One of my gifts is my ability to feel what other people feel. I know that empathy is not unique among compassionate people, especially in the medical field.
But I do believe the level at which I empathize is uncommon.
When I say this, I don’t mean it in an arrogant way, and I don’t mean to say that I am a better person for it, or that I have a superior moral compass.
It just so happens that I am not in control of my empathy.
I’ve always had a way of knowing how my loved ones feel without them saying anything or hinting at anything. I can just feel it.
In my undergraduate psychology class, I first learned about mirror neurons. These are the cells in our brains (and in other animals’ brains) that synapse when we observe other people’s actions, and they are the same neurons that are responsible for creating that action in us. For example, if I concentrate on observing a mother pick up her crying child, the neurons in my brain that would be responsible for the same action are activated. I do not commit the same action—pick up the woman’s child—but my brain does, at least in part.
The neuroscientist Iacaboni first theorized that mirror neurons were also involved in empathy. They allow us to understand the actions and intentions of other people. Modern research has shown that the mirror neurons involved in empathy are less active in individuals with autism. This makes sense, because people with autism often have difficulties making social connections and perceiving facial expressions and vocal inflection changes.
I have launched into such a tangent to explain mirror neurons and empathy because I believe that my mirror neurons are highly active, and perhaps more active than average. I don’t just sense other peoples’ emotions easily; I feel them. My brain experiences them. This can be a beautiful gift or, as I’ve been learning this past year, an exhausting gift.
It’s beautiful when I know that my husband is feeling disappointed about something that happened at work even before he’s had a chance to say anything or even stop smiling. It’s beautiful when I meet new people and know exactly what to say to make them feel comfortable and appreciated. It’s amazing when I know what to do for my suffering patients.
But it’s difficult when I come home from spending time with a patient who is incredibly nauseated, and I find it hard to eat. Or when I hang up the phone after talking with a friend who is struggling, and I feel tense and down.
If you know me, then you know that I am very good at expressing my own emotions. I know how to let things out and talk about them and cry about them and move on. I know how to accept my negative emotions and even appreciate them sometimes.
But feeling other people’s emotions long after my encounters with them are long has become noticeable for me more recently, after beginning my clinical experiences in medical school. Last winter, I began to have panic attacks. They started in the middle of my surgery rotation, when I was sleep deprived and stressed and terrified of suturing up an abdomen while all of the surgeons watched to see if I was holding my instruments correctly. Of course I attributed the panic to stress and to being tired. Then they kept happening in my next rotation, a rotation that I adored—neurology. So I blamed the panic on the Minnesota winter, on the long hard walks in the snow and on seasonal depression. Then I had a break from school for a few weeks for research, and I even got to live with my husband. Without any snow or operating rooms or an abnormal sleep schedule, and at last reunited with Drew, I thought I would definitely be “cured” of my anxiety. But it got even worse.
I saw an amazing psychologist who taught me how to cope with panic attacks. I restarted the anti-anxiety medication that I ‘d discontinued months before. I learned how not to let the fear of panic attacks keep me from living fully. I decided I had idiopathic panic disorder for no reason.
Despite being done with the stress of the first 3 years of medical school, completing my residency application, and even maintaining a healthy weight without constant obsessing and dieting, I have continued to have moments of distress. I not longer have panic attacks (thanks to my amazing psychologist Kristen), but I do have uncomfortable moments that are, quite frankly, very annoying.
When I have these moments, my mind begins to wander—which is never helpful. I am disappointed in myself for having moments of unhappiness in the midst of an objectively wonderful and amazing life with so many loved ones who support me. I begin to question my independence and my stability. I begin to fear the very worst. And then I find myself back on the fast track to panic.
I didn’t have any ideas about where the triggering feelings/moments were coming from until today. I just wrote them off as irrelevant and unavoidable, as things to ignore. And while I’m sure ignoring is better than obsessing and panicking, I don’t know that it’s the best answer. I want to confront the actual issue.
And then I realized that maybe my feelings aren’t mine. Maybe they come from somewhere else—or someone else.
I hesitated to share this with anyone at the risk of sounding delusional. I don’t mean to suggest that I have a super power or psychic abilities. I suppose it’s also possible that what I’m experiencing is more common than I realize, that many people who work with those who suffer also suffer with them.
I believe that suffering is an inherent part of having a soul. St. Paul and St. Francis, among many others in the history of the church, viewed suffering as essential to the nature of humanity. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are filled with stories of suffering. Jesus suffered with and for humanity. My experience with cancer taught me that suffering can allow us to notice love and hope in places we had previously ignored; it can allow use to meet God.
Is there a way for me to find value in suffering with my patients but also find a way to let go of the feelings that are not helpful to me? I know that the extent to which I suffer with my patients will only increase as my career moves forward. I must be prepared to cope appropriately.
After writing all of this out, I admit I feel more relaxed than I have in a long time. Maybe my answer is writing. Maybe my answer is more prayer. I think that these are a good place to start. For any of you who are reading this, please let me know your ideas.
In the meantime, I will accept that the emotions I take on from others are a necessary side effect of my gift to connect with people. And I will continue to be grateful for a fulfilling vocation that gives me the opportunity to be with those who suffer.