honing my super powers

February 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm 2 comments

Thanks for all the kind words in your recent comments. I appreciate it a lot and feel renewed. Thanks.

Something came up for me today that invited a deeper look into this whole empathy thing.

So far I have talked a lot about empathy for our children, and under some circumstances approaching them from an empathic perspective can be difficult. It’s hard to drum up empathy for your son when he is mad that you won’t let him hit his sister. But even then, it isn’t impossible to intellectually prepare yourself and come up with: Yeah, you’re mad. You really want to hit your sister and it’s frustrating to you that I’m not letting you. His interest may not make sense to you, but there is so much about kids that doesn’t make sense, that understanding isn’t always a prerequisite to stepping into their shoes and feeling the anger.

And I’ve talked about giving and receiving empathy from the community, from friends that listen and don’t offer advice. This is probably the easiest place to try empathy. It feels good to be a shoulder to cry on, and it feels good to be the one crying on a neutral, non-judgmental shoulder. So I would say that most of us are pretty well practiced at empathy with our children and friends. But what about those other relationships? What about our mothers, husbands, sisters, brothers?

Let’s just call this arena, advanced-empathyland, because it can feel mythical, so remote from our daily life as to feel theoretical. I’m talking about finding the strength of person to bring forth empathy in challenging circumstances. Let me try on some examples to get my point across.

Maybe, after a day of worrying about what to cook for dinner, with an empty fridge, and no money to call for takeout, your brother calls to vent about his money situation. He says he’s making less money than last year, he had to tell his wife she couldn’t go to Las Vegas with her friends, he’s thinking of selling their time share in Mexico because it’s too hard to make the payments. Your mind is screaming: Give me a break! Oh boo hoo, you have to sell your time share. You jerk! I don’t even know how I’m going to feed my children!! Your brother is aware of your extremely tight budget so you feel particularly uncared for, and mad. In this situation are you capable of giving him empathy?

Or, even more challenging…

Your husband is MAD. He says you left an interior light on in the car, now the battery is dead and he’s going to be late for work. He is FURIOUS. You’re certain that you didn’t leave any such light on in the car and are absolutely NOT responsible for the battery going dead. You are defensive and pissed at him for yelling, and for blaming you. Are you capable of feeling empathy for him?

Why not?

If your child was irrationally raging at you, you could probably summon up the emotional strength to be there for him or her during those feelings. Oh wow. You’re really mad… You didn’t want me to do that….etc. Why can’t we summon this up for a husband?

To be fair, the emotions you feel in response to someone else’s feelings can be blinding. There is adrenaline. The primitive/”natural” response is fight (Why are you yelling at ME?! I didn’t have anything to do with it!), or flight (this looks like slamming the bathroom door and crying into the hand towel). It takes an intellectual decision to choose an empathic response, and then a high degree of emotional intelligence to follow through.

Why do it?

There is a practical side. The quickest way to end an argument is through empathy. It simply is not an argument if one person is lovingly listening to the other, not defending, not trying to fix things, or dismiss the feelings behind it all.

Also, all anyone wants is to be heard and understood. You are not responsible for their feelings, and have no need for a defense. You can simply listen and understand, even when under attack. I know you really don’t want to be late for work.  Shit.  You seem really upset. You’ve got to be emotionally big to do this, there is no doubt about it, but it is possible. And if this is possible for you, then you have achieved a certain liberation, the ability to be okay, no matter what anyone else is doing or saying. That is a huge reward.

Let’s be clear. This does not mean denying your own feelings. The feelings you have in response to the other person’s feelings are valid and present. They just aren’t what you are talking about at the moment. There might come a time in the discussion when the roles are reversed and your partner/husband/sister is able to give you empathy for the feelings that you have in response to theirs, if so, how nice. But that is not something to count on. It may never come. (It might be possible to make an agreement to give or receive empathy  for a set number of minutes and then switch, but I find this highly unlikely. A timer going off in the middle of discussion just would not feel right.). Instead give empathy with all your might, even if you never get any in return. If needed later, there are others to turn to to get a dose of empathy, including yourself.

One huge road block on this path is the belief that giving a person empathy means that you condone their choices or agree with their perspective. This is not true. You can understand your son’s anger, see clearly what it would feel like to be that mad, and how hitting the sister might feel like a suitable response without agreeing that hitting is an okay choice. Hitting is still not okay, but the boy and his feelings are. You can understand your husbands frustration, love and listen to him, even while he blames you for ruining his morning, without agreeing that it is your fault. You are not a weak woman if you do this, you are a superwoman.

Empathy in this advanced-empathyland does not come easily for me. While safely removed from the scene my mind can wrap around it quite easily, but my primitive bunny brain sure wants to run for the bathroom when the shit goes down. I don’t want to be a bunny hiding in the bathroom. I don’t want to be a hard scratchy place for my upset loved ones. I want to be liberated. So I am praying for the strength to recognize the opportunity for empathy each time it arises. The opportunity to stand tall and give, give, give.

Superwomanhood here I come.

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embarrassed by my own plainness welcome chaos

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rachel  |  February 4, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    I cannot tell you how deeply this touched me today. My husband gets very angry and blames me. I really empathize, or I try to empathize, or I suck at empathizing, or I forget to empathize, or indeed- more often than not, I run for the bathroom. You’ve completely inspired me and empowered me to keep up the work that makes my heart sing and my knees shake- staying, listening, caring- no matter what. I always felt so weak that it is so strange to embrace a new reality- that I am strong! I have renewed enthusiasm 🙂

    Reply
  • 2. Angela  |  February 5, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    this touched me as well. i just had a very long late-night conversation with my hubby about what empathy (true empathy) means. luckily he is receptive and open and wanting to learn. not sure i feel very superwoman in the moments when i really need them, though, but i admire that drive in you.

    Reply

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