I have always been very empathetic. As a kid I could always put myself in other peoples’ shoes. I would often carry others’ emotional baggage because I could feel the depths of their pain, and sadness. I never saw this as anything different. I didn’t think I was unique.
It wasn’t just emotional pain, it was also physical pain. I could never watch gory movies, boxing, or even “funny” videos of people falling down stairs or slipping on ice. People just thought I was squeamish. I mean, I just thought I was squeamish.
I was in a “Crime and the Movies” course my first semester of senior year in college. I took the class because he was my favorite professor. I did not really think through the fact that I absolutely hate violent films. I honestly hate violence. Only a few weeks into the class I started having anxiety attacks about watching films like Scarface and The Godfather. Incredible films with unbelievable cinematic contributions to our society as well as social commentary on our criminal justice system. But, they were too much for me to handle.
A friend of mine cut his finger during the midst of me dealing with the intensities of this class. I clutched my hand in pain. He had to leave the room. I said to my boyfriend at the time, “I think I feel other peoples’ pain.” What a strange thing to say. He looked at me confused. I grabbed the nearest computer and typed it exactly into google. “People who feel other peoples’ pain.” To my surprise, it’s a real thing.
It is called Mirror-Touch Synesthesia.
I am not sciencey, so bear with me. Synesthesia is neurological sensory blending. Stimulation in one sensory leads to the automatic stimulation in a totally separate sensory or cognitive pathway. There are multiple forms of Synesthesia. Some people see colors in correlation to auditory senses, numbers, or letters. Some people will generate certain tastes based on what they hear. Mine, is nothing cool. But, often debilitating.
If you get punched in the left arm, I will feel pain in my right. If someone is shot in their right leg, I will automatically clench my left leg in pain. Which is why it is called “Mirror-Touch.” It is as if you were looking into a mirror. My sight and touch are blended. When I see someone experience pain, I experience a sensation in the same area on my body.
Obviously, I do not know what a gunshot feels like, but there is pain there nonetheless. You can now understand why watching these gory films week after week took both a mental and physical toll on my body. I have always been like this. I never saw it as anything different. Having such a visceral reaction just made me avoid watching certain things.
Turns out, I am not alone. Evidently, scientists and neuroscientists have known about Synesthestia for quite a while now, but Mirror-Touch Synesthesia was only discovered about a decade ago. While studying people with Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, it was found that none of the participants knew they had it, and every one of them had been like this their entire life. Each of the participants were hyper-empathetic. Just like me.
So, what does this all mean?
Honestly, I’m not so sure. I feel like I have discovered so much in the last year about myself that I have never known before. I do know that so many things about me make so much sense now. I feel more in tune with who I am. Though there are movies I can’t watch, and I will never laugh at someone falling on ice, this is more of a blessing than a curse.
As an aspiring life coach, I want to go into a business where I guide people through obstacles, and hopefully help them come out the other side a better and stronger version of themselves. Having heightened empathy will only allow me to be even more in tune with the needs of my future clients, as well as everyone around me.
Your pain, is my pain. And oddly enough, I am happy to take it on.