At the start of Covid, when everyone was punching each other in the face for toilet paper, I decided to change grocery shopping time to before work once a week. It massively cut down on the number of people I had to encounter, and the shelves were stocked. I have since stuck to that routine because I found it to be more enjoyable than trying to get around people standing in the middle of the isle texting, leaving their cart where nobody can get around, etc.
I am a creature of habit. Remember the first day of school? Whatever desk you chose on the first day of school was where you sat until the last day of school. I am like that with everything in life, which means I found myself going through the same cashier line each week. Patti is an older, sweet woman, chatty but not overly, and her conversations were oddly meaningful, but I could not place why.
At the back of the store every week is the beer guy doing what he does, stack beers. Each week I would peruse the beer section to see if there was a new interesting beer for us to try. The beer guy was always friendly, so we exchanged a little small talk each week, and he got into the habit of setting aside beers he thought we would like based on prior purchases. Pretty cool. Until it kind of wasn’t. One day, recently, I was in the throws of my routine as I passed through the beer section. Of course, I said hello to the beer guy, as I normally do, but he did not greet me back. Instead, he angrily accused me of ‘looking right through him’ when he waved to me at the front of the store the prior week. I was a little taken back by the accusation and how upset he seemed to be, but I compassionately apologized, obviously I did not know that had happened. He did not accept my apology, and went on about other rants in a slightly elevated voice until I removed myself from the situation. He was stacking those 12-packs with such anger, I could hear the pounding at the front of the store.
I started reflecting on why that moment irked me so badly. I guess I had not realized the increasing trend because it was such a slow progression, but every week the conversations went further away from light-hearted greetings to constant complaining. One day, he even half-jokingly mentioned he uses me as a therapist because he doesn’t have one. In my moment of reflection, I realized I did it again…
When someone suffers childhood trauma, a byproduct can mean becoming a toxic empath. I mention my childhood a lot, but constantly skate around it. Maybe one day, but that is not on the list to be unpacked anytime soon.
Being a toxic empath means taking on one’s emotions, anxiety, and pain as their own. They feel responsible to do something about it – to make it better. As you can imagine, over time it becomes exhausting, and tends to skew the normal level of empathy one should have to help others in need. In my case, it is sometimes hard to find that balance. As a matter of fact, Ken sometimes guides me, as I become overly empathetic to individuals that might not deserve that energy, while others do.
This time, Ken did not have to guide me. I realized all on my own that I was expending energy on someone that doesn’t really deserve it. The beer guy. Last week, I did exactly what he accused me of doing a couple of weeks ago. I looked right at him, and instead of saying hello, I turned down another isle, and I never looked back. And honestly, I felt good about it. Even rather proud of myself.
Bitchy? To him, totally. To me, it was a moment of empowerment. I sometimes feel I do not deserve a seat at the table. Well, I never considered that maybe others don’t deserve a seat at mine.
Please don’t get me wrong - the problem here isn’t that I am overly empathic, to the point I want to just take friends and loved ones pain, hurt, and disappointment away. I WANT to be that person, that friend, that family member that can always be counted on, to be here to listen and help. The problem here is that I want to take EVERYONE’S pain, hurt, and disappointment away. That is just not manageable – for anyone. I realized I have to be a little more mindful about how much I allow myself to take on. Seeing someone for ten minutes a week, never seeing or talking to them outside of that ten minutes, and having heavy things dropped on me to mull over in my head, is just not in my management plan. It can’t be. Self-preservation.
Back to Patti, the cashier. Over time, I realized why our conversations felt so meaningful, and one day, I told her. She reminded me of my mom. The things she said, her wit, charm, sense of humor, her glasses, she just put a smile on my face every week. Then one week she really blew me away. As I was walking up to her line, she greeted me with a beautiful bouquet of purple flowers – my favorite color – for my birthday. We must have talked about when my birthday was at some point, and I know it sounds corny, but I wanted to believe, and felt, it was a little something from my mom. It was my first birthday without her – the first year ever in my life I had not heard mom sing the Happy Birthday song to me, and I got flowers from someone that barely knew anything about me, especially not my favorite color.
Patti fills my empath bank. We hug hello and goodbye every week and end each conversation with an “I love you.”
Focus on the meaningful relationships; friends, family, people that fill your bank(s) so you can replenish others. I don’t know who needs to hear it, maybe nobody – maybe I am just trying to convince myself – but it is okay to recognize that not everyone can have a seat at your table – even if it feels shitty for a bit.