It took me years as a kid to master how not to show my feelings to anyone, but I had learned to master it in almost every situation by the time I was nine. I was young, so I didn’t fully understand why I felt so connected to everything I heard, read or saw happening in the world. All I knew was that the world I was living in didn’t care that I was so deeply connected and didn’t want to.
I was still the kid who would cry reading books. At the time, I didn’t know why I just assumed it was because the books were so good that I got lost in them, and they become real in my mind. I was still the kid who would hear a story on the news about a lost child and be heartbroken, but my parents didn’t want to ‘deal’ with that, so I stopped watching the news with them. It would be 25 years before I met someone who could explain to me why I was so connected to everything. So as a child, I stopped reading in front of people. I would do it alone in my room or make sure when I started to feel what was happening; I would put the book down and walk away until I could be alone. I stopped watching tv with people and started spending more time alone. I learned to build walls around my feelings to function in the world the way it told me I had to in order to be able to be in it.
I remember once when I was in my late teens or early twenties, I was working MarineLand in Niagara Falls, and I was walking by the tank where they kept the Orcas. This one Orca they had (I don’t remember what his name was) was watching me walk by and came swimming over the glass (I was working for guest services, so I had access to the area when no one was around). He stopped right where I was and waited for me to say hello (or so I initially thought), and as I walked closer to the glass to say hi, I looked his eye and began to cry. I had no idea why at the time. I wasn’t upset a couple of minutes before. I had not felt sad until that exact moment. As I looked into his eyes, I had this moment of realization.
“I have no idea how I know, but he’s sad.”
I felt his sadness at the core of who I was, and I had no idea why or how I just knew it was true. I stopped working there soon after. I was young and had no idea why looking this one Orca in the eye made me feel so profoundly distraught. I still have a hard time understanding it all today (but trust me when I tell you, EVERYTHING gives off energy). I know and understand now that standing there, looking that Orca in the eye, gave me a window into my soul. It made me realize that every action I take in my life, no matter how small, will impact me profoundly. I will feel it no matter how many walls I build. My choices need to align with and connect with the part of me I had walled off as a child.
I had always known I felt the world deeply. When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, I took two days off school. I live in Canada, it wasn’t like I knew anyone who lived there (this was long before the internet connected us all), but I was heartbroken. I couldn’t imagine how the world would go on with this horrible thing that had happened. I didn’t know how the world around me hadn’t come to a standstill. I was in actual pain for the people who have lost loved ones, who had risked their lives to help save people in the rubble. Try explaining that to an adult when you’re 14, and no one thinks you could care that much about people you never met. I’m sure my parents thought something was very wrong with me.
As I sit here today and write this, I’m crying. It happened 25 years ago, and the pain of it still feels fresh. Fresh in the sense that I still feel it as deeply as I did then. I’m not crippled by it, it doesn’t stop me from writing this, but the pain still hurts at the core of who I am. I always feel it the same, no matter how much time has passed. The same is true for when I lose a loved one.
My mom says she started to understand that I felt the world differently than most (even though she wasn’t sure exactly how or what it all meant for me) a few years before the bombing when Brandon Lee died. I think it was three years earlier than Oklahoma City. I didn’t know him, had only ever seen maybe one of his movies (two at most), and I was beyond heartbroken when it happened. I cried for days, wrote poems, did endless sketching of him. I couldn’t think of anything else. I had no idea as a pre-teen what was going on or why I felt the way I did. I know that event (even though it didn’t involve me directly) shaped my life in many ways.
Being someone who feels this deeply, this intensely in the world we live in is dangerous. People think something is wrong with you. People wonder if you have a mental illness or some emotional problem. People tell you that you’re “Too emotional” or label you in other ways. Even people I care about, who care about me avoid telling me important things because they believe I can’t handle the news. Imagine finding out your father had a heart attack two weeks after it happened because your family was worried about telling you over the phone. They thought you would become “too emotional” to be able to deal with it.
It’s not easy to handle all the feelings that come at me every day. Sometimes, the simple act of being in a room with intense people can be enough to drain my energy entirely. Some weeks I have to spend days sleeping and focusing on self-care in order to recharge.
