Up and Down The Empathy Spectrum


I am a sensitive person and likely you are as well. How do I know that? Because insensitive people aren’t that interested in what others have to say and presumably don’t read blogs (just a hunch). Also because if you’re reading this, you’re likely in recovery or care about a person in recovery, so you are trying to understand yourself and others better; a sensitive objective.

It isn’t easy being sensitive. Emotions are more intense than necessary: I am overjoyed when happiness would suffice. If I’m sad I’m devastated and when angry I can become obsessed with proving a point.

I notice and react to the world around me constantly, and can’t seem to help but take in everything. If strangers are having a disagreement within earshot, fight-or-flight kicks in. When I witness someone behaving badly, a weight of shame descends onto my shoulders as if by proxy. I can cry over a dog food commercial.

It isn’t all bad. Constant thoughtful observance can lend an advantage – we sensitive types are often two steps ahead of everyone else around us – but it’s also exhausting.

Part of alcohol’s appeal was its ability to take the edge off of the sensory overload; to give me a break from the running tickertape of responsive feedback, criticism, and anxiety. What we sensitive people need is a good intake filter, and alcohol appears deceptively effective at first.

In recovery, we learn new ways to comfort ourselves and to change our perspective so that the world feels less prickly. Recently, I was tearing up over a television program, so I challenged myself: These emotions do not belong to me. Experiencing them will not change the situation. I choose not to feel this sadness. Then I pictured my chest as a Teflon-coated frying pan that tilted up and slid the feeling of heaviness away like eggs onto the floor and POOF – the feeling went away. HOLY SHIT. I was so excited I tried it again and again in the days to come, and it worked! Organic, real emotions are useful and powerful, but unfiltered empathy can be accepted or discarded.

I must confess, though, that as much as I claim to absorb others’ feelings, I am also the same person who believed wholeheartedly that the people around me did not really love me (because I believed myself unworthy and unloveable). How could I be so intuitive and connected, yet apathetically block the reality of the loving emotions of my friends and family? I drank to numb the pain of that disconnection as well, and recovery has allowed a new capacity for accepting that I am both lovable and loved.

apathyIt helps to understand empathy as a spectrum that we may move along, landing at different points depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in at any given moment: experiencing more apathy in some settings and yet feeling highly empathetic (and emotional) at other times. By developing emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as “EQ”), we learn to harness the power of our experience and empathy to respond appropriately to situations. We choose whether to slide the emotional eggs off the pan, or if there is a benefit to continuing to experience those emotions as a means of connection.

Midway through the spectrum are behaviour patterns like Narcissism and Codependency. Although they are often presented as opposite extremes, in many ways they are closely related. Narcissism is a self-centredness that relies on others to feed a grandiose facade, whereas Codependent behaviour involves self-worthlessness that seeks identify through serving the needs of others. Narcissism obliterates others for the sake of self, while codependency obliterates the self for the sake of others. It’s hard for good things to come of relationships where someone is always obliterated, for whatever reason.

For me, recovery has involved self-awareness of both behaviours and an effort to shift towards empathy, which ultimately leads greater emotional intelligence or “EQ”. It isn’t always easy, but sometimes the temporary discomfort of self-awareness and change leads to a greater overall happiness with myself and my behaviour towards others. Harnessing sensitivity and establishing better patterns as a result reinforces a stronger mindset that is less likely to look for comfort in unhealthy ways.




  1. Wow! I love your take on codependency vs narcissism, I have not heard it put quite that way! I too am a sensitive person (the type that cries while reading Hallmark greeting cards) I look forward to trying out your idea of letting my unnecessary emotions slide off like teflon! I am in school to be a addiction counselor, and I lead substance abuse groups. I am talking about boundaries today, so I may use part of this article. Thanks for your insight!


  2. Thank you for this post. I have to say that I have never before been able to associate the disconnection I felt with others with the feelings of unworthiness I felt for myself. I think I blamed the disconnect on “them”. My friends and family would express their love, but I didn’t believe them. They didn’t know the REAL ME..the one who was shameful and isolated and just a bad person. I blamed them for not knowing me, and being blind to who I was (even though I never gave them the chance). Almost three months sober and I’m finally learning how to love myself, and I can see the small strings of connection forming, slowly. It’s liberating to realize that the power to form the connections I have always craved rests solely in my hands.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jean first I love the info graphics, so clear and well done.
    Second I felt as if you were talking about me when you spoke of being highly sensitive, yet somehow believing that I am unworthy of love. Since I am moving further and further away from alcohols grip (more than 2 years), I am starting to feel more worthy, so I hope those feelings will increase as I move further and further away.
    A step I took today was to leave work on time, in doing so my message to myself is you deserve a little downtime.
    I hope you are healing well from your recent surgery.
    Thanks for your blog, it really is great.


  4. Your visual is so awesome. It really captures different interpersonal styles. I love your blog so much and benefit greatly from your wise words. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh! I love this so much! thank you for sharing in such a clear and intelligent way. So many of us boozers have these very character traits, coincidence? I think not.

    Liked by 1 person

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