Monday, 18 May 2015


"Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes." - link

Recently I have found myself discussing empathy with a friend and during this discussion, it was felt that we both had had to learn how to empathise during our transition. It was not something that came naturally and over the years we have had to develop the skills needed to empathise with others. Our discussion went much deeper than just this and the reasons for this lack of empathy within both of us could be considered very controversial. They are not evidenced or researched so they are not for this blog at the moment.

My lack of empathic skills is evident in the fact that I did not even know what the word meant until I started training with Samaritans a few years ago. Empathy is a key skill needed in being able to listen to people in distress, despairing or suicidal and I was in at the deep end with this training as I was simply unable to empathise. I managed to get through this, but it was incredibly tough and I feel it was only with the help of the training team that I did make it.

Over the years since then, I have developed a much better set of empathic skills. I left my Samaritans work last year, mainly to concentrate on getting through the difficult times prior to my surgery. I did take my skills from that work and I support people from time to time that are struggling. Being able to see everything from a persons perspective is key to helping someone and I have become quite good at it over time.

This year, not long after my surgery, I was invited to join an on-line trans support group that focused on exploring emotional difficulties. With 10 or so others, we all worked together to develop our empathy skills and the results were quite impressive. It was a very useful group, any issues could be brought there, without fear of judgement and worked through. Everyone started to understand that it was less about bringing own experiences into discussion and more about concentrating on the immediate issues of the struggling person.

I think over time, this has led me to become almost too good at empathy and I have got to a position of having too much. This has been shown with recent events and today I think I came to the conclusion that I have a problem.

Last week was a bad week, as written about here. The gender dysphoria is not the main issue at hand, that was merely a side effect of the traumatic week. What was more apparent was how sensitive I was to the deliberate triggering in the message I was sent. In addition, I had the emotional relief when my friend told me she was going to deal with her serious problems. I was still shocked at how much this had affected me over the weeks that she has been struggling and I spent the weekend pondering it from time to time. 

I had already started to work down the lines of the reality that I may be over empathising, this morning. I get too much into the perspective of the other person and really take on board their issues including the distress they are suffering as a result. My mind started suggesting possibilities of hyper-empathy; a phrase I have never heard of and I used it in a message to a friend yesterday. Today saw a discussion occurring in a trans group and the distress of the person who started it was apparent. I was involved in the conversation with solutions as to how they can solve it. The discussion was never heated, everyone was keeping to boundaries and yet by the end I was almost in tears. 

Why was this?

I sat back from the keyboard and realised this was hyper-empathy in action. I opened a new tab, Google'd "hyper empathy" and there it was. This article was interesting and I list the following symptoms from it:
  1. If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it too?
  2. Are my feelings easily hurt?
  3. Am I emotionally drained by crowds, require time alone to revive?
  4. Do my nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
  5. Do I prefer taking my own car to places so that I can leave when I please?
  6. Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
  7. Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships.
I can disregard 5 and 7, they do not apply but all the rest seem to be me at the moment. I also like the quote, "an empath can easily become an ‘angst-sucking sponge’." This perhaps sums up what I have been doing. I take peoples distress and take it on board so much, I end up in the same distressed state myself.

My Samaritans training, and subsequent experience, taught us about barriers. There were also support mechanisms in place to prevent this from happening. In the outside world however, I am typically supporting people that I form an attachment to and the barriers are then no longer there. In addition, I feel very privileged to have completed my transitioning and wish to help others complete theirs. I want people to have the same ending that I had and I get caught up in their worlds trying to help them. 

This morning was a stark reminder that I can't save the world. I can support, but people need to work through their issues themselves. I have found the problem, and now need to work at it to keep myself intact. I can still be empathic, but I must stop putting myself completely in other's shoes. I need to relearn this and stand by their sides looking at things instead of seeing it through their eyes.


  1. An interesting post Lucy and one that I look forward to discussing more this week. It's still a subject that can leave me confused, especially when it comes to my own skills. And then there is the question of how I affect others.

    1. Susan,

      I tried so hard to write this without wanting to display rejection of my friends. It is not so much a case of how others actually affect me but more how I transfer their issues on to myself. It is important that I am still here for others, and even get upset when my friends are in distress, but getting upset because someone who I don't even know is having difficulty? That is not such a good thing.

      Lucy x