On a whim one Saturday afternoon, my husband and I decided to go see a movie — something we hadn’t done together in months. As we settled into our seats, I was already primed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Between the excitement of a rare date night and my anticipation for a movie I’d looked forward to watching for months, odds were that I was going to have a good time.
What I didn’t expect, though, was how much more I would enjoy the movie because of the woman sitting next to me.
Right as the previews were starting, an older couple sat in the seats to my left. As each trailer wrapped up, the woman whispered loudly to the man next to her, “Do you want to see that one?” I’ll admit I started feeling nervous she might ruin the evening by talking through the movie, but I’m glad to say I didn’t need to worry.
Instead, my fellow movie-goer elevated the whole night by gasping in excitement and surprise and laughing loud and hard at every single joke. She had the best time, and I could almost feel her delight radiating in my direction. Sitting next to someone who so thoroughly enjoyed the movie made me like the movie that much more.
That evening has stuck with me and has come to mind several times since. And each time, I’ve felt thankful. I often pick up and absorb other people’s emotions, but it’s not always such a positive experience. As an empath (someone who detects and sometimes even takes on other people’s emotions more often and more intensely than others), I’ve at times found myself consumed by the negative emotions someone else is experiencing and unable to easily recalibrate my own feelings.
Having such little control over my emotions has actually been a source of shame for me — so much so that I’ve never talked or written about being an empath because I’ve believed it somehow made me weak. I remember reading once that it’s better to be a thermostat than a thermometer, that a woman following Jesus will set the temperature for the people around her, creating a calm, joyful, peaceful, content atmosphere rather than reacting to what’s going on around her and being tossed about by the whims of emotion.
In other words, somewhere along the way, I learned it was less godly to be influenced by feelings — and it seemed reasonable to assume that went doubly for feelings that weren’t even my own.
Maybe you’re reading this and wondering where on earth I got those ideas. Of course you can have lots of feelings! What a weird thing to feel bad about!
Or perhaps you don’t relate to someone experiencing intense emotions on a pretty regular basis. Wow, that must be exhausting to be so up and down all the time!
But for those who’ve ever felt ashamed of being too emotional or for getting too invested in someone else’s gladness or grief, I want to share what God’s been showing me.
As I’ve started learning more about empathy and being an empath, I’m realizing that this way that God has made me can’t be bad. He created me and you; therefore, all of our “wonderfully complex” (Psalm 139:14 NLT) and unique traits are His workmanship. Maybe, in fact, an ability to sense other people’s emotions and to feel them deeply is a gift.
When I go to Scripture for clarity about this, I find lots of reminders to stay rooted in and focused on God. He is our foundation, the thing that keeps us from truly spinning out of control. Yes, may it be so! But even while we abide in Him and build our lives on Him, instructions for loving others repeatedly require us to get our whole hearts (and our emotions) involved.
Both Ephesians 4:32 and 1 Peter 3:8 urge us to be tenderhearted with one another, and Colossians 3:12 says we must have compassionate hearts. We’re reminded in 1 Corinthians 12:26 that when one member of the body of Christ (the Church) suffers, all suffer. And Romans 12:15 puts it plainly: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
If that’s not a reason to embrace and practice empathy, I don’t know what is!
Rather than feeling guilty for being overly sensitive or too emotional, I’m seeing now that being perceptive and responsive can allow us to connect deeply with people and quickly desire to help when they’re in need. God can work through our empathy to make us safe spaces for people with heavy burdens. And being a real touchy thermostat, who’s also grounded in hope in the Lord, means we can pick up on cues that others may overlook and have the opportunity to care for those who may be neglected.
Feeling all my feelings — and sometimes yours too — is my superpower. What’s yours? How has God used empathy (or whatever your superpower is) to help you love others well?