Let’s Just Admit We’re Empaths | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Let’s Just Admit We’re Empaths

There’s been a lot of hubbub about a recent study on the relationship between men’s facial expressions and their attractiveness to women.  According to the study, when presented with photos of smiling and brooding men, the female test subjects said they were more attracted to the unhappy-looking men than to the happy-looking ones.

Not surprisingly, lots of people writing about the study concluded that, if they want to attract women, men should try to look tough or even ashamed, and avoid smiling.

Am I a Betazoid?

When I read articles that say I should put on some facial expression, or display some kind of body language, to get people to like me, I tend to feel a little alien.  I start to wonder:  am I the only one who finds it painfully obvious when a person is trying to look a certain way?

In my experience, when someone smiles, I can instantly tell if they’re really enjoying themselves, or just trying to look happy for my benefit.   By the same token, it’s immediately clear to me when someone’s trying to look puffed up and tough to hide their fear.

Though I’m a fairly empathic guy, I suspect I’m not the only person who can tell when someone’s hiding what they truly feel — what with me being human just like everybody else, and all.  But if that’s true, why is there so much advice out there about “winning body language”?  Don’t the people who give that kind of advice see how unhelpful it is?

No Empathy Allowed

What I’ve come to believe is that, in our culture, there’s a sort of unspoken agreement that we won’t admit how empathic we are.  I’ll pretend I don’t see that you’re unhappy, so long as you act like you don’t know I’m angry.  You’ll smile back at me, although you know my smile is fake, and I’ll do the same for you.

I think this unspoken agreement is rooted in our fear and distrust of each other.  We’re afraid that, if someone saw how we were really feeling, that might put us in danger.

After all, if you saw I was feeling sad or distressed, maybe you’d make fun of me, or attack me in my moment of weakness!  So, it seems easier for us all to pretend we can’t sense each other’s emotions — that way, nobody needs to feel unsafe.

The trouble with this unwritten rule is that it leaves a lot of us starving for real connection.  If I have to pretend I don’t know how you’re feeling, I can’t offer you compassion and a chance to talk about what’s going on, unless you come out and ask me to.  And to many people, asking for another person’s compassion sounds about as inviting as sticking their head in a lion’s mouth.

Are You Really “Fine, Just Fine”?

So, because I want to feel genuinely connected to people around me, I’ve taken to letting people know when something seems “off” to me — when I get the sense that their words and expression don’t match how they’re actually feeling.

I try not to put this in an accusing way, as if they’re lying or doing something wrong.  I just ask whether something’s going on that they’d like to talk about — “are you really ‘doing fine,’ or is something up?”  This isn’t always easy, and people don’t always want what I’m offering.  But much of the time, it creates a far deeper and more satisfying conversation.

There’s been a lot of hubbub about a recent study on the relationship between men’s facial expressions and their attractiveness to women.  According to the study, when presented with photos of smiling and brooding men, the female test subjects said they were more attracted to the unhappy-looking men than to the happy-looking ones.
Not surprisingly, lots of people writing about the study concluded that, if they want to attract women, men should try to look tough or even ashamed, and avoid smiling.
Am I a Betazoid?
When I read articles that say I should put on some facial expression, or display some kind of body language, to get people to like me, I tend to feel a little alien.  I start to wonder:  am I the only one who finds it painfully obvious when a person is trying to look a certain way?
In my experience, when someone smiles, I can instantly tell if they’re really enjoying themselves, or just trying to look happy for my benefit.   By the same token, it’s immediately clear to me when someone’s trying to look puffed up and tough to hide their fear.
Though I’m a fairly empathic guy, I suspect I’m not the only person who can tell when someone’s hiding what they truly feel — what with me being human just like everybody else, and all.  But if that’s true, why is there so much advice out there about “winning body language”?  Don’t the people who give that kind of advice see how unhelpful it is?
No Empathy Allowed
What I’ve come to believe is that, in our culture, there’s a sort of unspoken agreement that we won’t admit how empathic we are.  I’ll pretend I don’t see that you’re unhappy, so long as you act like you don’t know I’m angry.  You’ll smile back at me, although you know my smile is fake, and I’ll do the same for you.
I think this unspoken agreement is rooted in our fear and distrust of each other.  We’re afraid that, if someone saw how we were really feeling, that might put us in danger.  After all, if you saw I was feeling sad or distressed, maybe you’d make fun of me, or attack me in my moment of weakness!  So, it seems easier for us all to pretend we can’t sense each other’s emotions — that way, nobody needs to feel unsafe.
The trouble with this unwritten rule is that it leaves a lot of us starving for real connection.  If I have to pretend I don’t know how you’re feeling, I can’t offer you compassion and a chance to talk about what’s going on, unless you come out and ask me to.  And to many people, asking for another person’s compassion sounds about as inviting as sticking their head in a lion’s mouth.
Are You Really “Fine, Just Fine”?
So, because I want to feel genuinely connected to people around me, I’ve taken to letting people know when something seems “off” to me — when I get the sense that their words and expression don’t match how they’re actually feeling.
I try not to put this in an accusing way, as if they’re lying or doing something wrong.  I just ask whether something’s going on that they’d like to talk about — “are you really ‘doing fine,’ or is something up?”  This isn’t always easy, and people don’t always want what I’m offering.  But much of the time, it creates a far deeper and more satisfying conversation.

