Posts tagged ‘giving empathy in an argument’

he’s not a remodel

We watched a movie about relationships last night. An old movie, early nineties maybe?, starring a young Catherine Keener and Ben Stiller. Your neighbors and Friends. You could tell for sure it was an older movie because Ben Stiller didn’t have straight, pure white teeth like he does now, he had normal guy teeth. The couples in the movie weren’t doing well, the focus was on their sex lives, but that wasn’t the only part suffering, they seemed to be failing in every other possible way as well.

Afterward Nathan and I wondered if we should even attempt to make love or if we had been jinxed by all the horendous attempts at sex we’d just seen. The whole thing made me wonder about the “rubbing off” factor of all things. If we manifest everything in our lives through thought, then can’t we infect others every time we share and discuss anything negative with our friends?

And what are we doing in our modern relationships? There is the common thought that all relationships require work. But the more I look around, the more I think the “work” everyone is talking about is the struggle of trying to get your wife or husband to change to meet your changing needs. A quality that was once tolerable starts to grate and then the “work” begins, the ultimatums (This needs to change in order for me to be happy in this relationship!), the makeover projects (I‘m really trying to get Jim interested in my book club. He needs more social outlets besides golf, and we need something to share as a couple. Don’t you think?), and the supposedly mandatory compromises (Well, no, I don’t want to move to the Australian outback, but my husband does and you know, relationships require compromise.).

I think what really happens is that a couple actually stops working together, for long periods of time, letting their connection run fallow, leaving room for major breaches in trust, before any of the above “work” is necessary. Open communication, authentic interactions, feeling emotions and taking responsibility for them, empathy, refraining from blaming, loving without controlling, taking full notice of who your wife or husband actually is, honoring that person, letting them change and grow, this is the kind of daily work that makes the unpleasant “work” of ultimatums, makeover projects and unwelcome compromise unnecessary.

I guess even with this kind of care and attention a disagreeable issue might still come up. But, still, the campaign to demonize and force change upon the other person, is, in my opinion, stupid. These are the options I think make more sense.

1. Decide that  you really do want something else in a partner, that the current arrangement doesn’t work anymore and lovingly step away. Without punishing, without rehashing, without blaming, without revising history, without self-criticism for past choices. Just simply choose something else.

2. Identify the bothersome issue and let the other person know how you feel about that. Ex: I feel sad when I see other couples kissing and laughing. I want that kind of interaction with you. And instead of barging ahead with ideas of how they might change, ask them first if they are even interested in changing in this area. Are you interested in more connection with me in this way? Is this something you’d like to look at together?

3. Identify the bothersome issue, feel all your feelings about it, and still love your partner. Allow them to be who they are even if it brings up disagreeable emotions. See them as simply different than you, but not bad, broken, or malicious. Notice that you want them to change so that you don’t feel uncomfortable feelings, but do not ask that of them.

I am aware that these options require an enormous amount of self-esteem and emotional intelligence. I am also aware that these ways of responding to conflict are not modeled by our culture. But what if we did it anyway? In the movie we watched the characters traveled from bad relationship states to even worse relationship states. They were following the ultimatum/makeovers/compromise formula and it just doesn’t work. What if, instead, we were big and brave and honest?

I’d sure like to see it.

April 5, 2010 at 10:46 pm 3 comments

recipe for extreme empathy

Nathan and I like to give the girls a lot of freedom with their play, but we do make one request: that they use the word “confused” instead of “evil” or “bad”. It’s a bit awkward, but now their dialog goes something like this: Pretend the confused guy tries to trap the fairy in a cage… Yeah! And then the fairies use their magic and the confused guy’s plan doesn’t work! Bad guy becomes confused guy, evil queen becomes confused queen. We know we are cramping their style, but we want them to lighten their labels a bit to allow room for the character to actually be human and, at least slightly, considered as such. The girls oblige us, even though when playing they aren’t necessarily concerned with human relationships, they are more absorbed in story line. A plot is better served by strict, black and white, unswerving roles, not empathy.

And the girls are right, if you want to be able to torture someone, send them to an ice cave for the rest of their lives, or feed them to alligators, as so often happens in their stories, it really is a good idea to label them as evil, bad, or an enemy, for this makes them less human, less understandable, and certainly less deserving of empathy. It’s the perfect method for building a wall of emotional separation. No country would be able to invade or bomb another country without words like bad, evil, enemy, heathen, communist, or terrorist.

We all do this daily with words like asshole, bitch, and jerk. We quickly brick up an emotional wall, by labeling, to help us deal with people who have treated us unkindly. Then we feel entitled to hurl all the rage we want at them. Or even better than hurling anger, we can dismiss them entirely, for they are no longer a person, they are simply an “asshole”, or a “bitch”. Done.

Under certain circumstances, building an emotional wall by appointing labels, is impractical. Sometimes the person you are calling an asshole is your husband. Or the person you dismiss as a bitch is your mother-in-law. Though it makes for a dramatic plot, it’s difficult to have a worthwhile relationship with an asshole or a bitch. The brick wall doesn’t make for authentic interaction.

In this case switching adjectives, like evil to confused, isn’t going to be enough. A few bricks need to be removed if you are to continue your relationship. The way to do this is with empathy. Which brings us to the question:

Can you have empathy for someone you think is an asshole?

I think you can.

Step one: Look below the “asshole/bitchy” exterior for the feelings that lurk beneath.

Caution. If you are hurt, as most of us are, by the words and actions of an asshole or bitch, the tendency will be to still see things simplistically and inflammatorily. You might make a guess like: He treats me that way because he feels like I am not as smart as him. Or: He feels superior. Or: She’s a bitch to me because she feels better than me, or like I am a waste of her time. This is when you take a quick look here, to remind yourself what a feeling actually is.

Then, you look a little closer.

If you can skirt the tendency to continue demonizing the person, you might be able to identify the feelings inside. It also isn’t easy to see beyond how you are feeling, but if you can, the causal feelings behind a disagreeable behavior are often obvious. If someone is puffed up with importance, or attempting to make you feel stupid, there is a great likelihood that this person actually feels insecure, self-conscious,and/or uncomfortable. If someone is prickly all over and giving you the stink-eye, perhaps they feel envious, vulnerable, and/or jealous.

Suddenly the opportunity for an authentic relationship raises its head once more. For now you are interacting with an insecure, self-conscious guy instead of an asshole, or a vulnerable, jealous woman instead of a bitch. We have all felt these feelings before and it isn’t impossible to find empathy for someone that feels this miserable.

Step two: Know that having empathy for someone is merely a helpful perspective and not an indication that you condone their behavior. Empathy does not excuse actions, or show agreement of any kind.

Step three: Acknowledge that by having empathy for someone that is acting like an asshole you are not doing them a favor.  You are doing yourself a favor. By knocking a chink into the emotional brick wall you have built, you are giving yourself room to breathe, as well as an opportunity to relate to someone that you are in a relationship with.

Step four: Notice that feeling empathy is a perspective not a prescription for action. You may still leave the relationship, you may still hang up the phone, and you may still let the person know that you do not enjoy their behavior. You might do all the things you would have done when they were just an asshole, but your perspective will be different, your emotional space will have grown.

Step five: Enjoy. Mastering this degree of empathy brings great peace.

February 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm 2 comments

honing my super powers

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.

February 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm 2 comments


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