I used to think empathy was the only thing I needed to be a good person. As long as I put everyone else first, I could be pure, kind, understanding—all of the words that described the peacemakers and visionaries of the world. These words were upheld in churches and schools, on playgrounds and in childhood homes. If I could be entirely selfless, I would be worthy. Of what, I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter. I just wanted to be so unfailingly good that no one would ever call me “difficult” or “stubborn” again. Bullies wouldn’t be able to touch me if I could find forgiveness in every slight, each hurtful word. I became an eternal mediator, perennially willing to turn the other cheek. My parents and teachers were proud of me. I was happy.
When I got to high school, things started to change. Instead of simple unkindness, I had to grapple with more complex issues. As an empath, I wanted to fix every problem I encountered, which led to a string of codependent relationships. One friend relied on me to talk through and fix his problems, even threatening self-harm if I tried to take a step back. That kind of manipulation backed me into a corner. How could I say no? Now, taking time for myself felt like a waste—worse, it felt selfish. Each minute I spent alone was a minute during which a loved one needed my help. I constantly put my own feelings aside to sort through theirs. I felt like I had a purpose, but I was drained. I had no one to lean on.
I began to realize how dangerous empathy could be. At this point, it was all I had to cling onto. It was my whole identity. Over and over, I was manipulated and neglected. A boy I had dated started to harass me; at first, he targeted my bisexuality, but over time, it devolved into objectification and sexual exploitation. I felt that I had to forgive him because of the heteronormative way he was raised. In an effort to see his perspective, I forgot my own. Turning the other cheek became more and more debasing, until I believed I was the problem. If I stood up for myself, I would be the bad guy. And at the end of the day, all I wanted was to be liked. I was a hardcore feminist, but I still feared being too loud, too angry. Not being believed. By the time I had hit rock bottom, it was too late to build myself a safety net. The fallout was bad: panic attacks, dissociation, lashing out. I hated myself for not saying anything, for denying my own experience.
On every airplane, the flight attendants instruct you to put on your emergency air mask before you help someone else—you can’t be a protector if you aren’t protected. I was letting myself down too often to be genuinely helpful to anyone else. My heart wasn’t in it anymore when I offered someone support. Empathy was just an opening, a way for me to get hurt. And so I had to show myself a little kindness before I could open up to others.
What I’ve learned is that being a good person doesn’t have to mean sacrificing my well-being for every passing relationship. Kindness doesn’t always mean forgiveness. Sometimes, the kindest thing to do is put up a fight. I don’t have to give up my standards to be empathetic. When I started to draw from the energy I’d so recklessly poured into others, I felt myself opening up. I could talk about my problems without feeling the crushing weight of anxiety. I cut my hair and dressed how I wanted to. I broke away from the toxic people I could never say “no” to before. I stopped feeling bad about taking up space. Helping people is still part of my DNA, sure—but now I do it in a healthier way. I donate to charity and offer people support, but I don’t let their emotional baggage become my own. I’ve learned to step away, to be kind to myself when I need it most. It’s still an ongoing process, and it’s still painful. There are moments when I’m overwhelmed by misplaced guilt. There are times when I flinch at the idea of standing up for myself. But with time, I know that will change. People are no longer a drain on me, and they’re no longer a source of validation. I have myself to lean on now.
By MJ Brown
Collage by Ana Tellez for Man Repeller