On Being an Empathic Author

As an author, my job is to evoke an emotional response in my readers, which means I tend to keep my eyes and ears open for subject matter with the power to evoke an emotional response. Nothing grips a reader more powerfully than a plot line that fires up their emotions, whether for good or for bad. This is why I love hearing from readers that my books made them laugh, cry, scream, or want to throw their kindles against the wall because they were so angry with one of my characters. Such feedback tells me I’m doing my job.

But my ability to draw out readers’ emotions comes with a price.

Empathic Powers – Gift or Curse?

I’m an empath. What’s an empath? you ask. According to PsychAlive:

Empaths are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empath to describe a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense.

The site goes on to say that the term empath can also be used to describe an individual with “…special, psychic abilities to sense the emotions and energies of others.”

What this means is that I can absorb a lot of emotional energy, both positive and negative, from the people and world around me. I also have the ability to sense whether someone is a “good” person or “bad” with pretty good accuracy. I don’t actually like using terms like good or bad, because they are subjective, but here I use them for the sake of keeping things simple.

Life Lessons

Maybe you’re wondering how my empathic nature affects my life. Usually, I just get little thoughts and feelings that make me avoid this person or draw me to that one. I tend to avoid drama, because I don’t need that kind of stress on my empathic brain. I’ve had to walk away from friends or groups of people simply because they either create too much drama, or too much drama follows them around, and it’s just too stressful in the long-term, and I end up getting sick a lot. So, to protect my health, I cut those ties.

But, once in a while, my empathic nature goes Code Red. Those are the times I’ve learned to watch out for.

One Code Red reaction I experienced happened when I worked as a receptionist for an engineering firm. They were interviewing for someone who would be my new boss. Upon first meeting one of the applicants, my hackles went up, and, for some reason, I just did not like her. At all. I even said so to one of my coworkers. All she’d done was walk in the door, say hi to me, and then they took her back for the interview, but that was all it took for me to think she was trouble.

Long story short, she got hired. I had a change of heart and figured my first impression was just my own insecurity talking. I was young and hadn’t yet learned to trust my feelings. For months, this woman and I worked well together. Or, at least, so I thought. Then I learned she’d been lying and saying some not-so-nice things about me behind my back to the project managers and head engineers, all while being super nice to my face.

My first impression had been right.

Another time, when I was working at my part-time job as a cashier at the busiest Shell station in Wisconsin (a job I loved, by the way), a couple of guys came into the store and sent up warning bells inside my head. Like five-alarm, these aren’t good guys, I-could-die-in-the-next-five-minutes warning bells.

Let me just say that this gas station/convenience store had an unbelieveable amount of foot traffic. I saw people from all walks of life, including professional football players (a couple who’d played for teams who won the Super Bowl), models, body builders, businessmen, drug dealers, prostitutes, and the everyday Janes and Joes of the world, so I’d seen my share of humanity.

But these guys? They were something different. They looked like your run-of-the mill dudes, wearing jeans and hoodies. Nothing crazy or spectacular. They weren’t wearing ski masks or sheer stockings over their heads and didn’t come in brandishing guns. But their energy was way off, and I felt it, and I KNEW at least one of them had a gun on him. To this day, I still know he had a gun on him, and I know he intended to use on me that night.

I immediately thought of the more than $400 I had in my drawer, because the store had been busy earlier and I had forgotten to do my safe drops, which cashiers were required to do to keep the amount of money in the drawer at a minimum and put the money in a safe below the floor that only the manager had access to. So, oopsy. I had a shitload of money in the drawer.

I also hadn’t closed my bulletproof glass shield or locked my bulletproof glass door. So, double oopsy.

I was a sitting duck.

But I had one thing working in my favor. I knew what they were there to do, and that gave me the advantage. My job was to make me and my cash drawer look like the worst targets they could have picked to pull off an armed robbery.

The bigger guy (I’ll call him Biggie) came up to the cashier window while his smaller friend (I’ll call him Smalls) putzed around looking at the candy and small impulse-buy items on the counter. Biggie handed me a $100 bill to pay for the $8 worth of gas he’d pumped at the pump that was closest to the exit (this gave him and his friends a faster getaway).