I remember being in Ireland in 2016 (as I was starting to learn to accept who I was and how I felt every day. Trying to be “Unapologetically” myself as a friend put it). I was in a museum looking at sketches from Leonardo Da Vinci that were on display as a travelling exhibition. I was looking at a sketch of the human body next to a sketch of a horse. The drawings were his view of each one’s anatomy. I sat down on a bench in front of them with tears in my eyes. The images were not graphic but were very detailed, some of which showed each blood vessel; some showed muscle structure; some showed just of the subject as a whole.
Da Vinci had been an artist I respected growing up. He helped inspire my creativity. He was a big part of why I started sketching in my childhood. Looking at his art, in person and feeling the emotions that he must have felt while sketching was overwhelming. Add to that all the people in the room with me who were experiencing the art as well. I felt overwhelmed and raw. I had spent the last few years learning to not run from those feelings. I was learning to show them even when it makes other people uncomfortable, and there I was in a museum as a solo traveller, and I was the only person moved to tears. A security guard (posted in the room to be sure no one touched any of the exhibits) came over and stood next to me. He asked if I needed help. I looked up at him and smiled. How do you explain to a stranger that you’re not crying because you’re sad or upset? You’re crying because you feel your feelings and the feelings of an artist who drew a horse decades ago. You’re crying because you can pick up on the emotions of people in the room with you. People who are admiring the art in front of them. People who are sad for the artist who drew them. People who don’t know they are giving off energy as they walk around.
I was in my thirties before I had even heard the word Empath. Before that, I had only viewed my feelings and my connection to the world as ‘sensitive.’ I had no other way to classify it. No reference to what it was or why I had it. I had a college professor, when I was in my twenties, who saw this in me. She knew my connection was something I didn’t understand and asked me one day “Do you know why these classes are so hard for you emotionally?”
I, of course, had no idea at the time. She explained to me that I don’t just see things, I feel them. For every exercise we do about trama in class; I don’t just hear it, I feel the trama. For every painting I see (if I go to a museum), I don’t just see it, I feel it. For every song I hear, I don’t just enjoy the music, I feel it. It almost seemed crazy to me at the time. How can one person feel a work of art? I can tell you now; she was 100% correct. Ireland solidified that for me.
She also gave me a warning that has stuck with me in the years since, “For you, becoming an addictions counsellor is going to be difficult. You will go home in pain every day. You will cry with each one of your clients. This job will gut you at the core of who you are unless you build some extreme self-care into your daily life.” I was just learning what self-care was back then. I had no concept of why she thought this at the time. I didn’t understand my feelings at all. I had no idea how right she would turn out to be.
Over time, I had to learn the hard way, what she meant, and just how right she was. That is what ultimately lead me to learn about Empaths. Lots of people have Empathy, not a lot of people feel what others do. That is one of the many things that makes it hard for me to function in our world. The world doesn’t have space for something that can’t be explained. A good chunk of the world doesn’t understand what it is like to feel someone else’s feelings. Hell, a lot of people still don’t think such a thing is even possible.
I walk through the world every day feeling exposed and vulnerable. I still sometimes worry that people will judge me or misunderstand what is going on inside of me. It’s taken me years to get better at ignoring those thoughts and just learning to accept who I am. I prioritize self-care in my life because I know exactly how much it helps me. I know how important it is. I see the value it gives me to be able to do what makes me happy. I know without it, I wouldn’t be able to give to the world the way I do, and I love what I do. I feel like many people don’t understand me, and that’s okay but when you ask me “How do you do what you do?”, I can’t give you an answer that you’ll understand.
What I can say is this……
It took me years to un-learn what I learned in my childhood. It took time for me to learn to be in touch with my inner self. It takes practice and attention to navigate the world. Sometimes I don’t know if what I’m feeling is really mine or if it’s actually someone else’s feelings that I’m picking up on. It’s hard to love everyone when most people are just trying to survive. It’s emotionally exhausting to live in a world where hate and greed seemly win over love.
Whenever I get a “Are you married?” message or a dick pic on Instagram, I wonder if social media is really the place for me and what I want to accomplish in the world. Then the universe sends a person my way who says, “Thank you for going live today. I was struggling and needed to be reminded that it’s okay”. I live for those moments because sharing my life, my story, and my journey is terrifying. It opens me up to a deeper level of hurt than most, but it also opens me up to a deeper level of love, joy and friendship.
So you ask me how I do it, and the only answer I can give you is this.
It’s who I am, and I wouldn’t change it for anything, even if some days I need to sleep for 18 hours because of it.
Love and Light