Can you see what I see? Can you feel what I feel? ~ Empathy and Imagination
One of the most frustrating questions to be asked when depressed is, “What are you depressed about?”
It’s frustrating on so many levels. On the first level, it’s simply baffling to the person being questioned. To be asked to single out an actual cause for how you are feeling is very stressful, because the first answer that you’d prefer to give is, “I don’t know.” The onus is on you to provide an answer that the asker can understand, and the simple fact that there IS an onus on you to do that is deeply distressing. You don’t ask someone with cancer what do you have cancer about. You just do. It’s the same with depression. Of course, the fact is that many people do not understand what depression really is. They think it is the same thing as unhappiness, and has an identifiable cause and an achievable cure.
So you flounder to name triggers for the current bout of depression in the hopes that someone will nod with understanding, and stop asking such silly questions. I know for myself I often try to name a trigger because I know that the person asking cares and wishes to help; naming an external force is a way of opening up a space between us that continues the discussion and maybe eases some of the loneliness of soul I often experience. People who care are often keen to offer solutions and advice and if you’re anything like me, you may seek to allow them that solace of feeling less helpless.
But there are occasions when you try to explain your triggers and someone looks at you blankly, unable to understand quite why something that seems trivial to them could cause such pain in you. I’ve found it interesting quite how many people did understand why those daffodils caused me to break down, and how many did not.
In response to a series of discussions both online and off, I did a Myers-Briggs questionnaire and discovered some interesting things about myself. It seems I am one of the rarer types:
Here’s some information about this type. I found it spot on.
“INFJs are conscientious and value-driven. They seek meaning in relationships, ideas, and events, with an eye toward better understanding themselves and others. Using their intuitive skills, they develop a clear and confident vision, which they then set out to execute, aiming to better the lives of others. Like their INTJ counterparts, INFJs regard problems as opportunities to design and implement creative solutions.INFJs are quiet, private individuals who prefer to exercise their influence behind the scenes. Although very independent, INFJs are intensely interested in the well-being of others. INFJs prefer one-on-one relationships to large groups. Sensitive and complex, they are adept at understanding complicated issues and driven to resolve differences in a cooperative and creative manner.INFJs have a rich, vivid inner life, which they may be reluctant to share with those around them. Nevertheless, they are congenial in their interactions, and perceptive of the emotions of others. Generally well-liked by their peers, they may often be considered close friends and confidants by most other types. However, they are guarded in expressing their own feelings, especially to new people, and so tend to establish close relationships slowly. INFJs tend to be easily hurt, though they may not reveal this except to their closest companions. INFJs may “silently withdraw as a way of setting limits”, rather than expressing their wounded feelings—a behavior that may leave others confused and upset.INFJs tend to be sensitive, quiet leaders with a great depth of personality. They are intricately and deeply woven, mysterious, and highly complex, sometimes puzzling even to themselves. They have an orderly view toward the world, but are internally arranged in a complex way that only they can understand. Abstract in communicating, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities. With a natural affinity for art, INFJs tend to be creative and easily inspired. Yet they may also do well in the sciences, aided by their intuition.”
or more from:
“But the INFJ is as genuinely warm as they are complex. INFJs hold a special place in the heart of people who they are close to, who are able to see their special gifts and depth of caring. INFJs are concerned for people’s feelings, and try to be gentle to avoid hurting anyone. They are very sensitive to conflict, and cannot tolerate it very well. Situations which are charged with conflict may drive the normally peaceful INFJ into a state of agitation or charged anger. They may tend to internalize conflict into their bodies, and experience health problems when under a lot of stress.
Because the INFJ has such strong intuitive capabilities, they trust their own instincts above all else. This may result in an INFJ stubbornness and tendency to ignore other people’s opinions. They believe that they’re right. On the other hand, INFJ is a perfectionist who doubts that they are living up to their full potential. INFJs are rarely at complete peace with themselves – there’s always something else they should be doing to improve themselves and the world around them. They believe in constant growth, and don’t often take time to revel in their accomplishments. They have strong value systems, and need to live their lives in accordance with what they feel is right. In deference to the Feeling aspect of their personalities, INFJs are in some ways gentle and easy going. Conversely, they have very high expectations of themselves, and frequently of their families. They don’t believe in compromising their ideals.”
I’m choosing to share this because it helped me to discover that the way I am is recognised and understood by a body external to my own circles. One of my primary experiences is that of empathy. INFJs are capable in ways most types are not of making the jump to understanding the feelings of others without having to experience the same things. I recently had a review of my novel Strangers and Pilgrims where the reviewer felt that only two of the characters had “real issues” and that the rest were “wallowing in self-pity and needed to get a grip.” Their internal distress simply did not register because the causes for it would not have provoked the same reaction in the reviewer. I found this a curious response, really, because I’ve always felt that someone else’s internal processes are uniquely theirs and while sometimes I don’t feel that what would upset someone else would upset me, I’ve always respected that it did genuinely upset them and that it is a real cause for distress.
Let me give an example. Around twenty or so years ago, I lost a pregnancy through a miscarriage. Once the hormonal balance was restored, I didn’t feel much grief about it. I do sometimes wonder about that child that never was, but I do know plenty of women (and men too) for whom a miscarriage is a lasting wound that never quite heals. They mark the passing years, with memorials for the child’s probable birthday and the day of the loss. While I share that experience of losing a baby in pregnancy, I don’t share the same experience of grief, but I never doubt that their grief and their pain is real and powerful.
It’s far from unusual to have people commit suicide or attempt it without those around them ever quite registering what has been going on inside their minds. And if they do express what has motivated them to try this desperate act, others often fail to understand why what seems to them merely an inconvenience or an upset could make another person try to kill themselves.
It’s the qualities of empathy and imagination that give us the ability to step into another person’s skin and see what they see and feel what they feel. I suspect it is the lacking of both these qualities that feeds into the general uncaring so prevalent in society.
When someone next says, “Oh grow a pair and toughen up,” perhaps it’s worth remembering that some of us are capable of much greater empathy and imagination than others, and then smile and silently pity the speaker.