Emotions are at the heart of all I ever write about, think about, eat, dream, and speak about. What more is there to say? Those of us parenting younger kidlets have watched Pixar’s Inside Out more times than we would care to remember, and can rattle off the five basic emotions as our eyes glaze over and souls go numb: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. Paul Eckman defined six universal emotions in the 1970’s, including Surprise on the list, and was named as one of the 100 most influential people of the 21st century for this work on emotions as universal categories, as well as the co-discovery of micro expressions.
This came as no news to empaths, that particular breed of human endowed with the ability to step into the shoes of others and understand their feelings and perspectives- unless these shoes are Crocs. Not even the empath would step into a pair of Crocs.
If anxiety is worry on steroids, empathy is the black hole of emotions. Black holes are regions of spacetime where gravity is so strong, nothing- not particles, not radiation, not light itself can escape. Empaths perceive the emotions of others, not to mention their own, with the same galactic force, and if not careful, also absorb them. My children call it witchery. Perhaps that’s why they are so guileless and beautiful; they know better than to try to hide the feelings that flower on their faces. There’s no point. I always know whodunnit, or who needs hugs, or who’s about to go into orbit.
For empaths, this recognition of the facial expressions that occur in 1/25th of a second, is second nature. Reading these micro expressions, tone of voice, word choice, and silences with disturbing ease is the empaths gift and affliction. We can see your six basic emotions and raise you a hundred.
Indeed, Eckman himself expanded his list of universal emotions in the late 1900’s to include: Amusement, Contempt, Contentment, Embarrassment, Excitement, Guilt, Pride in achievement, Relief, Satisfaction, Sensory pleasure, and Shame. Again, the empath can read these and fifty more shades of feeling, no matter how convoluted and obtuse the cocktail of these basic human responses may be.
Scientists attribute this heightened awareness and oftentimes, absorption of the emotions to mirror neurons. Discovered in 1996 by Italian scientists Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese and their team with brain imaging technology, monkeys, and a banana. Their studies proved that “certain cells in the monkey’s brain activated when a monkey performed an action and when the monkey watched another monkey perform that same action.” Intersubjectivity also relies on these magical psychic neurons to create shared understanding (See Never Ever Will I Miss- Evolution- The Nanjinger Issue XXX)
Not only do empaths possess hyperresponsive mirror neurons, there is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that the insula, a small nugget buried deep within the cerebral cortex responsible for emotional cognition, is structurally different in empaths; primed to process emotions at light speed. As a brain architecture nerd, the neuroscientific explanations for these heightened emotional receptors, though fascinating, is less interesting that the ways in which empathy is changing the world.
Armed with an ability to read others like click bait, one empath, John Koenig, set about naming the obscure emotions that otherwise leave us speechless. One of his words, “Sonder,” or “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own,” has found its way into the popular lexicon, and his book “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” (Simon &Schuster, 2021) is stuffed with words rescued or repurposed or fabricated with prefixes and suffixes and a little elixir of etymological magic. For the empath, naming the unnamable may be just the thing to level-up.
From Mandarin, the word Yu yi, the longing to be young again will come in handy as winter rolls round and I go into my cave, yearning for the youthful and carefree days of summer. For those of you who are literally humming with desire for the heat of summer to pass, Austice- a wistful omen of the first sign of autumn—a subtle coolness in the shadows, a rustling of dead leaves abandoned on the sidewalk, or a long skein of geese sweeping over your head like the second hand of a clock. The Game of Thrones theme tune plays softly in my subconscious. And Lilo, a friendship that can lie dormant for years only to pick right back up instantly, as if no time had passed since you last saw each other.
Useful, right? I can think of a couple of lilo’s I am ready to pick up right now.
And my favourite, nodus tollens- the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre. Tell me you haven’t experienced nodus tollens these past couple of years, seriously. I want to know who you are.
Koenig has spent the last 12 years  cataloging these neologisms on his blog, and his book will be released in November of this year. He writes of “the power of words to make us feel less alone,” which, in the midst of nodus tollens, is a small but very welcome comfort.
There is room enough in one heart to feel such things, but without a name, these emotions remain obscure, unknowable to conscious self, floating like ghost feelings at the edges of the event horizon. Naming the thing, the emotion, the concept, has a power beyond words. It is only through language that we can conceptualize the feeling.
We are stardust.
We are all that has gone before us. We are Shakespeare and Rumi and Plato and Joyce. We are ourselves reimagined an infinity of times. What is déjà vu but the serendipitous alignment of soul fragments, stardust reimagined, redreamed into life, into mind?
Words are magic. They are maps to the soul. The more precise the word, the more precise the understanding. The more precise the understanding, the greater the insight. The greater the insight, the deeper the empathy. Being an emotional sponge is tricky until you get the hang of it. But ultimately, seeing and understanding the feelings of the person in front of you is the first step towards authentic connection, compassion and comprehension. And although life may ultimately be one long sonderlust; to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted can make the whole venture less terrifying.
First Published in The Nanjinger, November, 2021