Relationships without the saviour complex

It’s been a while since I’ve been writing here, largely because I’ve been cutting down screen time to allow my eyes to get better. And travels. Being stuck alone at home with exceptionally lousy weather outside (storm warnings) is perhaps the moment to catch up.

Via a friend’s mention and then a good review on a very worthwhile blog, I’ve recently come to randomly (or less randomly) read “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay C. Gibson.


Long story short … this made me understand the whole topic of hyper-empathy, witch which I actually started this blog almost exactly two years ago (at that time in a more mystical mood), in a new way.

Hyper-empathy being, for those not afflicted, the tendency to feel other people’s feelings very intensely, basically as if they were your own – sometimes this can even make you feel worse than the person who’s actually having and unpleasant feeling that you pick up on.

Example: You are somewhere; a depressed person comes in => you immediately also feel depressed, not just a little bit so as to notice how they feel and respond more intelligently, but as intensely as if their issue were literally yours. And I think sometimes, if the person repressed their issue or, on the other hand, got used to it and can deal with it, you might even feel worse than them, as you’re unprepared and out-of-context.

There’s plenty of stuff out there on the internet on such “empaths”, some fairly nonsensical, touting it either as a psychic ability (in fact I could play psychic pretty well at the time in my life when this was most active), or as some kind of martyrologically glorified suffer-for-humanity condition. My main interest has mostly been to figure out what it is and where it comes from so as not to be constantly impaired by it (it’s really impractical and burnout-inducing if you’re doing this all the time, not just in psychic sessions :D). Sure, you feel people’s pain and would like it to go away, but what can you do when you’re emotionally imbalanced, hyper-sensitive and in burnout?

(Btw. Sonia Connolly actually has a good response to what you can do even then.)

Concerning where it comes from, I had heard the theory that it comes from trauma, or trauma often activates this. Didn’t make much sense to me because my life seems lacking in major dramas. I then discovered a lot of folks on the spectrum are like this, so could chalk it up to that – but the fact it’s common in some (fairly vaguely defined at that) population doesn’t explain what the thing is or how it arises => not many useful clues on how to handle it.

Ok, I actually didn’t want to give all these explanations – the point being that the phenomenon is fairly well explained by the above mentioned book. The basic idea is that in a normal situation, a baby can’t speak so it’s communicating with its caregivers by “radiating out” its emotions and other states via nonverbal cues. Caregivers use their empathic intuition radar to feel what the baby (probably) feels to figure out what it probably needs (if their radar is decent enough, or they guess). A good caregiver puts a lot of energy into this “energy reading” or just intuitive empathising and mirroring of a baby’s emotions. It’s kind of an advantage if a caregiver is sensitive enough to in part feel what the kid feels.

If a caregiver is “emotionally immature” in Gibson’s terms (she has a specific, very detailed and informative definition), the situation can end up being reversed. The adult doesn’t know how to handle him/herself emotionally, is unpredictable and/or often collapses or explodes – and, being immature, some adults kind of (nonverbally, implicitly, stealthily) put the responsibility to keep them emotionally balanced on others. Worst case, if a child is sensitive enough to feel the pressure and has the ability, even a small kid can be unwittingly trained to carry out the above “parenting” task for the parent (in a role-reversal): the child ends up doing the emotional work of constantly using their intuition to track the parent’s mood (nonverbally, viscerally) and either predict what will happen or figure out how to behave to prevent parental crises. The child might literally be trained to constantly mirror the parent’s emotion (rather than vice-versa) at an age where the kid does not have the capacity to fully relate as an individual (much less an equal).

In effect, the child is constantly running the parent’s emotions through its own body and mind, and unless someone else teaches it otherwise, doesn’t learn that this is not the default mode of relating to people. Hyper-empathy then is basically generalising this “relationship” model to other people, basically to everyone, and never learning to relate while paying attention mainly to one’s own emotions and sensations while watching others from the “outside” (not necessarily, or at least not compulsively and intensely, feeling through all of their emotions; noticing some, but always putting them in relation to one’s own, rather than overwriting one’s own with them).

That’s currently my best take at what hyper-empathy is.

