Canary (or What’s Your Super Power?)


This is going to be kind of a weird, rambling post (warning!) and I don’t know exactly where it’s going. But I have thoughts, and they need to go somewhere and here is where they are probably going.

It’s not a total waste, though. I’ll intersperse them with lots of pictures of my beautiful children and their beautiful friends playing at the arboretum. I do love the scale of that place.01-DSC_7797

So does James.

If I were going to summarize the thing I’m wrestling with this year, it’s empathy.

Not having too little of it—the opposite, really. I’m not sure empathy is the right word, but it’s the best one I have available at the moment.

For a long time, I’ve understood that my understanding of and sensing of other people’s emotions is unusually acute. When I worked in a particularly toxic workplace, people treated me like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. After meetings with zero overt tension, even people I didn’t know well would check in with me and ask me what I thought the real feelings were. I was a bit of a feelings-sponge, and that was awfully unhealthy. I took all this negativity into me, and nearly had a nervous breakdown.

I didn’t understand what was going on, or that it was unusual, until I was doing a hiring interview, partnered with my friend Jack, who had a masters in counselling. After the interview, Jack said, “How did he make you feel?” When I pulled out the guy’s resume and started to talk about his qualifications, Jack stopped me. “No, how do you feel right now?”

“Sad, I guess,” I said. “He needs this job so desperately, but I don’t know if he’d be a good fit. He doesn’t have the background, really. But maybe with some training…”

Jack stopped me again. “Everyone needs this job. That man was clearly depressed. He made you feel sad and you don’t know why, but it’s because you’re an empath. You picked up his depression. He needs help, but he doesn’t need a job that will be a bad fit.”

We didn’t hire the guy.

But that word, empath, kept rolling around in my head. What did that mean? Was it a real thing? I think I heard it on Star Trek once.

It’s a word JC uses to describe me, too, but JC also tells my children that dragons are non-fiction, so…

In the years since I left the RStone, I’ve been lucky enough to rarely be directly involved in super toxic work situations (one benefit of working for myself!). I’ve also become better at not absorbing the negative emotions that move around me, even in very bad situations. I can observe them, and be aware of them, but not let them inhabit my body. I’m not the canary anymore. I’m an instrument, but not one that will die from making a reading.



Sometimes, this can be kind of fun, actually. I love watching actors, because I can have many emotional experiences at once, especially if the actors are ones that I know well, and if they’re any good. When I watch an actor play a scene where he’s angry, for example, I get to experience the character’s anger and the audience’s response to that anger (are they rooting for him? Shocked? Afraid?). I also get to enjoy the actor’s enjoyment of letting loose and embracing this moment of power. If it’s an actor I know well, I have my own set of emotions around my relationship with the actor. Maybe I’m proud of him for how far he’s come, or admiring his ability.

I’m like a sommelier of emotions. So many layers. So many flavors.


I’ve had experiences where I was aware of something in the actor’s emotional state that even her scene partner didn’t pick up on. Often, I can’t name it, but I know it’s there. It’s a smell, a tint, a hint.

The feelings in a room have texture and taste and weight, for me.

Is there such a thing as a synesthete for emotions?


I imagine, more than all the work I did analyzing scripts and building mental tableaux, this ability is what makes me a good director. I don’t miss much of what is going on in the feelings, both within and between people, both fictional and non.


I’m participating in a leadership development seminar at church, and as I’ve been thinking about what I need to learn next to become a better leader, I think this is the big thing. I’ve gotten to the point where my empathy doesn’t harm me any more. My emotional barriers are less porous than they once were. I don’t absorb the toxicity.

In rehearsal, it can be an asset, but mostly, especially in the world outside of the rehearsal hall, it’s just neutral. It’s a tool that I don’t really know how to use, although I’ve learned not to cut myself on it anymore.

So that’s what I’m working on. Trying to clarify and control it.

I’m looking for a Yoda, sort of. I know that I have a lot of raw ability, but I want someone to meet me in the swamp and teach me to use it to fight blindfolded.


I also want to know more about the science of this, if there is any. I’ve heard of “highly sensitive people,” but I think that what I’m wrestling with goes beyond that label. Most of the information I have been able to find that seems relevant isn’t sciencey, and that’s what I want. I want RadioLab to do something about people who can sense other people’s emotions, even when those people aren’t fully aware of how they’re feeling.

If I could get excellent at using this, it would become a gift, rather than a liability. And that would be nice.

It would make me a better leader, but I imagine that it could also make me a better friend.

I especially find myself wishing I could help people when I clearly see what’s going on emotionally for them in a way that they just aren’t aware of. 08-DSC_7823

I have a very good friend (who doesn’t read this blog, so if you think it’s you, it’s not) who is having a completely awful time right now. She seems undone, not present in herself. Since she’s usually confident, collected, thoughtful, and powerful, this is super hard to see. She definitely knows that she’s in a bad state, but I don’t think she sees either the depth of it or a pathway out. She’s hurting people who care about her and who want to help because she’s just a raw nerve. She’s too frazzled to have any grace for people’s fumbling attempts at reaching out to her.

In my magical perfect world, I’d be able to use my weird ability to help her, not just to observe her, and get sad as I watch her being so lost.

I don’t know if that’s a real thing, either.

But I do know that I can’t get this friend out of my mind, and I know that I feel this deeply, in part, because I took on a bit of that pain, maybe a bit on purpose, maybe to try to understand it.

I do understand it, but I don’t know how to help it. I barely know how to be present with it.

One thing that I do wonder about is that I don’t remember being wrecked by the emotional chaos that was my home during my parents’ separation and eventual divorce. I remember being upset by it, certainly, but those were more my own emotions; I don’t remember feeling like theirs were invading me. Maybe I was so full of my own sadness that for once, I didn’t have space to absorb anything else. My own sadness is easier to handle than outside sadness that I take on.

I’m very curious about what other people’s experiences of emotions outside of their own are.

Do you feel emotions as a group?

Can you look at someone whose face looks more or less neutral, but sense that they are either much happier or much sadder than they are letting on?

Do you get sad or unsettled for no reason and then find out that someone you’ve been spending time with is having a super bad time at life?

Here’s the most sci fi one: Do you think that the emotions you bring to a group can shift the group’s collective emotional state?03-DSC_7807

How many layers are in theater?

And outside of this empath/feelings-sponge/emotion-synesthete thing, what extra senses do you have? What do you notice that the rest of us are missing? What’s your super power?10-DSC_7826


Aili Written by:

One Comment

  1. EmmaLee Breianna
    April 25, 2016

    I love this post! Did you ever listen to the Invisiblia podcast NPR produced last year? It was fascinating, and there was an episode about a similar experience, though this woman could feel things others physically felt, so not too similar, heh. That episode is entanglement.

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