I easily could have made the change with the amount of money I had in my drawer, but I made a disappointed face and asked him if he had anything smaller. “Do you have anything smaller than a hundred, because I don’t have enough money in my drawer to break this?” His reply, “No, baby, that’s all I’ve got.” Me: “Well, I can’t get more money for another five minutes if you don’t mind waiting, and maybe I’ll have some other customers who pay with cash.” See, cashiers had a “bank,” which was a mechanized vault we could pull money from in small increments (like $20 at a time), but we could only do that every five minutes or so.

Biggie didn’t mind waiting, so I checked his hundred to ensure it wasn’t counterfeit by holding it up to the light. Biggie chuckled good-naturedly (he was very friendly) and said, “It’s real, baby, but I bet if it weren’t you’d be hittin’ your alarm, right?” I said a silent thank you for the awesome setup. “Hell, yeah, I’d be hittin’ my alarm.” I laughed with him. We didn’t have an alarm, but if he thought we did, so much the better. “The police are here every night about this time, so at least they’d have a reason to be here that way,” I joked.

Hahaha. Biggie and I were like two old friends, kidding around and joking about the alarm, the security cameras, the police, etc. But it wasn’t jokes. It wasn’t kidding around. He was scouting for Smalls to see just how successful a robbery would be, and I was making them both believe hitting my Shell station was a bad risk. We were playing a game of chess, each moving our pieces to mount an offense and a defense.

At any rate, I took his $100 bill, and, right in front him, making a huge display out of it, I slipped it into a drop envelope and slipped it into the floor safe. Now he knew his $100 was gone, and he wasn’t getting it back. A few customers came in, so now there were witnesses who could identify them if anything happened. I continued to shoot the shit with Biggie while Smalls continued hand-checking the front of his hoodie, which was confirmation he was carrying a gun he intended to use.

I had previously worked in retail management and had attended a loss-prevention class where we were taught by a member of law enforcement that when someone is wearing a gun and is ready to use it, they will keep hand-checking it. Just touching the area of the body where they’re wearing it. Smalls had his gun in the front waist of his oversized jeans.

After almost ten minutes, between bank drops and customer sales, I finally had enough money to change Biggie’s hundred. I gave him the money with a big smile and said something like, “Man, you cleaned me out,” selling the idea that my drawer was on empty even more. I wished him a good night, and he left the store, leaving me alone with Smalls, who I could see had a black eye and some other facial injuries.

He kept hand-checking himself, placing small items on the counter for me to ring up. Gum, Chapstick, a sucker, a candy bar.

“Anything else?” I asked as cheerily as I could. I made pleasant small talk with him, being super nice to him, and kept on smiling as he continued quietly placing items on the counter. I knew he was preparing to pull his gun. He was nervous and scared. I could feel it. He didn’t want to be doing this, but he would.

Biggie was sitting in the driver’s seat of his boat-sized Cadillac, engine running, watching us, others in the car with him. I was thinking that oh my God, this is it. I could die in the next sixty seconds. But I just kept that smile on my face and kept asking Smalls if he needed anything else. Maybe a drink? A Coke or Pepsi?

Then, surprisingly, one by one, Smalls returned all this items to where he’d found them. “You don’t want anything?” I asked, pretending to be confused. “No, I changed my mind.” “Are you sure? Not even a candy bar?” “Nope.” I wished him a good night and said that I hoped he and his friends had a good time tonight as he headed for the exit.

Smalls left the store without pulling his gun or buying a single thing. I’d done it. Checkmate. I’d made him and Biggie think I had no money to steal and that they’d end up in jail if they tried.

I waved to Biggie and Smalls and the others in the car, smiling great big, and watched them pull out of the parking lot.

Then, after their car drove out of sight, I had a meltdown. Every part of my body began trembling. I began sobbing. I immediately opened my drawer and stuffed a drop envelope with $400 and dropped it. I closed my shield and locked my door. I was a damn mess.

But because of my empathic abilities, I’d survived. I knew what they were there for, and that allowed me to mount my own offensive against theirs, and by keeping my wits about me, I was able to avoid an armed robbery.

