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View Full Version : Why do I feel empathy for people or situtations I have nothing to do with?


underthecity
04-18-2008, 06:02 AM
I have to know if anyone else feels the way I do.

For some reason, I get emotionally involved in some extreme situations I read or hear about. For instance, the Victoria Lindsay incident I discuss in the other thread, in which she was assaulted by a group of girls. The fight was being videotaped, intending to be uploaded on youtube. I feel so bad for this girl, and I don't know why. I can't get it out of my mind and think about it all the time.

A few months ago on Supernanny, Jo visited a family in which two young girls who were kind of homeschooling themselves on an online high school. Meanwhile, they were raising their younger brothers while their parents worked long hours outside the house. It was heartbreaking to watch these girls live this way, not being able to be regular teenagers and socialize. They were responsible for running the house and raising their brothers, cooking food, cleaning, babysitting, everything. I couldn't get that off my mind for days.

On 20/20 two or three years ago, there was a report that I still think about. Two couples were hanging out in their house on a suburban street. Two guys break in, hold them all at gunpoint, put the men into a closet while they rape the women and make them do other unspeakable things, then they rob the people and house, force them all into a car while they drive around and make them withdraw all their money from ATMs. THEN, they take them to a field and shoot each one in the head. One woman survived: the bullet bounced off her hair barrette and left her with a concussion. Bleeding, she crawled out of the field to someone's house where she called 911. She gave the operator descriptions of the attackers, saying "If I don't make it. . ." She KNEW she might die. But she didn't. This story plagued my thoughts for weeks afterwards.

I was reading Art Spiegelman's MAUS a few years ago. There was one scene that hit such an emotional, personal chord with me that it actually made me cry. That scene was on my mind for days. His parents were told by letter to report to the train station. They believed they were getting sent someplace else to live. But the truth, of course, was they were being sent to Auschwitz. In the scene in question, his mother was hugging him goodbye, saying that she would see him soon. In that scene, I could see my own mother, I saw me, there, hugging her goodbye as she was taken away to her death. The emotions of the scene tore me apart.

Why is this happening? Is anyone else like this?

allen

TerzaRima
04-18-2008, 06:59 AM
Under, I think I see what you mean. It's hard not to be haunted by accounts of such suffering.

I had lots of similar unwanted thoughts while I was doing my residency and watching, for example, little kids die of cancer. In fact, I became a sort of basketcase and thus was not a particularly effective physician at that point.

Eventually, I learned to dig myself out of these ruminations--by talking to colleagues and friends, reading, and if necessary just willing myself not to think about sad things for very long. It sounds shallow and self-centered, but I know that I have to keep my private world somewhat silly and fey to be effective in my professional one.

I watch a lot of Jack Black movies, and I can't stand sad songs. Whatever works for you.

johnrobison
04-18-2008, 07:22 AM
Underthecity, the emotional response you describe is a subject of study right now for autism researchers. We are essentially the opposite of what you describe.

The mirror neurons in the front of your brain probably have something to do with that process. That's a place to start if you want to read more.

Cranky
04-18-2008, 07:24 AM
That's a really interesting (and likely, I bet) idea, John.

Food for thought, for sure.

In any event, I can understand what you're talking about, Underthecity. I have problems with that myself.

Mandy-Jane
04-18-2008, 07:37 AM
I'm a little like this also. It's also much more markedly so since I had kids. I was upset by the cheerleader bashing. I get very upset when I hear of anyone being physically hurt. The one that seems to have stuck in my mind more than any other was a couple of years ago when a 14 year old girl was stoned to death because of her relationship with an Iraqi boy. That was up on youtube for a while too. It's very hard to watch someone being forced to endure something so dreadful.

Personally, I see episodes like this and I think of what it would be like if it were my own children being hurt. And that makes it hard to bear.

I like people. I think most people are good and special, and so I don't like to see them getting hurt. I think there's something about people being vulnerable and not being able to defend themselves that makes us want to protect them. And then we see videos like this and realise that we can't, and so it affects us more.

TerzaRima
04-18-2008, 07:53 AM
It's very hard to watch someone being forced to endure something so dreadful.



