The Pros and Cons of Empathy–Guest Post by Jade Rivera

The following post was written by my colleague, Jade Rivera. I thank her for her insight, sensitivity and heart.  10428493_573813756066619_2003962041113343282_n


When my mother passed, I never thought How sad for me or How sad for my siblings and stepfather. Instead I thought How sad for her.

And that’s how the sadness lived in me — as a sadness for her.

And it still does.

I’ve explained this corner of my mourning process to various people who know about my early life — the abuse, the trauma, and the exploitation. Mostly, they all say the same thing: “But why? Why have that care… for her, of all people?”

It’s my empathy, and it’s who I am.

I have a rainforest mind, and my biggest chainsaw just happened to be my own mother. And as crazy as it may seem, I have empathy and compassion for that metaphorical chainsaw.

After living a life that was cut short by drugs, desperation, and mental illness; there are no more chances for her. She’ll never have the chance to heal. She’ll never get to say “I’m sorry” and feel the forgiveness I had ready for her in my heart.

In my rainforest mind I can go to the layer that knows that all behaviors — good, bad, or even abusive — exist to meet a need. My mother’s needs for love and care were not met at various crucial junctions in her life, and because of that, she did not learn to meet mine.

It’s not unusual for gifted people to have this level insight from a very young age. Deep empathy is a common characteristic of a rainforest mind, and I’m no exception. While the compassion I had for my chainsaw mother was automatic and authentic, I now realize that it ultimately contributed to me rationalizing my abuse and staying present in a situation that nearly ruined me.

I also know that it’s my compassion for her that inspired me to let go and get good help to overcome my childhood with love in my heart.

It can be confusing, and it’s absolutely more complex than just this… but I don’t imagine that I’m alone in this duality. These are the pros and cons of empathy.

Your empathy for an abuser (or anyone that has hurt you in some way) may hold you in place for longer than is healthy, and it may also allow you to open your heart, forgive, and move on.

While my healing work will never be over, it’s somehow comforting to know that I have a rare capacity for love and forgiveness. Now, years after my mother’s passing, I have enough self-empathy to know that it’s okay that I stayed… and it is okay that I left.


Jade Rivera is a writer and coach for gifted families. She lives in Oakland, CA with her fiancé and 16 year old cat, Earl. You can learn more about her work at her website.

To my blogEEs: Your comments are welcome, as always. What are your experiences of empathy? Pros and cons? How are you building “self-empathy?” Did you have a “chainsaw parent?” Depending on what you say, both Jade and I will be available to respond. I recommend that you check out her website, especially if you’re raising sweet little rainforest-minded kiddos.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

23 responses to “The Pros and Cons of Empathy–Guest Post by Jade Rivera”

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  2. signpostsproject Avatar

    This post resonates so strongly with me. (I actually wrote a poem about this just yesterday:

    I’ve just moved back into a home that was extremely unhealthy for me growing up, and my growth over the years has me seeing the same situations so differently now. I am so much more aware of all the suffering and unmet needs underlying the destructive behaviours, and all I want is to help my family to thrive. At the same time I am recognizing my own needs that are going unmet in these circumstances, and that I first need to honour my own suffering and learn to care for my own well-being in this environment before I’ll ever be able to love my mother the way I want to.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m glad you could relate to the post. I’ll head over to your blog and read your poem. Thank you for sharing it and for reading!

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  5. Glimmering_Girl Avatar

    Wow. This speaks to me on a very deep, very personal level. Thank you to both of you for this.

  6. Mary Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this. It really hit home with me. I’ve often wondered why I keep going back to my chainsaw parents with a heart full of hope, only to be felled down again and again. Your openness and honesty are incredibly helpful to those of us still dealing with these issues.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thank you, Mary, for your comment. It’s very hard not to have hope that our “chainsaw” parents might finally be there for us.

    2. Jade Rivera Avatar
      Jade Rivera

      I did the same, it wasn’t until I saw the abuse trickling down to grandchildren that I got the courage up to put my foot down. Thank you for your kind words.

  7. telperion1214 Avatar

    My mother’s favorite movie was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Was she a chainsaw? Yes indeed.
    I love that you put it that you held empathy and love for her in your heart.
    I share that sadness and holding for my own mother, my father too; they are both gone now.
    I hold it for my siblings, who apparently are following in our parents’ footsteps, practicing with their own chainsaws.
    Only my rainforest is now so remote from where they are, they cannot get to it.
    If it’s possible to move an entire rainforest, I’ve done it!

    1. Jade Rivera Avatar
      Jade Rivera

      I’m glad that you are giving yourself the distance you need to feel safe. It is hard to watch siblings go down those familiar roads. I try to do my best to remain supportive but it can be quite difficult!

  8. Debra Avatar

    My situation was similar in that I stayed through my mother’s 9 yr illness and fought so hard for her to stay alive. But she was my chainsaw, and I am not over it as much as I try to pretend that I am fine.
    This post is the first that I have heard of a rainforest mind, but I love the term. It is the best one to describe me. After so many years, I just feel so misunderstood, and am often described as so intense.


    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Welcome to my blog, Debra!

    2. Jade Rivera Avatar
      Jade Rivera

      I’m so happy you found Paula’s blog. It is a treasure to rainforest minded people everywhere!

    3. zeldakunsartgifted Avatar

      Debra, Rainforest Minds is All that!!! Hectinc Intense in Everything we Think Do and Experience.
      I learned to get rid of Bi-polar meds… I never was Bi-polar… just Un-dealt Emotional stuff from my childhood and then into
      adult-hood… My Mom Marrierd 7 times.. with all that goes with that… chane change and more change every 5 years…
      Me moving again… and I know this is my last moving to my sacred space. Port Nolltoh.
      I am dead dog tired. Hoppikng a bed. U take care!!!

  9. Celi Trepanier Avatar
    Celi Trepanier

    This is such an incredibly beautiful and succinct post! I’m sure so many of us have a family member or friend who was a “chainsaw” to us, and reading this can surely help us sort through our feelings in an emotionally healthy way. Thanks you, Jade for such talented writing, and thank you, Paula for sharing Jades’ work!

    1. Jade Rivera Avatar
      Jade Rivera

      Thank you for reading and sharing, Celi. Your support is wonderful!

    2. paulaprober Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, Celi! I so appreciate your writing.

  10. Amy Avatar

    Your writing on this was simply beautiful! I was just having a discussion on this with my dh tonight. I didn’t realize it was a “rainforest mind” trait. While I wasn’t abused in any significant way, I am adopted and then raised by parents with lots of attachment baggage of their own, among other issues. I think my ability to empathize is one thing that kept me semi-sane in my life, and yes, probably also kept me in situations I should have left, much longer than was healthy.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Thank you for sharing, Amy.

  11. Jade Rivera Avatar
    Jade Rivera

    The admiration is mutual, thank you.

  12. poprice Avatar

    This is just marvelous and heartfelt. Oh, Jade and Paula… I admire you both a little more each day. Thanks for this marvelous post.

    1. paulaprober Avatar

      Admiring you back, Pamela.

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