Feeling like you feel way too much? Ever wonder why love physically hurts when you suffer a romantic breakup? When you lose a loved one to death, why you are sometimes physically ill? Your stomach hurts, you can’t eat…you are seriously out of sorts, sometimes with a headache and/or body aches?
I am not a Doctor, nor do I play one on television. I do read quite a bit from assorted experts in an effort to learn more about myself and my empathic nature. Christopher Bergland is a performance coach who’s Psychology Today article The Neuroscience of Social Pain shed light on my physical illness after some difficult circumstances in my personal life recently.
In his article, Bergland discusses a February 2014 study titled, “Empathy for Social Exclusion Involves the Sensory-Discriminative Component of Pain,” published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Neuroscientists have discovered that “social pain” activates the same brain regions as physical pain. The researchers also found that witnessing the social pain of another person activated a similar physical pain response of empathy in most test subjects. Social pain, by events such as feeling excluded from social connections or activities, rejection, bullying, the sickness or death of a loved one, a romantic break-up.
Social pain activates similar brain circuits whether someone was suffering personally or if they experienced the pain as an empathic response to another person’s social pain. From an evolutionary standpoint, these pain responses protect the individual but also fortify social connectivity, which protects the collective.
Social empathy is defined as the ability to more deeply understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities. I think of Social Empathy as an emotional muscle, that expands and gets stronger through use and challenges. It makes you a more compassionate, patient, and empathetic man. Your relationships are enhanced because you respond based upon putting yourself in the other person’s proverbial shoes.
The pain you feel when a relationship goes awry is part of what is required for your healing and for your learning. It teaches you to self-examine what your part in its demise may have been. Unless infidelity is the reason, the two people in the relationship have developed an impasse of sorts that makes one or both of them determine that what they are doing together is no longer healthy for their individual or collective growth. Sometimes it’s hard to forgive past mistakes or life experiences that you share (joblessness, poor choices in words, past family wounds or relational wounds that have not healed that you inadvertently brought to bear into your new relationship, you name it). You can use the pain, the hurt, and disappointment to understanding where the other person is coming from, and work to ensure that these “behaviors” or issues don’t crop up in new interpersonal relationships (whether they are friendships or intimate couple relationships).
History and most importantly moments in relationships sometimes create a deja-vu effect, sort of a “been there done that feeling” that you can use to activate the parts of your brain that will ensure you handle the matter, well differently and hopefully better than you did the last time. Empaths and Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP’s) use these moments to search their vibrational energy to determine what they may have overlooked. What was their part and how do they learn in order to protect their energy, their heart in the future. Empaths and HSP’s feel pain extraordinarily deep, to the center of their being and with that they need time to recharge, to reboot if you will in order to be able to face the world again and spread their light in a way that only they can. Physical pain is part of what they feel when surrounded and bombarded by negative energy/experiences.
I have a close personal friend who is highly empathic and shines her personal light so brightly that she is a superpower of positivity and strength. Every word from this woman’s mouth is “love and above” she see’s the good in everything, loves (I mean loves) animals, she understands them and they relate to her. When she is near nature and specifically water, what was sunlight becomes a supernova. She literally glows and the happiness, laughter, and love shine’s just as brightly. In this environment, she is carefree, vibrates and spreads love to everyone and everything that she touches literally at her highest level in life. She has the capacity to do great good in her life (I mean Mother Theresa good) and she has used the pain and the challenges that she has faced to energize her in her divine purpose. Being in her presence is akin to watching a Goddess rise to take her rightful place on the throne. I get what she is about because I have seen her at her worse, and watched her reclaim herself. When she is in pain, she aches literally, she has felt my pain, and I feel her’s. Her empathy, her heart, and her spirit are deeply embedded in her divine being.
Because of what I have seen and internalized from the great women in my life—my Great Grandmother, my Grandmother, my Mother, My Aunt Queen, my Sister and others—I recognize this “light” as greatness. I know it because I have chosen to pay attention to it. I chose to immerse myself in the beauty of what this feminine energy can do and I respect the power of it. I respect what it can do and how it can literally change lives. I don’t want to see any of the Super Women I know in pain. Because I know their struggle. I have watched single Mothers struggle and understand deeply what they feel because I watched my own Mother struggle and provide what was her best for my sister and me.
“Previous research on the brain science of empathy has indicated that the threat of pain to oneself is directly correlated to the brain regions of a threat of pain to a loved one—but not as strongly when the threat of pain is a stranger. In August of 2013, a Psychology Today blog post titled “Neuroscientists Confirm That Our Loved Ones Become Ourselves.” The ability to put yourselves in another person’s shoes at a deep neurobiological level may depend on whether the person is a stranger or someone you know.”
In the past few months, I have come to realize, accept and celebrate my Empathic HSP self. I realize that the depth of my feelings is enhanced by these traits and that I am also built to nurture, protect, serve and love based on this “Super Power” that I have chosen to embrace. My feelings prevent me from intentionally harming anyone, from seeing someone else be harmed and noticing the good in everything. The alternative? is far too dark for the imagination.
The increase of activity between certain brain circuits linked to pain was unusually pronounced in psychopaths. The researchers found that highly psychopathic people can be very sensitive to the thought of their own pain but there was a brain short-circuit that made them unable to empathize with another person’s social or physical pain. The dark side is real. Ever wondered how someone can just walk away and feel nothing? How someone can utterly destroy the lives of others and show no remorse? It’s how they are wired, seriously. They DONT feel your pain.
Research has also found that various types of mindfulness meditation create brain changes linked to a more automatic response of compassion, loving-kindness, and empathy for other people’s suffering. Compassion can be trained. If you’re already an Empathic HSP full of love and compassion, then continued mindfulness will heighten what already resides so powerfully in you. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention that originated in Eastern meditation practices. “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” “Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”
“Pain changes people. This is no secret. But your pain speaks with wisdom. When you are a child, the same pain teaches you to not touch fire by burning your fingers. When you grow older the fire turns into people. Your pain will teach you how to be careful, but it will also teach you how to be compassionate to others, be kind to those who are hurting and how to be strong in the face of adversity. Allow your pain the power to change you in a positive, beautiful way.” (From the Book Let Your Pain Teach You — by Nikita Gill)
Photo credit: Getty Images