Empathy. Learned as a young girl in a large, chaotic, varied family. Words weren't really given to emotions, so I had to watch and observe. Smiles and laughter = good. Frowns, yelling, tears = bad. Without much context I filled in the gaps, and honed that over the years until it made me really good at imagining, anticipating and predicting how people might feel in certain situations. Almost too good; I often fill in gaps that aren't there and create stories in my mind that can cause more emotional distress than it is sometimes worth. But overall I'm thankful to be empathetic.
The one thing I didn't count on was how much I learned to factor myself into that context of "good" or "bad" in others' experiences. Whether in a friendship or relationship, I like to think that I'm contributing to that person's overall quality of life in a (hopefully) positive way. That's what I look for in my friendships and relationships, at least. So when I'm spending extended time with someone (dating, for example) and they're unhappy, it's really hard for me not to take that personally. For me, the person I'm dating has a direct impact on my mood, so I can only assume it's similar for others. Even if I'm not the cause of a negative mood, I'm clearly not helping make it more positive and that makes me feel pretty useless.
I read a quote the other day from Will Smith that was a good reminder for me:
"You cannot make a person happy... You can make a person smile. You can make a person feel good. You can make a person laugh. But, whether or not a person is happy is deeply and totally and utterly out of your control."
I wish I could say that I've figured out the magic formula that enables me to be completely neutral in these situations and create the perfect emotional distance while still being a great friend and partner. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm wired that way. Even as an adult I still get caught up in needing to watch and observe in order to say the "right" thing to avoid the "bad". But what I'm trying to do is prioritize myself more in relationships, anticipate/predict less, and focus more on my happiness and well-being instead of letting it be dictated by others' actions, interests and moods. Because life is too short to bend over backwards for people that would not do the same for me. It's too short to scramble for the scraps of emotion, empathy and investment that others will throw out occasionally. Better to put that energy into the other awesome people you're surrounding yourself with.