THE BLOG

Expanding the Empathy Enigma

Sure, maybe I believe in people a bit too much, but this isn't changing any time soon. And so, what if we looked at each other from love and not fear, with the courage to feel emotion with one another and to pull from our own struggles?
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To feel seen, known and loved.

What we all want and need in this life, and what we all probably hope to provide to those we care about.

How do we truly see, know and love someone when their experiences are so different than our own?

Can we truly understand? How can we really get it?

In many ways this is the work of Therapy 101.

The difference between empathy vs. sympathy?

Sympathy: I feel for you; the opposite of what it is to be seen, known and loved.
Empathy: I feel with you; the epitome of what it is to be seen, known and loved.

Are you an empathic person?

Empathy is in my bones, not only in my personality but also in my education and training as a mental health therapist. There are times of my life where I feel as if I was born with too much of it. Empathy comes very naturally to me; to consider all sides of a situation and to truly identify with what someone must be feeling.

Do you struggle to have empathy for others because you haven't been through their exact same situation?

This is where it can get tricky. In the work of The Daring Way, based on the research of Brenè Brown, Brenè teaches that we do not have to have gone through the exact same situation as someone to be able to empathize with them. We simply need to identify with the emotion that is being experienced in the situation. However, this of course requires us to be vulnerable, and most of us cringe at vulnerability.

Because of this, empathy can be a struggle for many of us. I have felt the wrath of this, especially with some of my other HuffPost blogs.

Then there are those of us going through struggle who feel like no one will ever get it. I hear this a lot in my office with clients, but I especially hear it in my advocacy work in the world of infertility.

They just don't get it.

I think there are two points to remember on this:

One, for those of us going through the struggle: Yes, someone may not exactly get it but that does not mean they are not capable of supporting us. It is our job to ask for what we want and need from them. To explain to them what we are going through, how it feels for us and to communicate to them how they can best support us through it.

Through this vulnerability connection and true empathy can be born.

The second point is for those of us who are trying to figure out how to support that person going through the struggle. We often times pull away because we don't want to say the wrong thing or we are struggling to really get it; to get what they are going through or feeling. But again, if we practice vulnerability, if we identify with the emotions underneath, we can pull from our empathic spirit.

But even more so, what if you just thought of that time when things didn't go the way you had hoped, dreamed or prayed for in your own life?

That time when you struggled.

Take a look back and remember those wrong turns, the lost dreams, the hurts, the disappointments and the struggles.

Is this really how you thought your life would turn out?

As a mental health therapist people often ask what my specialty is, in which case my response is typically, "I help people figure out how to be okay, better yet, how to be better than okay, when their lives have not turned out how they had hoped or dreamed."

And I think, this is probably all of us. Because really, whose life has turned out exactly as they had hoped and dreamed. And even if it has, I think it may be safe to say that you may changed, shifted or even let go of some dreams to make new ones.

And so, what if we pulled from this place when it came to practicing empathy for others? The place of;

  • I have no idea how I am going to get through this.
  • I have no idea who I will be on the other side of this.
  • I am so scared of the unknown.

Because in many ways, aren't these pretty universal thoughts as we all go through struggle?

I know it is difficult for you to understand my journey through infertility. Or how we know adoption is not right for our family. Or maybe you don't consider my losses true losses.

But I believe you can still practice empathy with me.

  1. Through identifying with the emotions underneath my experiences; loss, trauma, sadness, fear and active acceptance.
  2. But, also because you know what it is like to not get what you want or to have things turn out different than you had hoped for.

Sure, maybe I believe in people a bit too much, but this isn't changing any time soon. And so, what if we looked at each other from love and not fear, with the courage to feel emotion with one another and to pull from our own struggles?

Because then through our connection truth, healing and clarity can shine.

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