So I have this thing called extreme empathy. I’m not sure if it’s an actual thing, or if anyone else can relate but when someone tells me a painful story, I feel like I’m there, experiencing it all, and it’s pretty overwhelming.
Being empathetic of course has its benefits, it means that you are able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and relate to something you couldn’t possibly have ever experienced in real life. It enables you to then help and console others. It also has its downfalls, as my imagination is extremely vivid, I tend to carry other people’s burdens & because of this I tend to shy away from sad story’s, sad films or upsetting news articles because of this.
One thing I struggled with when I was younger though is those stories that didn’t seem that painful to me but was the end of the world for someone else. It used to annoy me so much when people would complain about things that to me, didn’t matter. To me, what they were complaining about seemed so minuscule on the grander scale of things.
I specifically remember a time, in my early teenage years, when a close friend of mine
was crying about how her mum didn’t let her leave the house until she had cleaned her room. My friend was cussing, crying, saying how unfair her mum was and how she hated her for this. My initial reaction? ‘Are you fucking serious?’
That was a moment I realised that I wasn’t anything like my friend, what she considered
to be oh-so-traumatic seemed to me like an over traumatisation & that she should be lucky to even have a bedroom of her own or have a mum that cared about her child’s environment. I felt angry.
On reflection though, I always felt a little bit displaced. I was the friend that came from a broken home and we were extremely poor. My friends all had their parents, a nice house and was well equipped with the ‘basic needs’. I was lucky if I could have a hot bath without having to heat water up on the stove because the bills hadn’t been paid or having to walk to my aunt’s house to take a shower. Dinners and food were never consistent- you ever had wheetabix with water to make the milk last longer? Yeah, pretty gross.
And please note, this is not by all means any reflection on my mother, she done the best she could considering the demons she was battling at the time.
Growing up there were certain occasions that made me feel resentful for the way my life was. I remember in primary school my friends mum made a comment about how I couldn’t take the charity jar home from the bake sale we done in case me or my mum would steal out of it. I remember some of my friends saying to me that their parents said they can’t be friends with me anymore. That I was a bad influence. When actually, if right now I was to compare myself against those girls I can damn well tell you who has achieved more, but that’s neither here nor there.
I’m not saying I was/am an angel, but I was always seen as a reflection of my circumstances. A girl in primary school who asked me why I had a different surname to my mum and endured the wrath of my nan screaming at her that it’s ‘none of your fucking business you little shit’- lol, I know right? Wasn’t it obvious as to why? Well no actually, because when you come from a home where your parents are married, everyone else is married with children, with the same surnames around you, then how would you know any different?
This got me thinking. Even though I was the one being judged, constantly, and being treated like a bad egg, these lessons and feelings became very useful. I want you to bare this in mind when I tell you what changed in me, how my reactions and feelings about ‘insignificant matters’ changed.
I’m a huge advocate for surrounding yourself with people who are not like you. Being friends with people that aren’t the same age, race, social class and those who don’t even speak the same language as you is so important for personal growth.
This is how you see the world.
This is how you grow.
And sure, it’s easier said than done.
Living in London and being able to travel the world so freely has allowed me to do this. Going to uni, volunteering, having been in employment since 15 and turning up to networking events at 17 years old full of investment bankers, lawyers and business people with barley a GCSE to my name was the most uncomfortable yet freeing experience in my life. And no, I’m not overly confident, if anything I’m more introverted and full of anxiety in these situations, but I had to do it if I wanted to grow and surround myself with high-achievers, I needed people to learn from. I needed to look for people that I wanted to be more like rather than not be more like if you catch my drift.
Anyway, moving forward I began to realise that my background became useful to some people. I remember a specific time at university when I was standing outside with my friend, (wealthy & privately educated), who began to mock and take the piss out of a pair of trainers another student was wearing. My reaction? I used to walk around with holes in the bottoms of my shoes, I actually used to go into Primark and swap my beaten old school shoes for a new pair and walk right out without paying. Her reaction? Humbled.
