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Notes from an empath: Who's there

My partner is a big fan of Doctor Who. I’ve only seen a few episodes. Don't worry, we still manage to get along.

I grew up in Canada and my partner grew up in the UK, so I didn’t experience this television phenomenon in the same way that he did. Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of Doctor Who fans in Canada -- including my older brother. But for years, I thought it was just some super nerdy show from England. [Side note: I now think it’s amazing, and my partner takes great delight in selecting his favourite ‘new Who’ episodes to show me!]

A couple of years ago, I got swept up in the hype around Jodie Whittaker being cast as the new Doctor. I saw fans rejoicing that a woman was finally being cast in the role. I happily hopped on the feminist bandwagon of excitement, rejoicing for two additional reasons: One, because she was from Huddersfield (or ‘Hoodezfield’ if you saw the subtitles on her Stephen Colbert appearance) which is where I was living at the time, and Two, because it turns out I kinda looked like her (at the time).

That Halloween, I got up early, dressed up in my best Jodie-as-the-Doctor costume, held up my partner’s sonic screwdriver, took a selfie, and posted it on Instagram.

I was working from home that day, so I changed into my regular clothes, sat at my desk, and got started with work emails and tasks. Or at least, I tried to.

I was unbelievably distracted, feeling anxiety and adrenaline surging through me. All morning I checked my phone obsessively, like an itch I couldn’t stop scratching. How were people responding? Were people liking and commenting? Could this photo go viral? Would Jodie see it and like it? How could I possibly focus on my work when this brilliant gem was landing into the palms of Instagram scrollers across the globe?

A few things began to dawn on me.

One was that -- to keep my head from exploding -- I needed to put my phone away. I switched it to airplane mode and put it in the other room. [Another side note: this was not long before I began my work on The Empathy Experiment, and was one of many reasons why I wanted to attempt a phone-free 24 hours.]

Another thing unfolding in my mind was an uncomfortable but important question: Who was this post for? Who was I hoping would see it? Who was I actually hoping to connect with? I felt a visceral craving for validation and affirmation, but from whom? I realised I was poking the cultural zeitgeist trying to awaken the socialsphere beast, and the tension over what attention I might get made an anxious empath like me feel like barfing. Plus, when I say I ‘took a selfie, and posted it on Instagram’ … in reality I took about 30 photos to get the perfect shot, agonized over what was the best filter to use, and spent ages crafting the pithiest phrasing for the post. My whole morning had been dominated by the preparation and aftermath of this post. And for who, exactly?

The thing is, it had also been fun. I enjoyed dressing up and being a bit playful and silly. So another question bubbling up in all of this was whether I could engage with social media without getting caught in the dopamine chase of it all. In other words, could I share a post for the joy of sharing it, without worrying who responds?

Easier said than done, especially considering that social media has been designed to dominate and manipulate our attention. The Netflix film The Social Dilemma offers brilliant data and perspectives on this, BTW.

Since my ‘Happy Who-loween’ post, I continue to use Instagram and other socials. And I’m still trying to get to grips with the questions that arose for me. As I write these weekly blog posts, I try to keep aware of these questions and keep mindful of who these words are for.

My notes from an empath are an attempt to connect with you, the reader. If they resonate, great. If they don’t land, that’s okay too. If I can try -- with care and compassion -- to stay true to who I am as I write, perhaps that’s what is most important.

[Final side note: I have been told several times that I was holding the wrong sonic screwdriver in the photo. Who knew?]



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