Empathy is popular these days. At least it is in my circles. It seems like something on how to develop empathy – in ourselves or in our children – crosses my path every few days.
One of the key messages I have taken from all this information about empathy is this: try not to respond to someone’s struggle with anything that starts with “at least”, because empathy rarely takes the form of pointing out the fortunate in someone’s misfortune.
I used to do this a lot. And sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort not to. Pointing out the “positive” comes so easily to me in those moments, but in doing so, I am missing something huge.
The interaction I am having is not about the experience of the person in front of me; it is about the emotions of the person in front of me. Brené Brown has spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and she writes:
Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us … Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.
If I focus on the story and the experience, I am missing the opportunity to support the person in front of me.
Shifting gears slightly, another piece I have taken from my explorations into empathy (and emotional intelligence, in general) is the expression: “Feel it to heal it.”
Some emotions are harder to feel: anger, sadness, grief, jealousy, and anxiety, to name a few. The idea behind the expression “feel it to heal it” is that we need to feel our challenging emotions to process them and move through them. If we ignore them or deny them, they stay with us.
I lost a friend recently. I am thinking about misfortune and challenging emotions because of this personal experience.
I’ve noticed how I have embodied the things I have been learning about. I didn’t try to tell a story of why it was okay. It’s not. It’s tragic and awful and heartbreaking. I didn’t try to numb or distract myself from feeling the pain of the loss. Well, full disclosure, I did some Netflix bingeing and I ate enough vegan spelt brownies to change the way my pants fit, but I mostly felt the depression, ache, and sadness. Some things are hard to feel 24/7.
Sitting with it has been new and different and hard.
I notice an absence of personalization. This experience is different too. I haven’t made it about me. I haven’t moved into a place of fear where I am worried that I will die or that my husband will die in a similar way.
So, here I am: feeling loss. To be honest, there is a part of me that keeps thinking, “So, what do I do now? If I am not putting a spin on the story, if I am not making it all about me, if I am not distracting myself, what do I do with this pain and sadness?”
I’m new to moving through emotions in this way, but my best guess is that I just keep feeling it. I practice patience and acceptance. I learn how to take better care of myself. Before this experience, my sense of “feel it to heal it” was that it was a faster process. I had a sense that acknowledging emotions made them go away, but I’m thinking of the other expression: “name it to tame it.” Acknowledgement can take the edge off, but it doesn’t resolve deep emotion. I see now that processing challenging emotions is more of an allowing and an unfolding.
As we allow ourselves to feel our grief, it begins to integrate within us. It never goes away, but we learn, with time, to hold it with more ease.