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Empathy: It is not that easy

As I sat down to write this note this morning, my first thought was what can I say that doesn’t sound trite? Every email I have received this week has talked about the crazy times we are living through. Change is happening at lightning speed. There is so much anxiety in the air, it is overwhelming.

I think about these newsletters throughout the week and various themes pop into my head. This week the word that kept popping into my head was empathy. Empathy is one of those words that gets tossed around, like self-compassion. The world needs more empathy! We have seen the brilliant Brené Brown video on empathy. We know that no empathetic statement starts with at least. And yet, how many times this week have you said the phrase at least to yourself or someone you know.

Empathy always fascinates me because being empathetic, TRULY empathetic, is freaking hard. My husband came to me yesterday with a sore toe, he had stubbed it the day before, and it was bruised and red and looked pretty painful. As he lay on the couch, icing his foot, I admit my first thought was, “give me a break; it is a stubbed toe, it isn’t the end of the world.” And my second thought was, “Oh crap, I hope this doesn’t mean he can’t walk the dog tonight!” ha! Ok, so not my finest moment. But I am sure you can relate. Someone presents us with pain, and we make it about ourselves.

Fortunately, before I said anything, I caught myself, and I thought, ok really think about how annoying it would be to have a stubbed toe. No, it isn’t the end of the world. But it is frustrating to have your Saturday plans thrown out the window and to be hobbling around for most of the day. I said to my husband, “Wow, that sucks. How annoying when you weren’t planning on being down and out today.” He sighed deeply and said, “I know I am so annoyed and frustrated!”

Later I was thinking, what did that cost me? What did it cost me to pause, get out of my own head, and really put myself in his shoes? It cost me a few minutes of regrouping and seeing the situation differently. In essence, it cost me nothing.

I have observed for those of us with High Functioning Anxiety. We tend to oscillate between being overly empathetic to the detriment of our own needs or becoming under-empathetic as I was yesterday with my husband.

Many times, when we are not empathetic, it is because empathy requires us to slow down. When we are in go, go, go mode, checking off the to-do list getting stuff done, we don’t have the desire nor the time to slow down and get into someone else’s shoes. So we either breeze right over their issues with a quick nod of the head or offer some trite advice, usually starting with the phrase “at-least” and give a solution that may or may not work.

To be clear, that doesn’t make us terrible, unfeeling people. It makes us human. Because in many ways, empathy, true empathy is a radical act. It is an act of mindfulness. It requires us to slow down, take a breath, get into our body, and then see the world from someone else’s perspective. Empathy requires vulnerability, curiosity, and kindness.

AND empathy starts with ourselves. If we can’t be kind to ourselves, we certainly can’t be kind to others. When I am struggling to be empathetic to those I love, it is usually a sign that I am not empathetic to myself.

So what does empathy look like?

Teresa Wiseman has done some research on the subject of empathy and here are Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:

  • Perspective Taking: To be able to see the world as others see it. Being able to putt your own stuff (e.g.:  opinions, life experience,  advice) aside to see the situation through the other’s eyes.
  • To be nonjudgmental:  When we judge another person’s situation we discount their experience.
  • To understand another person’s feelings: recognize that we are all unique and we all have different feelings around a similar situation.  Someone might have different feelings than you–and that is OK.
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings: As Brené Brown says:  A statement of empathy never starts with the phrase, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” instead try… “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Empathy is a practiced skill–it isn’t something we know automatically. So I want to add a loving reminder, it is ok to ask for a do-over. When we mess up and don’t do it right–we can always ask to try again. We don’t have to offer it perfectly every time.

Be kind to yourself my friend and be kind to others. The world is unsettling. Continuing to practice skills like compassion, empathy, curiosity and kindness is the only way we are going to get through it.