In hindsight, I wonder how badly Smalls got beat down for not pulling his gun on me that night. This was back in the days when gangs initiated members by beating them up, so I can only imagine how badly they hurt them when they didn’t do what they were told to do. My guess is that Smalls had just been initiated, given the bruises and lacerations on his face, and being tasked to rob my Shell station was probably part of his initiation. Thankfully, he made a different choice that night. And he probably suffered for it.

The Gift of Empathy… And Kindness

Some people would think the worst of Biggie and Smalls, and that if Smalls got beat up by Biggie and the others for not robbing me and/or shooting me, then too bad. He made his choice to join the gang, so he deserves what the gang does to him. These people would think Smalls was a worthless criminal with no redeeming qualities.

That’s not necessarily how I feel, especially now, looking back on that incident.

Smalls could have pulled his gun. He could have robbed me. He could have shot me. Whatever Biggie and the others had wanted him to do that night, he chose not to do. Why? Was it because he didn’t think I had enough money to make a robbery worth it? Was it because he thought I had a button under the counter that would set off a silent alarm? Was it because he thought I had a security camera behind the camera that got a good look at his face? I didn’t have any of those things, but I’d certainly sold them well enough. But… if he’d been ordered by his gang superiors to rob me, the decision to not rob me, no matter the circumstances, wasn’t his to make.

Maybe there’s another reason why Smalls didn’t rob me that night. I was actually kind to him. I smiled and talked to him. I treated him kindly. I went out of my way to be nice to him. Yes, I was trying to avoid being robbed, but in doing so, I offered kindness. Not anger, not fear, not insults. Kindness. I remember asking him about his black eye and showing concern for it. “Oh my God, are you okay? Does it hurt?”

It’s harder to pull a gun (whether it’s a literal gun, a harsh word, an insult, or a fist to the face) on your friends than it is to pull a gun on your enemies.

Even now, thinking about the life Smalls must have had before and after joining that gang (because I know it was a gang), I’m crying. This was a kid who had probably known very little kindness. And there I was, a stranger, just some gas station attendant he’d been tasked with robbing, and I was kind to him. Even though I was scared out of my wits, I found empathy for him. I sensed his own fear, that he didn’t want to be doing this, and I treated him like he wasn’t worthless.

And that made all the difference.

Final Thoughts

When I started this post, I intended for it to go in a completely different direction. I’d been out for my morning walk this morning, and I saw two dead cicadas on the road. I wondered if someone saw one of those cicadas crawling on the pavement as they often do and, freaking out, squashed it. The rest of my walk was consumed by an internal dialogue about how people react to things they fear and how, as an empath, I see things differently than most people.

I came home from my walk with the intent of writing those thoughts, but when I sat down and started writing, as is often the case, my typing fingers took me in a whole other direction.

But the result is the same. People, in general, react badly to things they fear. They see a spider, and without a single thought to the magnificent miracle that spiders are, they scream and stomp on it. They see a cicada, and without thinking about the miracle of how long a cicada gestates underground before crawling out of the earth as a larva to become and incredible buzzing insect for only a few days, they stomp on it.

We do the same thing to people who scare us (and yes, anger is just an extension of fear, so when you’re angry, fear is at the root of that anger in one way or another). Open Facebook on any given day, and you’ll see all sorts of people angrily stomping all over other people. That’s a lot of fear manifesting. And, as an empath, if I don’t guard against it and stay aware of it, it can overwhelm affect me.

But, the fact that I can feel all this energy and all these emotions does benefit me in one huge way. I’m able to tap into all those feelings when I’m writing. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, my job is to evoke an emotional response. What better way to do that than to tap into the gift of my empathic nature and convey that in my books?

So when you’re reading one of my books, and your chin starts to quiver as you fight back tears, or you laugh out loud, or you mentally start punching one of my characters for being a dick, remember that I was right there with you as I wrote that scene.

Oh, and when you see a guy like Smalls become the hero (and I’m thinking of Io and one of my other not-so-nice characters), you know why? Because, due to my empathy, I don’t see all bad guys as “bad guys.” A lot of them are good guys wearing wolf’s clothing.

I dare each of you reading this to find your own Smalls and do what I did and see what happens.

Happy reading, everybody, and remember, be kind to one another.


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