She began to tell me about how in her world you would be mocked for not having the latest Chanel bag. This baffled me. It’s not even based on how hard you work and what you buy with the money you’ve made, it’s based on how much money your parents have given you- how can someone mock that? I realised that this moment amongst many that by sharing experiences and by not just going along with what actually could be harmful banter could change someone’s outlook entirely.
“I’ve never met someone like you”, she said, and I replied, “I’ve never met someone like you either”.
These little, yet, significant moments changed the way I feel about other peoples situations. Having been a lot younger and more reactive to the “is that it? are you kidding me?” situations, I realised that actually, who am I to pass judgment on someone else’s pain?
There have been many occasions where as an adult, people apologise to me for moaning about things that may seem so small to me but huge to them. These people know bits and bobs of what I’ve been through. Even the fact that I’m a care leaver rings alarm bells for what trauma I must have faced to end up with such a label. Please don’t apologise. Let me give you an example as to why:
Two friends of mine were having a row about something. Friend A turned to friend B and said, “you have no idea, my parents splitting up was the worst thing I’ve been through”. Friend A is very middle class. He is well spoken, a bit of a dick (he would openly admit this) and looks down on people he thinks are beneath him. Friend B however, is very open minded but won’t take any shit. He’s had his own trauma that he’s been through/ going through, and the argument turned into a battle of whose situation was worse.
Now obviously, it’s human nature to have an opinion, and my opinion was that friend B had it worse and friend A couldn’t compare his parents splitting up to this situation. Whose parents aren’t split up nowadays? But it got me thinking.
Just because your pain comes from a different place to someone else’s, doesn’t make it any less painful.
If the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life is that your pet goldfish died or your parent’s marriage broke down then that’s your worst thing. It doesn’t make your pain any less valid. You should never feel bad for talking or sharing an experience about something that changed your world completely. It’s your story- own it.
What also influenced how I feel about these situations is what choked me after an event. I’m 21 years old, working as a student ambassador and I had just stood up in front of a room full of care-experienced young people and spoke about my struggles and how I made it out the other side. I spoke about how I got through it and went on to study Law at university and made the best out of a pretty shitty situation. A young girl about 18 years old approaches me after, she tells me how much she can relate to me. How she too wants to go back, retake her GCSE’s and work hard on her A-levels so she can go to university and study Law just like I did.
She told me that she had been sent back to Africa and was trafficked by her own mother- well I stopped listening to every detail after that. You know when you get that buzzing feeling, a bit like that Krusty the crab meme my head was spinning. How on earth could she relate to me? I actually felt embarrassed, like Jesus Christ this girl has been through hell and back. I’ve never experienced anything of the sort, and yes as empathetic as I am I couldn’t even imagine the slightest of what this girl had endured. It played on my mind for ages and I felt the need to help her in anyway I could. Checking over her uni applications and being a listening ear when needed is all I could really do.
It wasn’t until I went to a work do and after having introduced myself to someone I’d never met before, he turned to me and said- “oh you’re Rosie Wainwright, we had a young person apply for a student ambassador role today and she mentioned you in her interview, that you were the person who had inspired her to go to university and the reason she wants to become an ambassador is so she can go on to inspire others”. The biggest lump in my throat formed. Honestly, I can’t tell you, even now this is probably the proudest moment in my life, because actually I didn’t do anything special. I just told my story, without going into detail. How regardless I battled through and accomplished what seemed impossible at the time. From someone who has also experienced a painful situation, even though being completely different to mine she didn’t turn her nose up, she didn’t question whose pain was worse, she just knew that if I could get through the worst time of my life then she could get through hers. She had then pretty much followed my journey. She even went to the same university as I did and studied the same subject. Just as much as I had inspired her, she had inspired me without even knowing it.
And this is when I learnt. That just because your pain is different, it doesn’t make it any less valid. Own your story. Speak your truth. Wear it as a badge if you really want to. But listen to others. Don’t judge. Keep an open mind about others situations & you may be able to relate but don’t compare. Everyone’s story is special & this is what makes every single one of us unique.