can be glad that you’re in a better place, and you can stop confusing the ability to understand another person’s pain with the actuality of being in pain yourself. The former is empathy; the latter is just suffering, and suffering doesn’t make you a better person.

So, with that in mind, it is time to let yourself move forward from the idea that there was something useful or desirable or noble about the terrible (TERRIBLE!!!) way you used to feel. It is a good thing to have some distance from that. It is a great thing to feel confident in your own skin. It is a fine thing to look out for your own well-being first and foremost, and not only that, it will make you a better friend than you would be if you were continuing to wallow in that deeply unhealthy place. And if your friends fail to see that—or worse, if they preferred the miserable person you used to be because it made their lives look better by comparison — then the solution is not to crawl back into the Bad Feelings Pit and live there for the rest of your days. It’s to make better friends, the kind who won’t just commiserate with you when they’re sad, but who want to see you happy.

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