I also think it might be frequent in autistic people because autistics are usually far more sensitive than average, which means there’s a good chance their parents don’t attune to their needs (they don’t figure out how sensitive a kid can be to stuff they aren’t sensitive to, or they don’t believe or respect it), which means that to stay afloat somewhat in terms of predicting what stressful thing might happen next, the kid has to learn to viscerally attune to the parent (that might be easier for a small child than reasoning about others’ behaviour). Ok, I’m actually not sure this is plausible, but just leaving it out there.

In any case, hyper-empathy as a deep and visceral mirroring of another’s responses seems to be a skill that a child can develop as a way to predict and somewhat control the human environment before it can verbally discuss or reason about behaviour and emotions. The control can come via sensing emotional or mood shifts in the parents very early and being alerted about what to do or not do to please the parent in that way – if the parent behaves like a child and melts down unpredictably, or doesn’t communicate reliably and honestly in a verbal way.

I guess the main reason the book made so much sense to me because in fact my family relationships feature people who do not communicate reliably, but just radiate their emotions outwards and expect others to guess what to do to avert a collapse or outburst. In fact, they still do this, and this is precisely the source of my tension around these individuals – it’s hypervigilance.

In reference to psychics, yes – it makes sense that I basically had to learn to “read their mind” (based on tracking and trying to balance their emotions) as a child. Otherwise their behaviour would have made even less sense, and I would have felt more endangered as who knows when and what they’d come up with. And since they didn’t take responsibility for their feelings, basically I did, as a very small child.

– – –

The while point of this post was initially that I realised that heck, I still use this pattern. Relating still too often means tracking the other person’s mood instead of my own emotional and physical signals. It still means not putting the two in relation (because I don’t track mine in the first place, and I didn’t have much practice combining and weighting both). And it still means by default taking the other person’s problems on as my own – I still define my value through this; and it’s probably still based on the super-early conditioning of feeling that to get some good time with a parent, I have to feel out their moods and “hack” them so as to do whatever will please them into spending pleasant time together; I also have to emotionally “hack” them to know when there’s a risk that they’ll blow up and get out of the way early or do something that prevents it.

All this started dawning on me in the last years, but the book brought it to a point. And I also realised I still treat people that way, perhaps less than I used to, but I am still insecure about my value as a person, and “just in case” and to be sure, I track and I try to fix. And in the past, I also picked out people who obviously “needed” (in my opinion) a lot of “fixing”.

I managed to stop that.

In fact, my last ex and my current partner are people who basically don’t need fixing (at least they don’t have a massive trauma history or personality disorder or the like – they don’t have this gaping hole in the heart that I used to sense in others and think I could “fix”). But I realised how this still at times makes me insecure, like – if the person doesn’t have a massive problem that constantly keeps them on the edge of life, then why would they need me? What tells me they won’t just drop me randomly tomorrow? Why would they even want me around if they can apparently live on their own? … it’s some kind of sensation of lack of predictability and control.

Realising that it’s still there, the pressure to please by conforming; the compulsion to “hack” so as to control to some degree (for my own felt emotional safety); the automatic tracking “just in case” it’s necessary to placate; the lack of security and confidence in my individuality and value as separate from how I can rescue others.

It’s basically very unfamiliar and weird to me to even conceive of this (as Gibson’s book suggests is the path to feeling and relating far better) – how on earth could I have any intrinsic value as separate from rescuing and morphing to be what someone else needs? For my intuition and emotions this is still weird to grasp, although I see the rightness of it – because I can see the direct link to early childhood training that indeed did take place (either hack and morph, or you will be ignored and/or shamed unpredictably). It still sometimes feels like without this self-betrayal, there is no security and control and no guarantees of anything. The reality of human relationships probably is that there are no guarantees, yet still it would be good to be able to trust that in many cases things can go well just because some more mature people are capable of valuing me for my individuality, and this kind of hyper-empath emotional labour is just annoying to them and burdening to me. Far less of it is actually sufficient when facing a person who (unlike some family) doesn’t meet Gibson’s “immaturity” criteria – someone who doesn’t expect complete, brainwashed, one-sided adaptation and incessant “parental” emotional attention just to keep up a (fake?) connection and avert drama.

I’m quite glad my partner and some friends now aren’t crazy like this. It’s a bit shocking and sad to see I still use some of these unnecessary, fear-ingrained behaviours towards them. It just explains so much, not least levels of anxiety and depression – the way I like it, logically, literally and consistently.

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