On “reading the air” & empathy


Over beers with an old friend last night, I learned a phrase I’ve never heard before.

“Kuuki Yomenai” is a Japanese term that can be literally translated to “can’t read the air.” It is typically used to describe someone who has difficulty reading social situations. They can’t quite “read the room” as they say. They’re not picking up what others are putting down.

Well. This piqued my interest.

As someone who identifies as an empath, reading others’ emotions is something that comes naturally to me, frequently to a fault. It has taken me years of practice to be able to turn it off and on when I need it – my own little secret superpower.

It comes in waves, and sometimes when I least expect it. Even worse…when another person least expects it. Many of my most embarrassing moments have come from asking someone I don’t know very well if they are indeed “OK?” at a party, in front of others.

I didn’t mean to put the spotlight on them, but I could see their inner strife, and acted quickly.

The normal reaction to my admittedly intrusive question is panic and defensiveness. I’ve likely heard people say “I’m fine!” much more than the average person. Most people don’t want to talk about their inner most thoughts at a party or over dinner. Even if they are actually upset.

The second reaction I get is pure confusion. In those moments, over the years, I’ve come to realize that the person doesn’t even realize their own body language, their feelings, or inner conflict. So who am I to point that out?

To those I’ve embarrassed at one point or another, I absolutely apologize. Please know that I never meant to cause you pain or humiliation, and I’ve been working hard on managing my mischief. [[ Harry Potter jokes, anybody? ]]

But what’s an empath? I’ve already used it so casually at this point, I often forget to explain.

While there’s many ways to define it, I’ve owned one definition the hardest:

“A person with extra-sensory empathic ability, capable of sensing the emotions of others around them in a way unexplained by conventional science and psychology.”*



And yes. To answer your question. I’m a sympathetic cryer. (…and don’t even get me started on commercials featuring sad dogs)

But I mean, I knew it was true even when I was younger. When I could see the feelings on my 3rd grade teacher’s face, and relate more to her than to my fellow classmates. I “got” sarcasm and humor at a very young age, which I can only attribute to empathy for others and the human spirit. I generally wanted everyone around me to just “feel better.” All the time.

This turned me in to quite the people pleaser as a young adult. Always hoping to make people happy. Make people laugh. Lighten up.

When you feel like Professor Charles Xavier all the time (yes I just dropped an X-men reference) with other people’s feelings darting through your brain constantly, you tend to want to look on the bright side 24/7…and see who you can drag along with you.

Misery loves company, though, which means my brain could go on overdrive in a group setting.

I had to learn mental tools to get through social situations – including visualizing a “force field” around myself so that no one’s feelings could penetrate my psyche and ruin my mood. “Me time” is extremely important in my routine so that I don’t burn out…so I don’t get emotional hangovers. I need to decompress, and during down time I frequently re-watch tv shows again and again so that there are no emotional surprises. Even a riveting plot to a TV drama can make my head explode a bit. (so yeah…no Game of Thrones)

It eventually dawned on me that no one asked me to do this everyday. Gotham did not a shine a “Rose” signal in the sky pleading for my empathetic help. (A Batman joke? YES.)

My “reading” of people can remain personal knowledge.

And so, nowadays I harness my empathy to work for me – using it as a basis for my values, my intersectional feminism, and helping others when I can.

It makes me a caring friend and doting party host. Ha! And I’ve been told it makes me a good manager and a great teacher.

Hopefully, with any luck, it will also make me an expressive writer.

Fingers crossed.



[IMAGE] Original painting, 2017, “Empath” Acrylics on canvas.

*Source: yourdictionary.com

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