I find it helpful to limit my viewing of stuff like that. Because of what I do, people are always forwarding me articles or Youtube links detailing awful incidents of child abuse, and I generally delete them. It's okay not to know.

johnrobison
04-18-2008, 08:23 AM
I should have thought to say this in my last post . . . Actually, I am working with Harvard Medical School folks and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to unravel some of these mysteries in the case of people with autism. I just put a short story on this up on CNN's ireport. You can see it here:

http://www.ireport.com/docs/DOC-12682

Mandy-Jane
04-18-2008, 08:24 AM
It's okay not to know.

Yeah, I guess it is okay not to know. But then I feel a certain amount of guilt over knowing that there are bad things happening out there, but I'm just ignoring them because they don't affect me. Then again, what could I do anyway?

Toothpaste
04-18-2008, 08:43 AM
It's very interesting. I feel empathy for certain individuals far more than others for no discernable reason. When Heath Ledger died, I was grief stricken. I couldn't think straight. And I have no idea why. I mean it was sad, and I liked him as an actor, but it wasn't like I idolised him as a teenager, plastered my room with his pictures or anything. But when he passed it struck me much in the same way I imagine some were struck when John Lennon was shot.

underthecity - I noticed that almost all the cases, aside from Maus, you empathised with women who were being treated poorly. You didn't mention it, but the sad case involving your sister in law is another example of another woman you feel a great deal of empathy towards. I wonder if your empathy may have something to do with the relationship you have with the women in your life, you probably have some pretty awesome female role models, and that might maybe contribute to it. Not to get all psychoanalytical, but it was something I noticed.

Either way, you shouldn't feel bad that you feel such empathy. To feel these things about other people shows you have a great compassion for others. It also probably helps you to be a great writer. :)

Brutal Mustang
04-18-2008, 08:54 AM
Empathy is the best characteristic of mankind!:)

icerose
04-18-2008, 09:05 AM
I'm so like you, Allen. My husband will get mad at me because things that have nothing to do with us affect me so much. Heck, I cry over kids movies, even the stupid ones if they just have one moment of triumph, reunion, or hardship. I wasn't always this bad, it was after my first pregnancy that I became this way.

My mom tells me I've always been highly empathetic toward other people, and it has only gotten stronger.

MichaelDeVere
04-18-2008, 09:19 AM
I'm kind of the opposite actually. Sometimes, I even get angry at myself for not feeling anything at all when confronted with various situations that others find to be very emotional. I am not completely devoid of emotion. I suppose that I am just more pragmatic about it. Maybe it's there, but I don't dwell on it enough. Maybe my mom screwed a Vulcan.

paprikapink
04-18-2008, 10:17 AM
My daughter and I are like this to an extreme degree. She just got mad at me for saying I was going to kill my browser. Seriously. She can't watch very many movies because any kind of suspense or stress puts her over the edge. People think I don't want her to watch TV or movies on playdates because I'm against media -- no, not really, we just really can't live with the fallout from the ordeal she goes through trying to process what she sees. She may be able to hold it together while she watches the movie, especially at a friend's house, but then later, at bedtime, it all comes out -- the grief, the stress, the pain she absorbed on behalf of the characters.

And people tell her, don't worry, it's not real. Same as they told me when I was little and I had similar problems. I don't find that to be such helpful "advice." The whole point of a movie (or a book) is to suspend your disbelief, to go there with the characters; the characters are put into these situations so you can relate to them. I don't want her to shut down her empathy. For cryin' out loud -- if we could all really feel the pain of the people we see suffering in the news and all around us, would we let it go on? I don't want my daughter to live a life of vicarious pain, but I don't want her to lose the force and power of her sensitivity and emotions. I think she could change the world.

Old Hack
04-18-2008, 12:32 PM
Empathy's fine. Painful sometimes, but fine: we're human, we care.

However, dwelling on stories like this to the point where it interferes with your daily life is a good indication of depression. Especially when you've been through a period of high stress.

Treat yourself gently, OK?

underthecity
04-19-2008, 01:22 AM
However, dwelling on stories like this to the point where it interferes with your daily life is a good indication of depression. Especially when you've been through a period of high stress.

Interesting, but if I were depressed all the time, I might agree. I feel fine most of the time. It's only when I start obsessing over these things, like the Victoria Lindsay incident that I start getting dragged down. And I have no idea why. And it does affect my work habits: I actually move slower.

