I have always felt compassion for other people to a disconcerting degree. It wasn’t just that I knew what they were feeling (though I did); it was that I felt what they were feeling. I was a conduit to their emotions and I hated it. It happened with all emotions, but especially with negative ones. Not only did I feel the disappointment, depression, anxiety, rage, etc., I knew why the person was feeling that way. Obviously, I could not verify that, but it filled my brain with negativity 24/7. It’s one reason I prefer to be on my own with just my cat, Shadow, by my side–I don’t need that in my life.
In my twenties, I felt as if I was constantly assaulted with other people’s emotions. It didn’t help that my mother made me her emotional confidante when I was eleven, underlining the idea that I was responsible for other people’s emotions. In addition, my father didn’t like other people’s emotions because only he was allowed to have them. Throw in fundamental Christian ideology about guilt and I was a hot mess by the time I left for college.
I developed an eating disorder to cope. This happened the summer before leaving for college in which I exercised up to seven hours a day and severely restricted my food intake. I lost forty pounds in two months, which was horrible for my health. At college, I didn’t have the ability to exercise that much every day, obviously, so I essentially starved myself by eating a bowl of oyster crackers for breakfast, another for lunch, and then a small dinner. I only slept four hours a night so I would be starving around two in the morning. I would raid the vending machines for three or four bags of chips, then feel guilty about it. I resorted to making myself throw up, which also wasn’t good for my health.
That was just the tip of the iceberg and indicative of me shoving my feelings down. I simply didn’t know how to handle them because I was never allowed to acknowledge that they existed, especially the negative ones. And because I’m so perceptive to other people’s feelings, I’m constantly checking to make sure that I’m on level with everyone else. I don’t want to be seen as extra or too much.
Before my medical trauma (and believe me, that’s a bright line I draw all the time. Before and after my medical trauma), I just accepted this was a part of me and kept it hidden as much as possible. I rarely talked about it because what’s the point? I don’t see it as a bonus; it’s definitely a curse. After my medical trauma, it’s another thing that I don’t feel the need to hide. Hm. I’m not explaining it well. I never hid it before, but I kept it locked up in a box. It didn’t get to come out to play–ever. That made it difficult to be compassionate to people without going over the line into enmeshment. It also meant I kept my own emotions locked up as well. I was so out of touch with my feelings and my body. If someone told me some big news, say, a job promotion, this was my thought process: 1. “Oh. This person is telling me big news.” 2. Figuring out quickly if it’s good news or bad news. 3. Arranging my face into the proper reaction. 4. “That’s so great! I’m so excited for you!”. This took maybe thirty seconds at the most, but it felt like forever in my brain.
To be clear, I truly was happy for that person or sad for the person who told me they got divorced. I just had my emotions so locked up, I couldn’t properly access them. I had to consciously tap into that well of feelings before I could feel a fraction of what I knew to be the proper response. I felt like a fraud doing it, but the other option was to let myself be overwhelmed by feelings all the time. That was even worse to me.
Now, after my medical trauma, like so many other things, I don’t keep a lock on that any longer. My reactions are more immediate and authentic; I don’t have to jump through a million hoops any longer to access my emotions. I will also give a shout-out to Taiji as part of the reason I’m not as walled off. Because of Taiji, I have the ability to contain those emotions better than I have in the past.
One of the negative side effects of having my emotions delegitimatized and stigmatized is that they became dangerous in my mind–especially my anger. Constantly trying to tamp it down meant that it was always leaking out around the edges. The more I tried to stuff it down, the more awesome (in the old sense of the word) it would be when it erupted. My anger scared me because I wasn’t sure what I would do when it exploded.
When I first started Taiji, I was a pacifist. When my teacher wanted me to do weapons, I recoiled in horror. When she wanted me to walk the circle (Bagua) instead of doing meditation, I did with reluctance because she told me to pretend I was walking around an opponent. While I was doing that in one class, a thought flashed in my head that I would kill that person if it came down to it. It wasn’t a vicious thought; it was just the truth. If it was me or them; it was going to be me. That was the first time I put myself first solely on instinct, and it stayed with me for quite some time.
I was worth it. My feelings mattered. I could express my anger and not have it spew all over the place. Taiji became a safe outlet for my emotions, and I’m better off for it.
After my medical trauma, so many things that have weighed me down for so long…simply disappeared without any effort by me*. When you’re faced with a life-or-death matter, well, other things fade into background. A lifetime of hating my body along with accompanying eating disorders? Gone. A lifetime of thinking I was too ugly for words and refusing to allow any pictures of me without a fuss? Gone. Gender issues that weighed down my mind and made me tie myself into knots over pronouns? Gone. Well, mostly. But not nearly as agonizing as before, at any rate. Sheer terror at going anywhere because of the pandemic? Gone. And my ability to feel what other people feel? Still here. But it’s not nearly as debilitating as it was before.
I have said many times that what happened to me simultaneously changed my life and…didn’t. I’m completely different–and still me at the same time. I’m more me, I would say. I’m so much me, it amazes me at times. This is me. All of it. I’m not apologizing for who I am any longer. Not when I’ve been through hell and back. I fought the devil (twice), and I fucking won. That’s all that really matters in the end.
*Except for years of life effort, but that’s not what I mean here.