Episode 038: The Complexity of Empathy

Episode 038: The Complexity of Empathy

Something we hear a lot is that we need to be more empathetic.  Empathy is not usually our first reaction.  Today I dive into the complexity of empathy and why it is such an important part of living happier.

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Hey, there and welcome, you are listening to the Stories From A Quest To Live Happier Podcast. I’m your host Nancy Jane Smith. I’m a licensed professional counselor and in this podcast, I share my stories and lessons I’ve learned, and I continue to learn on my quest to live happier. This is episode 38, the Complexity of Empathy.

Today’s topic is going to be about empathy. We hear a lot about empathy, Renée Brown talks about it a lot, a lot of self-help stuff talks about the power of empathy and really listening. It’s one of those topics, as are a lot of topics around psychology, that gets a lot of word play but now a lot of, “Wow, that’s really hard to be empathetic.” To go a little deeper into how hard is it to really show up for someone in an empathetic way. This for me has become a personal mission because as many of you know I’m dealing with a father who has dementia with Parkinson’s, so it’s extremely challenging and talking about it is really challenging for me.

They always say when you’re grieving or when you’re going through something hard the responses you get from well-meaning people are really just mind blowing how off the mark they are. That is so true; I found that to be very true for me, that people really mean to be comforting and to be kind and to be trying to help but their responses are so far off the mark of empathetic. I could be sharing how hard it is to watch my dad doing these things that he does that are totally out of character for him, and someone will say, “Well, that’s just his dementia, though, that’s not him as a person.” Yeah, I get that, but it’s still my dad. This is still something that’s really personal to me. As if I’m going to be like, “Thank you so much, you’re right; it is just the dementia.” That’s the problem with those trite statements.

This is a personal example to me, dealing with a grieving or a loss or anything like that is an extreme example of having empathy I recognize, but we do it every day in the little empathy statements of, “I’ve had a hard day,” and then we reach in to try to fix it, or, “This person’s driving me crazy,” and we jump it to try to make it better. Struggling, losing weight, “Let me give you the latest diet I’m trying.” Every day there are things coming at us where we could practicing empathy. Nine times out of 10 we jump into problem solving, or we jump into advice giving, trying to normalize it and make it better.

There’s Brené Brown video, which if you haven’t seen is amazing. It’s a little cartoon; I’m going to put it on the podcast page, where the show notes are it will be there. Even if you have seen it I highly recommend you watch it again, I think I’ve seen it 50 times and every time I get something new out of it. In the video she talks about that it is our desire to try to fix it, and when you think about a problem you’ve had and when you’re going to a friend, and you need some empathy, and you need some understanding, them coming back with, “You should try this,” or, “When I did it this happened to me,” that isn’t helpful.

What’s helpful is someone saying, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much for sharing. That must be really hard,” or, “I’m so sorry that’s happening to you,” or, “I can’t imagine going through this. That must really be a struggle.” Those ideas of, we’re going to fix it by giving advice, it doesn’t work. The only thing that tends to work is really getting present for people. The question is then why is this so hard? Empathy, it sounds so easy, the idea of just saying, “Thanks so much for sharing that,” or, “This must really be hard,” or, “I’m so sorry.” Those statements are very easy to say, but the idea doesn’t pop into our head.

This is really deprogramming a little bit, it’s really first thought wrong, that our first reaction is to, “Let me fix this. Let me make this better. Let me give some little advice that can make it better,” because we as the listener do not want to go into that pain. We don’t want to go there with the other person. That self-protection that steps in is what gets us out of empathy. It’s hard because when someone says, if I go back to the example of my dad, when I go into that example, and I say to someone, “It’s really hard, I’m struggling,” that other person most likely is going to go into their own head about their father or their parents or death in their family or someone that they know that has dementia. They’re going to get into their world, and that’s going to be painful, and that’s going to suck, so they don’t want to go there.

They’re going to try to immediately make me feel better so we can move on from the conversation. It’s not a character flaw; it’s just a human reaction that I don’t want to go into the pain. For me what has really helped in practicing empathy, and I know as a therapist my strength is empathy, or I wouldn’t be in this field, so I hear the push-back on that but I’m not perfect when it comes to empathy, and I definitely have my hits and misses. The thing that has helped is to recognize, this isn’t about me. Someone shares about their divorce and their struggle in their relationship, even if I’ve gone through a divorce or I’ve been in a crappy relationship, this story isn’t about me it’s about them.

I need to be really present to what they need, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling at the time. That reminder to me of a quick, “This is about them,” lets me drop down with them and be present to them without getting stuck in my own stuff. Because it’s really hard to drop down and be with someone in their pain when we’re all wrapped up in our pain. It’s next to impossible. The common humanity that comes up is, I know what pain feels like, and I may know what going through a divorce feels like, but I don’t know what going through a divorce is like for you. I don’t know what going through a divorce is like for your situation and your background and everything you bring to it. I know what going through a divorce is like for me, but my job here in this relationship is to be present for you, not share my stuff, not get all caught up in what I’m doing but to get present for you.

