Hi there. I’m Stacy Morrison, and I self-identify as an empath.
What I mean by that is that I feel other people, deeply, whether I want to or not. Over the years, with some work and a lot of emotional maturing, I’ve learned how to give myself boundaries so I don’t unintentionally take on (and then carry around) what people around me are feeling, but I do still know that I experience other people’s energy in a way most of my friends and colleagues don’t.
Here’s an example: I am still haunted — yes, haunted — by a time I sat at brunch in the Odeon in Tribeca and was completely unable to disentangle myself from the young girl sitting next to me having an awkward and difficult meal with her father. She was probably 13, wearing big sunglasses (yes, indoors) and a huge, striped beanie hat with a pom-pom, in kind of a skate-punk ironic way. She had short-cropped brown curls, a lot of freckles, and was sitting slumped down against the banquette.
There is a lot I surmised during that meal: That her parents were divorced and she lived with her mom. That this brunch was her father’s weekly time with her. That her defense mechanism was detachment and adopting a cool, aloof stance. For the first fifteen minutes of my awareness of her, I actually thought she was a boy, partly because of her looks and dress (huge jeans), but primarily by how she held herself: tensile, guarded, all masked with a very studied “whatever” stance.
What I didn’t have to surmise was that she was in a lot of pain. Her father spoke to her in a brutally brusque manner, with derision in his tone. I felt her reactions to his words like an actual force field coming at me, that caused my insides to clench and my hands to sizzle with effervescence. I struggled to detach from what was happening, but, you know, New York City restaurant tables are reallllly close together, and whatever conversation I was trying to have with whomever it was I was having brunch with (I can guess, because of the location, but I actually have no visual or other memories of that meal except for the girl and her father) is lost to me.
At one point, I remember feeling a huge shift in her energy and I turned slightly, just in time to see a single tear roll down her cheek under her sunglasses, before she snagged it with the cuff of her sweater, passing it off as a hair flick.
I was frozen, along with her.
There is no planet on which it would have been okay for me to say one single thing to her. Such an invasion of privacy. And she was trying so hard to be strong, to be older than her years, to pretend she was keeping it together, to manage big emotions that swallow us whole. But I tried to just to send something, anything positive back toward her when he got up to go to the bathroom, hoping she could feel a breath of something light coming her way.
And I still think about her. Twenty-two years later.
I’ve been told by those who love me that I am “sensitive.” I have also been told by those who are exhausted by me and the depth of my feelings (and who love me) that I am “dramatic.” But those words are just a different expression of what it is to be a person who has thin skin. I don’t mean thin skin in that I get insulted easily (my high opinion of myself keeps that from happening too often, for better or worse, haha). What it means is that, for me, the pathway between feelings I’m having and my ability to HAVE them is very, very short. This is also often called “intense.”
My son is the same way. And having the tremendous opportunity to raise someone with this trait has been both instructive and healing. I always thought I became an empath because of my parents’ profound lack of boundaries with me, in allowing me and asking me to see myself as their equal, their caretaker, their counsel. But I was very determined that my son never feel the burden of taking care of me, and drew hard, firm boundaries (well, except for swearing around him, an awful habit, but there it is). And yet, and yet! His instinct when he saw me in pain — because unfortunately, we did go through a lot of difficult and traumatic things when he was younger — was to come to me and try to hug me, tell me it was going to be okay and so forth. And I would draw myself up to my adult-size and take him in my arms and say, “No, honey, that’s my job. I’m the adult here. We are going to be okay, yes. We are safe, and I am fine. Hurting, yes, but feelings pass, honey. Everything is fine.”
Over the years I came to see that Zack just has a natural and deep-seated empathy. He feels his feelings. He feels other people’s feelings quite easily. He styles himself as a go-to for all his friends when they are having a hard time (and they do, indeed, go to him). And he’s decided to study psychology in college to become a therapist, because he feels such ease and connection to helping people feel their feelings.
What that did for me is freed me from thinking my empathy was born out of pain, and rather that my empathy is just a deep, abiding personality trait, that I most likely inherited from my strong, dramatic, sensitive (and hurting) mother.
The work I did for decades as a magazine editor, and now bring to my clients in branding and marketing, I call being a “professional empath.” I try to imagine the feelings of millions of people I’ll never meet, and imagine the intersection of their world and their wants and desires, fears and anxieties, with my client’s work (whether it be products or messages or solutions).
And the next realm of my professional work will be working with people one-on-one, to help them see themselves more clearly, to noodle out feelings they can’t fully express or reach, because defense mechanisms or history or fear are in the way. I am not embarrassed to call myself a healer, someone who can give people tools to carry themselves through the inevitable valleys of life. After the whirlwind deaths of my parents, especially, I started identifying as “grief doula.” I am unafraid to sit beside someone in pain and just be in their pain with them as a way to give some comfort. (And I thank you, Nancy, my dear friend who would call me and let me wail wordlessly into the phone — and not try to move me away from my pain — when my marriage ended and I was a single mom to an infant and so afraid.)
I feel lucky to be an empath, though it travels with some baggage (sensitive, dramatic, over-the-top, weird, out there, intense).
And as I’ve grown and done my own work on myself, and been able to draw firm boundaries around what is me and what is not me, I have come to see that being so deeply engaged with the world is also what makes me a seeker: someone who is drawn to questions we can’t easily answer, someone who is comfortable dwelling in uncomfortable feelings because I find that discomfort is what comes just before realization, and realization leads to transformation, acceptance, PEACE.
I am amused that people sometimes take these traits and say I am very “self-aware,” but I am happy to report that I do your basic avoidance and denial just like everyone else. It’s just that I keep knocking on the door when I see that something isn’t lining up quite right in my own internal logic, until I find the insight that makes it all clear…. well, clear for at least a few minutes or days, because humans be human.
And because I am an empath, I absolutely love that sweet frailty within us all, our tender, beating hearts. I treasure it. Our frailty is what makes me trust the world, it is what gives me faith, it is what reminds me that being small is safer than knowing all the answers. The world will forever be bigger than we are; we only have to find our way in it, and come to trust ourselves.
I hope that young girl found her own solidity as I found mine. Thankfully for us all, time and steadiness will heal most things.
Namaste, y’all. From my big, empathic beating heart to yours.