I'm Aspen, and I am an empath. What this means to me is that I care waaaaay too much about everything, all the time. It also means, probably more notably, that I have a tendency to "take on" others' emotions and feel, in some way, the same things they are feeling.
I didn't learn this term until recently, but when I did, it made so much sense. I've always known I'm an emotional person. I have always felt completely exhausted after dealing with something sad, or being around a group of stressed-out people. I never really attributed it to much, but I now know that there is a deeper cause of this exhaustion.
I have taken on others' stress when they have a paper due midnight that they haven't started. I've taken a four hour nap after watching a sad movie. I've burst into tears after someone called me and told me they were having a hard time. There are so many personal ways that being an empath influences my life.
However, there is another way which being an empath affects my life, and I am positive it affects the lives of many others: through academia.
At a conference I recently attended, there was a breakout session about social change burnout. I have not had the same perspective on life, my passions, and the work I do since that session. It was so extraordinarily impactful.
Activists do not give themselves credit for their emotional labour. Every cause we commit ourselves to, every moment we spend working hard on changing the minds of others, it's exhausting. It's not (necessarily) physically tiring, but it's the emotion we put into everything we do that makes it entirely overwhelming and like we need to go to sleep after working with something particularly emotionally draining.
I've come to realize that a lot of my closest friends, who share similar passions for social justice and improving their communities, are also empaths. I've been with some of them on multiple occasions as they tearfully expressed how hopeless they feel about our world, or how disappointed they are that they can't do more to help or to validate the other people in their lives. This is such a difficult thing to think about and to deal with.
Climate change. Police brutality. Gender inequality. Racism. Capitalism. Environmental degradation. Unjust labour practices. Homophobia. Refugee crises. War. Violence. Terrorism. So many more issues. They are overwhelming and they are unavoidable. And when you're an empath, they become too much. They simmer and simmer until they boil over and you find yourself crying, hopeless about what you can do to fix things.
What's more unavoidable is when you, like myself and many of the people closest to me, study a subject which deals with these things constantly: political science, international development, sociology, environmental science, social justice studies. You are bound to these things.
Because university is even more than a full-time job, where your assignments and readings are never not on your mind, you never get a break. You're writing essays about how climate change is linked to feminism while you're procrastinating on your readings about the refugee crisis. And when you're taking breaks and scrolling through Facebook, news article after news article is coming up about the latest Trump decision and how it more deeply oppresses yet another group of marginalized people. You never get a break. And that is exhausting.
The other aspect of this is emotional labour. When you're passionate about these topics, you want to talk about them all the time. You want to educate others. You want to share your opinions and change the minds of those who don't agree with them. Because you care. Not because you want to be right, but because you want to make a difference. You want to change someone's vote. You want to convince someone to stop using single-use plastic. You just want others to understand, to feel the same way that you do.
But while someone must do this work (and everyone must do this work), the burden does not fall entirely on you. You are not individually responsible for solving climate change. You are not individually responsible for ensuring Trump does not win the election in 2020. You don't have to fix it all.
Being an empathetic academic means not only do you take on the emotions of others in your personal life, but that you take on the collective pressure, sadness, fear, and responsibility that is associated with studying what it is that you study. I have a theory that it is mainly empaths who choose to study a social science, or a socially-oriented subject. Because empaths take on the burden of these problems as their own, because they think that's what they're supposed to do. And then, they are hailed as heroic, or "the leaders of the next generation." That is a hell of a lot of pressure for a nineteen year-old that still lives on ramen. You almost feel like doing your essay is the start of a really long path that you plan to stay on for your entire life that involves exhausting, burdening social change work - and it's really overwhelming to think about that path. It's like if you were standing at the starting line of a marathon, thinking about the fact that even after you finish this one, you have to run ten more. And God, there is nothing romantic about this feeling. There are no Nobel Peace Prizes for the nights you lie awake in bed, asking yourself what the world your children will live in is going to be like. There is nothing romantic about the emotional burden of social change work.
I don't know how to change this, because it's really difficult to change how you feel. You can't really avoid being an empath, it just is. But I think the most important thing is the realization that it's a part of you, and that it's okay to take breaks. One of the things that bothers me the most about university is how hard everyone is on themselves. You are pressured to constantly be working. Then, when you add the emotional burden of studying something like "Saving the World 101", you're going to exhaust yourself that much more.
So here's my suggestion: next time you're procrastinating over studying, or doing that reading, or writing that paper, don't punish yourself or call yourself lazy. Be introspective and ask yourself if you're avoiding it because it is emotionally difficult. Then, remind yourself that it's okay to feel that way, and that you're amazing for even wanting to do something to make this earth a better place. Start this marathon, walk if you need to, and take a break when you finish it. You wouldn't feel guilty for resting after finishing a marathon, so don't feel guilty for resting after finishing that really emotionally-burdening essay on climate change.
Every action you take can, and will, make the world a better place. You're investing in yourself to make sure you're the best activist you can be. Don't ever, ever take that for granted. You've got this.