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If I Had to Pick a Superpower, I’d Choose “Detect Empathy”

·1382 words·7 mins

“I mean, the way I figure it,” I said. “The worst thing that happens here is that I take a risk, and I get hurt. No big deal. I’ve been hurt before. I lived.”

“Oh God,” she replied. “That’s the last thing I’d want to do. To hurt you. I couldn’t stand it.”

I smiled because I thought that was sweet. “I know,” I said. “But it happens sometimes anyway. One good, well-meaning person hurts the other. Sometimes there’s no getting around it.”

She frowned, uncharacteristically quiet.

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” I said.

“I’d never want to hurt you,” she murmured again, this time in a softer voice.

“Well I’d be fine,” I said. “But you know, I get it. You care. And thank you for that.”

She smiled.

I didn’t think too much of that conversation until much later, after everything that transpired between us had come to pass.

At the time, I found her concern a bit much, but understandable. Because I was sure I would have reacted that way myself once, as she did.

The Day I Realized I Can’t Make Anyone Feel Anything

There was a time when I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting anyone else, no matter the circumstances.

A time when someone could have practically beaten me to death and I would have frozen in place, confused, letting it happen. I had no self-protective instinct.

Feeling my own pain? Well, that was fine. I understood that and could see the total magnitude, the limits of that emotion. I knew exactly how much something hurt me when it happened, and that knowledge gave me a sense of perspective, and of control. My own pain sucked while I was going through it, but it wasn’t scary per se.

When the pain leapt to others, however, it became unknowable — and consequently potentially infinite. I’d lose perspective when others were hurt. Catastrophize about what they could possibly be feeling. I’d find myself gripped with terror. It was way worse than feeling that pain myself.

And then one day, everything changed. As I wrote then:

“I can’t explain exactly how or why nor can I convey the personal magnitude of this discovery, but it dawned on me today that I can’t make anyone feel anything. I used to see people in pain and want to make them feel better. I know now that’s not always possible or desirable. And sometimes it’s important for them to feel the pain and grow from it.”

In hindsight, I’m still not sure exactly what had changed, although the obvious change was that I had been working with clients for a while. Thrust into my first taste of how difficult it can truly be to help someone help themselves (let alone make or even force them), even in a professional role, purged of all the normal personal bias and self-blame that comes with interpersonal relationships. But there were other factors, too, incidents in my personal life simultaneously reinforcing this discovery.

I realized I had to be accountable for my actions, for sure. That I was responsible for what I did, yes. But that other people’s emotional responses weren’t exactly within my control. And that a reasonable action, the right action by all accounts, could sometimes cause a person pain.

In any event, when I really accepted that I didn’t make other people feel a certain way, that at best I could influence them a bit, I was struck with a sense of sadness and relief. All at once. Because I couldn’t do what I’d been trying to do my whole life, to fix people, to heal people, to make their pain go away — but on the other hand, I also realized I suddenly didn’t _have _to. Professional obligations were one matter, but my personal life was another, and people there weren’t entitled to my help, especially not people who weren’t treating me well in return.

This mixture of sadness and relief was an odd emotional conflict, one that I carried around me for many months as I adjusted to my new professional role and navigated existing friendships that were truly making less sense in light of this new belief.


Anyway, I figured as I spoke to her that she hadn’t yet come to understand or accept this (and maybe never would, not faced with client work or some other element that tested the limits of such a belief). And because I loved her so much, because I identified with her so strongly, I assumed that this was what it was, that she had the same reasons I had for not wanting to hurt other people.

But I was wrong.

When Not Wanting to Hurt Someone Else Is More About Your Own Vanity Than Their Pain

I would go on to learn that it wasn’t the pain of others but her own pain that bothered her deeply. As did the idea that she could be a person who caused pain in others. It wasn’t evident at first, but a series of interactions unearthed a different, more troubling pattern: Other people’s pain was less about their lived experience of it and more about how being the agent that had caused that pain reflected onto her. Because a good person didn’t hurt others. Ever. And she wanted to be a good person.

This suspicion was further confirmed when she attempted to drum up a public conflict with someone else, one in which she decided that the best way to hurt them would be to declare that their actions had caused her pain. That they’d hurt her. (By both of their accounts, there was no apparent wrongdoing or malfeasance, only a mutual hurt produced by circumstances.) Surely, she surmised, they would be devastated by the insinuation that they could cause another person pain. Because (like most people) they wanted to be a good person. And good people never hurt other people.

The trouble, however, with this line of thinking is that good people do actually hurt other people sometimes.

I’ve been on the other side of that pain myself, the necessary kind — experiencing pain at the hands of another good, well-meaning person. In some situations, it was because we were both stuck in a no-win situation, a tough circumstance. And in other instances, I frankly deserved it, because I messed up. I’d done something regrettable and had to live with the consequences, which meant my experiencing some well-earned pain.

And there are even times when alleviating someone of appropriate pain, taking away the consequences, can mean depriving them of the lesson.

If I Had to Pick a Superpower, I’d Choose “Detect Empathy”

I have a friend who likes to ask the following hypothetical question as an icebreaker when they’re first meeting people: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Typically, people will say “teleportation” or “mind-reading.” Occasionally “I’d like to fly.” Maybe “x-ray vision.”

But I think I’d give all of those up to have a different superpower: The ability to instantly be able to accurately ascertain someone’s true level of empathy.

Because a lot of people fake empathy pretty well. It’s easy to tell other people that you’re sensitive and you really don’t want to hurt anyone.

But it’s tough when someone tells you this to really know if they’re telling the truth — and even if they are, to know why. To know what kind of “sensitive” they are. Do they really care about others? Does the possible infinite scope of someone else’s pain trouble them?

Or is it more about appearances?  Are they the kind of sensitive person that’s concerned primarily with their own experience of pain and their own vanity?

Can they tolerate the burden of being the person who might cause slight pain in one instance in order to prevent even more pain from being caused to others? Or are they too worried about what people might think of them?

It would be nice to know. But no one’s really handing out superpowers. And the closest I’ve come to foolproof empathy detection is screening for self-control, because as research has found empathy and self-control are linked. And self-control is pretty difficult to fake, especially long term.

But a girl can dream.


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