14 thoughts on
Let’s Just Admit We’re Empaths

  1. Evan

    I think that stuff about body language and all is part of a wider theme – technocracy. On which Ellul’s Technological Society is brilliant – published in English nearly 60 years ago and still on the money. In the self development field this was what Stephen Covey pointed out in 7 Habits – the shift from character to actions.

  2. Sandra / Always Well Within

    I love the pure honesty of this article. I smiled the whole way through. It takes a lot of guts to breakthrough and make real human connections. I’m inspired by your willingness to do so. The photo made me smile of course too.

  3. Giulietta Nardone

    Hi Chris,

    I’m with you. I want to feel genuinely connected to folks. Because of that I listen to what folks have to say. It’s the best way to connect. Many folks will let it go. Others have been taught to say it’s fine. That’s why you can be really shocked when someone commits suicide. They tend not to let anyone know so you won’t stop them, when if they talked about it and opened up it might stave off the pain/loneliness.

    If you think back to k-12, at what point did we ever get a chance to talk about our insides? It’s all cramming pretty useless stuff in our heads Anyone who steps out of learning line, gets a nice trip to the detention hall.

    We’re humans who aren’t allowed to be human for the most part,

    I like men who are laughing … thx, G.

  4. Evita

    Hi Chris

    I will take smiles any day over frowns :)

    Wow that is an “interesting” study…. hmmm… it does make you wonder as to why we are having the relating issues we are, when it comes to other humans.

    The time to stop pretending and be real is here. May we not deceive others, for we are only deceiving ourselves. And I think that being empathetic is a beautiful thing, of course as long as we don’t get crippled or paralyzed by it, as it so happens with some people who take on everyone’s energy without any personal boundaries. But I don’t think this is what the point of what you are saying is, rather to be real.

    And so yes, let’s smile, let’s be honest and let’s be real about who we are in any given moment and how we really feel. Openness of this sort can truly transform our world!

  5. Evelyn Lim

    I find that even while I am willing to open up, others don’t wish to. They are too fearful of being judged and hence feel safer to hide behind frozen smiles. I have also found that I am drawn to those who appear to be more authentic. It’s easy to spot those who are pretentious.

  6. Davina Haisell

    Very true, Chris. People are afraid to “go there,” it seems. I’m very willing to open up and go there, and LOVE when I can speak with folk who are equally trusting of myself and of themselves. Pretending everything is okay, or just sweeping something under the bridge helps nobody.

    I agree that there is fear and distrust of each other, but I also think there is fear of ourselves and what is *really* there. We can’t fully express it to the other folk, because we ourselves haven’t taken the time to see it either. Perhaps by checking in, whatever we feel is hiding in our closet, wouldn’t be as dark as we might have fooled ourselves into believing.

  7. jannie funster

    Wow, you’re going into graduate psychology — cool! Congrats on that goal.

    But that was last post, and this is this post…

    I think Mystery Men, when attracted ladies first set eyes on them, are alluring to females because of their toughness, therefore they would be able to beat off the other males, or bears or wolves with their clubs? However in actual the falling-in-love stage a smile from a man is a good sign. (Been Googling again for song research.)

    Starving for real connection — I never feel that here, Chris. Because you and I iz real buddies,whooohoo.

    xoxo

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — thanks for the book recommendation. I remember being pleasantly surprised at what Covey wrote in the introduction to The Seven Habits — it didn’t strike me as the sort of thing I’d typically see in a self-help book.

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sandra — I’m glad you appreciated the honesty — that’s definitely what I’ve been striving for in my recent posts and I hope to keep getting deeper with this approach.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Giulietta — yes, when someone says they’re doing fine, and I’m allowed to probe a bit deeper, I almost always find a frustration and a sense of emptiness. I don’t think human beings are ever “fine,” in the sense of being “emotionally neutral” — if we’re willing to look, we’ll always see some emotion or sensation there, and telling someone about it can actually create the connections we’re looking for.

  11. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evita — I was intrigued by what you said about empathy, and I can definitely relate to “taking on” what others are feeling in a way that can create suffering. What I’ve found is that, when I feel “overwhelmed” by others’ emotions or energy or whatever we want to call it, it’s because I am not fully at peace with what the other person is feeling — whether it’s anger, anxiety, or something else. But this means that, every time I’m around people, I get another chance to get more familiar and intimate with emotions I may have pushed away in the past.

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — I imagine that’s frustrating, to feel like you’re opening up and others around you aren’t willing to connect. I’ve experienced that myself, and for a long time it had me avoid opening myself up in the way you describe. It’s definitely a worthy challenge, to get comfortable and familiar with that sense of disconnection or rejection.

  13. Chris - Post author

    Hi Davina — yes, it’s funny how our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with others tend to mirror each other, isn’t it? I remember having an experience when I was first getting deeply into my meditation practice, when I was walking around looking at people and wondering “has everybody around me been meditating? Suddenly they seem so calm and accepting of me.”

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — heh, I’m pleased that I don’t find myself thinking about whether to be a Mystery Matt or Smiling Sam anymore. Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but my sense is that the most appealing man is one who doesn’t care about these issues. :) It’s always fun to connect with you J-Money!

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