Microeditorial: Empathy Overdose

When I was a girl, almost everything could bring me to tears: teasing, insinuations, insults, not to mention scoldings or rebukes.

I remember being asked if I wanted a second helping after a singularly delicious dinner when I was six. Before I could blurt out my enthusiastic yes, one of my aunts giggled and said, “As if she’d say no.” She obviously meant this as a joke, but I felt both heartbroken and insulted—was she calling me a pig?—and I began sobbing as I turned down the offer.

No one knew how to console me during moments like this, because it was never clear why I was crying. Even I wasn’t sure. I knew that some deep part of me had been wounded, but I didn’t understand why things that pained me so much were so quickly brushed aside by other children. Neither did I know how to make myself less vulnerable or prevent my seemingly over the top reactions to real or perceived attacks.

Later I would simply accept the facile misnomers that were assigned to me. Of course I was a bawler, a whiner, a rechiya, as we would say in my native Haitian Creole, a crybaby. What else could I be?

I kept hoping that this would be something I would grow out of. I waited for my magical backbone to emerge. I prayed for my skin to thicken. My upper lip too. However as I got older, I could only manage to momentarily hold my tears and release them in private.

Then I read the clinical psychologist Elaine Aron’s now widely circulated book The Highly Sensitive Person.

Just as “all virtues have their shadow,” Dr. Aron points out, so do all shadows have their virtues. And one valuable virtue for a highly sensitive writer is empathy.

One of the ways I’ve positively channeled my hypersensitivity is through my writing. Not just by reporting what it’s like to constantly feel the raw rub of my own emotions, but by imagining what it’s like for others to experience theirs. People who are over sensitive tend to fall in love more deeply, feel a bit more heartbreak, all of which can be put to good use in all kinds of writing, be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.

Writers must sometime work like actors. We must enter and inhabit the lives—one might even say the souls—of the people we are writing about. We must put into words our characters or subjects’ deepest secrets, their most intimate thoughts, then share them in ways that can also stir up some emotion in our readers. Our words must turn even the most hardened and possibly disinterested reader into someone who feels as deeply as we do about the lives that we have led, witnessed, or the people that we have created.

Slipping in and out of the lives of my characters has allowed me to understand why people act the way they do, sometimes even in spite of themselves. The more nervous I am, for example, the more I speak. I wasn’t aware that I was doing this until I read about a character with the same idiosyncrasy. Often characters must act in ways that show the opposite of what they’re feeling. They laugh when their hearts are breaking. They walk out when they want to stay. They scream “I hate you!” when they’re deeply in love. Only when we, as writers, pay very close to their activities, and are oversensitive to their actions, can the full richness of their lives finally become clear to us. At least as clear as our own.