Can you see what I see? Can you feel what I feel? ~ Empathy and Imagination

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.[13]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.[2]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.[14]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.[15] Yet they may also do well in the sciences, aided by their intuition.[16]

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.

19 thoughts on “Can you see what I see? Can you feel what I feel? ~ Empathy and Imagination

  1. *sigh* I’ve had people I know, close friends, say ‘Man up’ to me more than once. Everything you say here is sadly true. The only time during my own illness that I finally got some sense from the one asking me the questions was from a lovely lady psychiatrist who became the first person to actually explain mental illness and depression to me as simply this: it is a physical illness, just like having flu, or cancer, or a broken leg. the difference is, that this illness effects our brains, and so we simply ‘see’ a different world once it takes hold. And as we reconstruct the outside – inside then our ill brains misinterpret what they are being shown. Of course, it isn’t THAT simple, and of course bouts can be triggered by events, but this is NOT always the case. So to try and find a reason for things is – though seemingly obvious (humans are driven to look at the world as cause/effect) – often fruitless. As she told me; ‘It just “is”. Whatever we like to think we are as a person, and that we have autonomy over our lives, we are a big walking factory of chemicals and therefore chemical reactions. People fail to understand depression in others because all they can relate it to is personal experience; sometimes thye feel a bit sad. So the old ‘Man up’, ‘Pull your socks up’, ‘Stop complaining’ is obvious to them, and utterly wrong and indeed, extremely unhelpful. Part of what drove me to understand the human brain and just how little we do know (we still know a great deal, and this knowledge does alter your perspective about just ‘who’ you are) was trying to understand just what was ‘wrong’ with me.

    …Any way. Yes, empathy. Some of us have it like some have blue eyes and a higher than average risk of cancer – genetics. Again, of course, there is much more to it than this – we are complex beings, and lots of other factors need to be considered. But this is a big one and easier to understand. just as our parents gave us their physical features, they also gave us our internal features. We can’t escape the physical stuff – we can only be who we were born as. I’m sure many of you will not like what I’m saying – as is your right. But consider this: would you walk into a cancer ward and tell the folk in their how to cure themselves? Or that it is nothing, you had atouch of cancer once and you got over it? Or indeed, would you tell them to stop lying around in bed and just ‘get on with life’? no you wouldn’t. Depression is a physical illness. ALL mental illness is physical illness. How can it be anything else? Unless you believe that there is a seperate untraceable universe that exists alongside our own and is ‘mental’ – uncaused by anything physical? That makes no sense. No sense at all.

    Be kind. Treat a depressed person as you would anyone else with a physical illness. Just because you can’t see it – like a limp, or a scar – doesn’t mean it ain’t there.


  2. I too am an INFJ. I’m told only 1% of the population is like us. Go to any gathering of 100 people and the odds are very high you’ll be the only one in the room. Knowing this has helped me be more accepting of myself, although the perfectionism and high expectations for myself will never go away. No wonder I empathize with you, and you with me. Sisters beneath the skin.



    • *high five*
      I thought this was likely. And yes, it does help to accept myself a little.
      I was intending to email you, so shall try to do so tonight.


  3. Another INFJ here… 🙂 I think you’ve said it, Viv…not everyone CAN empathise…it’s not that they don’t care or are unfeeling but simply that it isn’t in their makeup… They just don’t *get* it. I have had to teach myself not to have quite such thin skin as it gets simply unbearable to feel everyone else’s pain so intensely.
    Re depression, my own feeling is that there is usually another emotion that is being masked by the depression…but, like all things, no easy answer. xx


  4. here gather the INFJs. Though I think sometimes I can do a tiny flip into INTJ.
    I know that I feel people, understand them, but have always been bad at small talk, social ritual – especially confused when young when I could feel people but what they said and did didn’t match.
    I find walnut flower remedy useful in giving a “thicker” skin.

    Sometimes I feel less depressed when I can tease out feelings, separate them. You are right that sometimes it is just impossible to answer the question why are you depressed, or what are you depressed about…
    Today I heard that I will not have a further mental health assesment and so therefore no further long term CBT or CAT. A little bit of money might be helpful at this point!! Something about 8 years ao would have been really useful. Back to my own resources and a visit to gp when it gets very bad…maybe it won’t get worse, maybe it will get better, bit by bit. There is no hurrying it, pushing it, no trying to move too far too fast.

    hope no one dares say pull yourself together [they have done in the past] to me or you or anyone in a similar position


    • I do believe we have a quorum of INFJs here!
      yes, sorting and sifting of feelings can help, and yes, God help those who say pull yourself together.
      Even though my mind thinks flower essences are a bit woo, I do feel they help a lot more than people give them credit for. Plaecbo or not, I’ve used them and found them to aid. I’ve also used them on wild animals to great effect too, so….
      never try to push things too fast. I believe that we are developing….into something…


      • I’ve given up being logical about flower essences, some of them work. But having read an article about water in New Scientist a few years back there might be something in homeopathic system, though as the author said, no scientist is going to risk their career and income looking at it.
        The placebo effect is real and measurable – it might just be that.


    • Good to see mention of CAT – not just the ubiquitous CBT. Have a pal who is a CAT therapist (in Italy sadly) and just one session with her did me the WORLD of good…was pretty impressed.


      • I am very pleased that we have CAT available here [so too was a friend that works in provision of CAT in England] but disappointed that the waiting list is so long and that I won’t be assessed for it. CBT has its uses but sometimes there is stuff so embedded from past experience that it is hard to shift. I understand that there are people whose situation is acute, but I am a bouncing ball with regard to depression – sice about 9 or 10 years old, and it has been acute.


  5. I so hear you on this Viv! As you know, I’ve had my own battles with depression and anxiety.
    I have learned not to depend on the understanding of those who may not be capable of getting it, but here is my simple explanation.
    Depression is when your mind will not allow you to experience joy or happiness no matter what the circumstances. I could win the lottery and find reasons to think of suicide at my worst while being completely aware that I have nothing to be unhappy about.
    This is what makes it a disease.
    There is much that can be done to manage it, but it is not always curable.
    Sadly, we live in a world that doesn’t get it yet and I work to accept that, knowing that other’s lack of understanding doesn’t diminish the reality.
    Thank you for writing about this. The more we tell our truth, the more chance there is that the world might finally get it.
    Love and healing to you Viv!


  6. Another INFJ here, and when I worked out that’s what I was a while back, I found it comforting too. I have been on both sides of depression – trying to help others and now on the wrong side, the inside, and I empathise (!) with both your feeling for the people who asked you what the problem was, and your loss at what to answer. It’s a place with no windows. How to describe what you cannot see?


  7. Pingback: Sunshine through the clouds ~ a respite from darkness « Zen and the art of tightrope walking

  8. Sending this to my 18-yr-old daughter who talked to me yesterday about all of her feelings, feelings and thoughts and behaviors described so well here. Things that I relate to so well, and was able to communicate to my daughter. Even my husband had a hard time understanding and accepting what she’s going through.
    Quite the miracle to stumble across this today!
    Thank you!


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