When you think about it, there are a few things that we do in response to someone sharing something really challenging with us, something emotional, something that they’re struggling with. We try to give them advice, to make it better, usually unsolicited advice, which is never good. We give them unsolicited advice. We say, “At least,” which is in that Renée Brown video as well. “Well at least this isn’t happening,” or, “At least that isn’t happening.” For a long time people would say to me, “At least your dad knows who you are,” and that felt so crappy, because do you know how much other stuff is happening? Yeah, I am thankful that he knows who I am, but that doesn’t mean the other stuff doesn’t matter.

When we say to someone, “At least,” then all their feelings are discounted because that one thing isn’t happening, or they have that one thing to be grateful for. We give advice, we say, “At least.” We tell them something they should be grateful for; that drives me crazy. “You should be grateful you have this time to spend with your dad.” Yeah, I am grateful, but it’s also really hard people. This is really hard. Telling someone to be grateful or to think positive or flip it around, it’s not helpful.

The fourth thing we do is we end up relating. We’ll say, “I went through a divorce too, and this is what happened,” or, “I can relate because this happened with my divorce.” We get caught up in our own stories rather than sharing what’s happening, listening to what’s happening with them. When we’re caught up in our own stuff it’s not empathetic, it’s not helpful, it’s not being there for them. The reason I think that really the power of dropping your own stuff and being able to be, “This is about them,” is really powerful. Because you hear me and my biggest message is compassion, compassion, compassion. We have to be bringing self-compassion into our own lives if we’re going to make any changes at all. The more I work with self-compassion, the more it is just, this is the holy grail, not that I believe in the holy grail, but the practice of self-compassion is life changing.

If we cannot be empathetic to other people, we cannot have self-compassion for ourselves. They go hand in hand. That’s why I wanted to talk about empathy today, because empathy and being there for other people is a great practice in showing how we can be there for ourselves, because when we find ourselves judging other people or saying, “Look at her over there whining again about her freaking divorce, like who cares? I went through a divorce, and I didn’t whine all the time.” Eek, that’s yucky empathy and yucky self-compassion. That judgment pulls us out of both of those, and we can’t be empathetic, and we can be self-compassionate if we’re in judgment.

The idea of empathy and self-compassion really go together. When we can show up for other people and really be present to them, then we start flexing that muscle that allows us to show up for ourselves and really be present for ourselves. I think those; they definitely go hand in hand, so start practicing more of that empathy, more of that really showing up for other people and finding out what’s going on with them.

I would love to hear from you, if you want to send me an email nancyjane@live-happier.com. Let me know how your empathy is going. One quick caveat that I did want to say is that a lot of times we get stuck, those of us who excel at empathy, the key to empathy is that there’s a boundary there. That I don’t have to, if you’re telling me about your divorce, I don’t have to pick that up and carry that divorce emotion with me. I can listen to you and be present to you but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to pick it up and run with it, and then all day long I’m carrying around your pain. That doesn’t mean that I have to fix your pain, that’s the beauty of empathy, is that I can sit and be present for your pain without having to fix it or change it, make it better, pick it up, carry it. It’s on you that pain, and that’s what sucks about it. The more I can recognize, there is nothing we can do here to help this person other than really be present and listen, that’s where the change is, that’s the life changing juice.

The people that sit with me and say, “This must suck. It is miserable to watch your dad going through this, and there’s nothing we can do,” yeah, that’s right, there’s nothing we can do. We just have to sit here in this and implement things yes, and try our best, but at the end of the day, it’s a crappy situation. These crappy situations happen all the time in life. In empathy, I’m not saying pick it up, change it, run with it, carry the burden of the other person. I’m saying, put that boundary there so then you really can be present to what they’re carrying around.


Brené Brown Empathy Video

Weekly Ritual Segment:

One thing that has really helped me Live Happier is adding regular ritual practices to my daily life so each week I am going to be sharing a ritual with you and challenge you to complete it

Notice how often you jump in to fix a friend’s pain

This week’s ritual is going to go along with the theme of empathy because I think it’s great to talk about empathy and to hear about empathy but we’ve really got to be practicing it. I really want you to pay attention this week and notice how often you jump in to fix things. Pick a conversation that you know is going to be intimate and notice how often you jump in to fix, or how often you say, “At least,” or how often you try to have them spin to be on a more positive note.

Be cognizant and intentional when you walk into a conversation to see how much you jump to fix. Then you can always rewind, you can always circle back and say, “I said, ‘at least,’ and I didn’t mean to,” or, “That was really crappy that I said you should be grateful about this, when really I just want to thank you for sharing that with me because that had to be really hard.” The key with empathy is that you have permission to always circle back and say, “I did that wrong, can I do it again?” It’s totally fair and that’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. That’s your weekly ritual challenge, pick a conversation and notice how often you jump in to fix it.

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