I consider my empathy to be one of my greatest strengths. But it has a dark side, and that’s… a temper.
It’s a temper that comes with being ultra sensitive to the world and its dysfunctions, to people and their pains. To emotions, which are out of whack, out of tune, ignored, stuffed, repressed, and then erupting like a volcano in the wrong places at the wrong times — doing lots of damage and coming nowhere near fixing the problems that they were meant to signal for in the first place.
Empathy is not all good
You'd think that being empathetic would entail a sort of constant compassion. Even a tad bit of saintliness.
Oh, for me this is so not the case.
Empathy just means being able to feel, identify with, and sometimes understand, what others are feeling.
Empathy is painful
Being able to feel other people’s emotions can be taxing and painful. Being able to feel other people’s emotions and see their dysfunctional patterns means that I have to fight really hard to hold my tongue or look the other way when it’s not my business to fix, do, or say anything. That’s a heavy burden that can take a toll if I’m not careful.
I see the world through a brutally honest lens. I see pain, darkness, dysfunction all around. All the time. Now the world isn’t black, but it’s highly shadowed.
I’m not complaining, because I would never trade my empathy in for an “easier” mental-emotional lifestyle. No, I simply face up to the fact that I need razor sharp mental and emotional boundaries in place to protect my own emotional reserves and to steer my temper so that it doesn’t steer me.
Because feeling the world means feeling its pain. There’s so much of it. It seems unending. The pain isn’t necessarily bad, but it does hurt.
Empathy needs to be managed
When I don’t manage the dark emotions that come with empathy, and use an outlet for all the anger and outrage feeling that pain stirs — it comes out through my temper.
I become harsh on other people, expecting way too much from them — expecting them to see what I see. I get mad when they stay stuck in problems and don’t deal with their emotions. I forget that denial is delicate, and that one of the worse things I can do is force awareness on other people.
I may even call others out on their problems and why they are still stuck, when they weren’t even asking for — when they didn’t even care about — my opinion.
I get really critical of all that’s wrong and I forget temporarily that fighting against when you can fight for is weak, unproductive, and destructive.
That I’ve got to focus on making things right, on building.
Empathy can lead to temper
As far as I know, my greatest dark side is my unrelenting mean-nasty temper. I used to resort to this secret weapon in heated arguments to do real damage. It’s not something I’m proud of.
Since my empathy primes me to analyze people’s thoughts and behaviors with precision, when my temper would let loose, I would cut and stab someone, with whom I was in conflict, in all the tender places in ways that they could not deny — because my empathy-driven analyzing was so accurate.
I knew their fears, their struggles, their blind spots, their deepest wounds — it was empathy that gave me that sight, to deconstruct almost anything.
A temper gone berserk can do a lot of damage. And believe me, my temper can do more than just cut and stab in all the tender places. It can shoot me in the foot too.
My dark side hurts me too
It hurt me every time my temper lashed out on those I cared about, because, again, well, the empathy. I’ve mourned over my temper’s messes and made amends when I could.
Luckily I learned how to work constructively through anger to find love and gratitude in its place. (An intensive labor process, beyond this article’s scope.) In the early days of my temper, it was trying to be nice to everyone, and stuffing the upsets, that led to the problems later on.
My temper is not something I’m ashamed of (shame doesn’t really help any situation), but something that daunts me when I realize what just happened.
I treasure my empathy. It keeps me afloat. I also treasure the temper that empathy can stir. Anger is the pulse of life — you need to hear its signals to know what’s going on in your inner and outer worlds.
But no one can afford to wreck-ball their relationships. My temper is something that I need to be mindful of.
I need to own my dark side, use it for good
Especially now, as I’m finding, because the more that I write at Mindful Construct, the more aware of dysfunction and pain and dark stuff I become. With that, comes, you guessed it, an easily out-of-check temper.
But only when I don’t use my outlets for dealing with anger appropriately, such as journaling, venting in private, and talking with someone I trust for perspective.
Anger, the pulse of life, needs to be used for good. It’s meant to protect life, to honor it. Society and dysfunctional beliefs just mess up that beautiful process all too often.
My temper is also my light side
There are times when my temper is the best thing to mobilize me to take constructive, mindful, and healthy responses to life.
It was pain and my temper that motivated the creation of Mindful Construct.
A temper channeled with the proper balance is a good thing to have. Sometimes my best friend. I can count on my hand the few times I really used my temper to stand up for myself, for the right reasons, with no regret.
What is your dark side?
Like any gift, empathy has a dark side. It means you have to have boundaries in place so that you don’t take on all the pain of the world and let it warp you and drive you rabid.
In this world, gaining something usually means losing something else.
What do you consider to be one of your greatest strengths? With that strength comes a few or many weaknesses as well… what are they?
Is there a dark side lurking beneath the surface?
Don’t be ashamed, just take a look. Here, use a flashlight if you have to. It’s actually a relief once you can recognize it.