I do tend to obsess over things. Sometimes I feel I might be obsessive compulsive, but I don't match the profiles.


I noticed that almost all the cases, aside from Maus, you empathised with women who were being treated poorly. You didn't mention it, but the sad case involving your sister in law is another example of another woman you feel a great deal of empathy towards. I wonder if your empathy may have something to do with the relationship you have with the women in your life, you probably have some pretty awesome female role models, and that might maybe contribute to it.

I hadn't made the connection. The four stories I mentioned were among the many I've encountered in my life. But they didn't always involve women. Even back when I was in third grade, I read a story in a schoolbook about a little boy who nobody liked, and one day he found a (kitten, I think) that fell in love with him. The story was so touching that I think I cried. And I was just a kid! The story was called "Peter Finds a Friend."

I didn't bring up my sister in law's story in this thread because I was focusing on people not connected to me. It did upset me when Diana was arrested for running the stop sign and killing the two year old for two reasons: I felt for the family, and I felt for Diana for having to go to jail and throw her life away.


Is this normal? Why would I care about Victoria Lindsay?

allen

MichaelDeVere
04-19-2008, 01:41 AM
Interesting, but if I were depressed all the time, I might agree. I feel fine most of the time. It's only when I start obsessing over these things, like the Victoria Lindsay incident that I start getting dragged down. And I have no idea why. And it does affect my work habits: I actually move slower.

I do tend to obsess over things. Sometimes I feel I might be obsessive compulsive, but I don't match the profiles.




I hadn't made the connection. The four stories I mentioned were among the many I've encountered in my life. But they didn't always involve women. Even back when I was in third grade, I read a story in a schoolbook about a little boy who nobody liked, and one day he found a (kitten, I think) that fell in love with him. The story was so touching that I think I cried. And I was just a kid! The story was called "Peter Finds a Friend."

I didn't bring up my sister in law's story in this thread because I was focusing on people not connected to me. It did upset me when Diana was arrested for running the stop sign and killing the two year old for two reasons: I felt for the family, and I felt for Diana for having to go to jail and throw her life away.


Is this normal? Why would I care about Victoria Lindsay?

allen

Okay, Allen. You made me remember one situation for which I felt empathy.

You may remember a local girl who was murdered a couple years back, Katie Caudill (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/09/21/national/main876825.shtml)?

http://wwwimage.cbsnews.com/images/2005/09/21/image877401g.jpg

I felt really strongly about this situation when it happened in 2005. It was extremely sad, and for some reason, I prayed for the family in earnest for several days.

Last year, I was passing time at the Kenwood Jewish Hospital waiting room while my dad was having surgery, I started a friendly, impromptu conversation with an amiable-looking older gentleman in the seat across the aisle from me.

It was Katie Caudill's grandfather.

When I realized who he was, I told him what a profound effect that his grandbaby's murder had on me two years earlier, and that even though I normally don't pray for random strangers in the news (although I really should), I had offered up many for their family in the wake of the horrid act.

Two grown men, strangers, holding each other in tears in a public hospital waiting room.




Now don't anyone go getting any ideas here.

And especially don't go telling Perks about this post. You'll ruin her image of me.

I can kick the entire internet's ass.

III
04-19-2008, 01:47 AM
You're far from alone, UTC.

sassandgroove
04-19-2008, 02:04 AM
My husband says it is because I have a big heart. Sometimes when I start to get overloaded, I have to avoid the news for a few days.

truelyana
04-19-2008, 02:11 AM
I'm exactly the same, that's why I stay away from the News Thread. I have also never read a newspaper and I don't see any use, especially if it will have an impact on me. I know that a slight capture will make me go apewalk. If people are having emotional experiences near me, I choose to detach myself from that, as I don't want to get sucked down with all their current patterns. It helps, as I know what to focus my empathy on.

maestrowork
04-19-2008, 03:20 AM
I don't care.

chartreuse
04-19-2008, 03:21 AM
I think that we tend to especially identify with stories that strike a cord because there is something about the people or their lives that seems similar to ourselves or something about our lives.

But in a larger sense, of course, saying that there are "situations [we] have nothing to do with" is a falsehood. We are all part of the same whole - everything that happens, everywhere on the planet, affects us.