Probably one of the greatest (yet most underrated) realisations that any of us will ever have is the simple, infantile understanding that others lead their own lives, boast their own stories, and experience their own feelings. These are completely separate to our own. This commonplace epiphany is called the ‘theory of mind’ and, to be perfectly honest, it’s a very ordinary cognitive development that humans go through as toddlers, and most probably don’t give it a second thought. However, it still seems wonderfully implausible that every single person we encounter has an entire life filled with experiences and emotions we know nothing about. This logic applies to nearly everyone – from the strangers we pass by in the supermarket, to our lecturers and tutors, even to our best friends.
The fact that we inherently know so little about each other’s lives means that communication is essential in any social interaction, no matter whom with. This need for communication, and for taking the perspective of others, is what makes the theory of mind so essential. It is the natural precursor to empathy. Only once we understand that others have their own experiences can we possibly share in their joys and burdens.
To be empathetic is to not only comprehend others’ emotions but to feel them too. Like most people, I do my very best to be empathetic. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m a very emotionally sensitive person; I’ve cried in nearly every movie I’ve ever seen and one of my favourite past-times is overthinking. I think that maybe, for this reason, I’m careful to notice emotional signals in other people. These signals are like an unspoken secret language, comprised of behavioural changes and shifts in tone. On the one hand, being attuned to this vernacular can be an incredibly uplifting thing. It’s empathy that makes people’s good moods so contagious, and empathy that leads us to build joyful friendships, based on mutual understanding.
Yet when I moved into a shared accommodation with hundreds of other students my age this year, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the cacophony of emotions that surrounded me constantly. One of my friends once said that at college, it’s impossible to walk for longer than a minute without bumping into someone you know, and I can definitely attest to that. The intimacy of college means that even a short trip to the bathroom is an opportunity to socialise. I’ve seen casual conversations carried out near the bathrooms by towel-sporting neighbours and lengthy discussions in the dining hall while tea cools on a quick ‘study break’ that should’ve ended ten minutes prior.
This social aspect is surprisingly one of my favourite things about where I live. I find the spontaneous, good-natured exchanges that accompany most tasks thoroughly elevating and for this reason, I’ve loved nearly every minute. However, constantly being surrounded by people can come at a cost. I remember during my first month at college, I was walking down my floor’s corridor and heard uncontrollable sobbing on the other side of a door. The name on the door wasn’t one I recognised, but regardless, the sound was, in the true sense of the word, shocking. That moment, albeit small, was a huge wake-up call to the fact that although I was having a wonderful time, others might not be. There have been other moments – times when I’ve realised that the people around me are fighting their own battles. Sometimes, that can be a lot to take on; our moods are incredibly malleable and it’s very easy to absorb somebody else’s stress or sadness and carry it as your own without even realising it.
This is why balance is essential. I believe that empathy is one of the most important parts of what makes us human. Simultaneously, however, in environments where emotions are running high, it’s often essential to pull the focus back onto yourself. Safety demonstrations on airplanes demand that ‘in the unlikely event of an emergency, attend to yourself first, before helping those around you.’ I think this applies to emotional hardships as well. Looking after others is crucial, especially in residential halls and shared accommodations, where the majority of your neighbours are living away from home and building new support networks from scratch. Although we sometimes forget to acknowledge that we’re in more or less the same position and being too open to others’ emotions can be damaging. Empathy, while innate, can be exhausting. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t care for the wellbeing of the people around us; on the contrary, I think that looking out for others should be prioritised, especially in communal living situations. Rather, we should monitor our own emotions, too. In the words of J. M. Barrie, ‘always be a little kinder than is necessary’ – especially to yourself.