I was talking with my dad yesterday about a hurdle I was experiencing with my anxiety. For those who don’t know, my dad is a mental health counselor. Yea, it’s pretty great 🙂
In our conversation I mentioned vulnerability as the root of connection. My dad instantly recognized the reference to Brene Brown. Those of you who’ve been with me from the beginning know Brene Brown’s Ted talk on Vulnerability is what inspired this blog, and that talk was shown to me by my father (before he was a mental health counselor actually).
Our conversation also touched on empathy, and I was reminded of this short video in which Brene Brown breaks empathy down into something more easily digested:
I encourage you watch the video. It’s short and insightful. And consistent with Brene’s style: humorous.
I’m what is called an empath. I am deeply affected by the emotions and energy of people around me. It’s more than being sensitive, it’s really feeling what others feel. That doesn’t mean I fully understand it, but I do feel it. My mom has always called this my “super power.”
Many people with mental illness are emptahs, but I also have mirror-touch synesthesia. This means I mirror what others feel, physical and emotional. It’s automatic. I used to hate that scene in “Home Alone” when the robber steps on a nail. I would feel real pain in my own foot. When I see others get injured I feel physical sensations in the same part of my body. When I see someone who is cold or overheated I start to feel cold or overheated. For me, it’s also the same for emotions.
While this puts me in a unique position to empathize with others, it doesn’t mean empathy comes easy to me.
If you haven’t clicked to Brene’s video yet, here’s a spoiler: empathy requires vulnerability. To truly empathize with someone you have to tap into a part of yourself that can feel what they feel. Maybe because you’ve been there. Or you “put yourself in their shoes.” As an empath, most of the time that place is tapped into automatically for me. But taking the next step to vulnerability is where it gets tricky. Because you can make one of two decisions at this point: you can ignore the discomfort and try to “fix” the feelings with a silver lining or unsolicited advice, OR you can create connection with that person and feel WITH them. SHARE the feeling with them.
It’s uncomfortable to empathize. Empathy means you are willingly enduring pain right alongside of someone.
Sympathy is watching someone feel pain, while staying inside your own bubble of comfort. Shouting “at least” through your bubble helps you feel less guilty. You can settle some of your own pain by creating silver linings. Or by offering advice.
Sometimes those who are hurting, afraid, or angry do want advice. And sometimes they ask for it. But usually it is only asked for after trust, connection, and empathy are established. A person wants advice from someone they feel understands. Someone who truly seems to care.
You may understand and you may really care, but they don’t feel that until empathy and connection are made.
Many times people aren’t looking for advice. Usually they just don’t want to feel so alone. Shouting advice at someone who simply needs empathy may soothe your own conscience, but it will only make them feel more isolated and alone.
People are capable of finding their own silver linings, when they’re ready to. They’re capable of asking for advice, if they need it. True empathy comes from a place of “I’ll do this with you,” instead of, “how can I fix this?”
Sometimes it’s equally difficult to empathize with someone’s joy. A woman who is trying to get pregnant will naturally find it difficult to rejoice with her friend who conceives. Empathy on both sides can strengthen the relationship. The pregnant friend can be sensitive to her struggling friend’s feelings, crying WITH her and FOR her instead of saying how lucky she is she isn’t morning sick. The friend who struggles to conceive can truly rejoice with her friend, imagining the joy that comes from bringing a baby into the world, while still not judging herself for feeling pain and jealousy. When both friends can endure some personal discomfort in sacrifice for their friend, connection is made stronger, and each can feel less alone in their journies.
Have you ever come across the “yes, but” person? Have you ever been that person? I’ve been both. Say someone comes with a problem. They share the issue, and seem lost. They ask for help. A clear invitation for advice is often made. But as the advice comes, the person responds with a series of “yes, but”s, rejecting each idea and painting their situation as hopeless. This is frustrating on both sides. The “yes, but” person is mostly likely unsure of what they really need in the moment. They truly feel there is no answer, and their mind too quickly supports this, finding a reason to reject even the best advice. They most likely are struggling believing in themselves. The person offering advice feels hopeless. They are most likely frustrated with the “yes, but” person, feeling like that person must not even want help.
Here’s what I think: a “yes, but” person is in need of empathy. They know that the problem needs to be solved and would rather try solving it than letting themselves feel the uncomfortable emotions. But the reality is they’re not ready to problem solve. They’re trying to fight back feelings they need to allow themselves to feel, and problem solving cannot happen until they let go. So while they are genuine in their plea for help, they are not in the right state of mind to receive it. If a person offering advice realizes they’re offering it to someone in a “yes, but” state of mind, they can switch gears and try offering empathy instead. This may open the door for the “yes, but” person to acknowledge to themselves, “yea, this does kinda suck,” and they may be more receptive to advice. Or at the very least they’ll have had one interaction that shows them they’re not alone, even if they continue to fight their pain.
This leads into another kind of empathy. Self empathy. When you have empathy for yourself you allow yourself to feel your emotions without judgement. You don’t try to fight them, but give yourself permission to feel. You don’t have to wallow in it forever, but you do need to let it come, ride it out, and give yourself time to work through the emotions. If you want to be able to empathize with others, you have to first be willing to be vulnerable with yourself.
I have to consistently ask myself, “is this empathy, or sympathy?” I have to actively consider what I’m saying or doing, and determine if I’m coming from a place of vulnerability or if I’m shouting from my bubble.
It’s easier to offer empathy to someone you trust. To someone you already can be vulnerable with. Empathy towards strangers takes practice. And empathy towards those who we feel have wronged by takes intense courage.
But you don’t have to divulge personal experience to empathize. Empathy doesn’t mean offering up private information you would normally only offer up to someone trustworthy. It can be that. But it doesn’t have to be. You can tap into that part of yourself and empathize with someone without telling them how you can. As for what to say, sometimes a simple “that is so hard,” or similar validation is all you need to do to reach out. Sometimes a smile or understanding glance is enough. A person can tell if someone’s eyes are sympathetic or empathetic. With someone who you feel has wronged you, you don’t even have to say or do anything. You can empathize silently, because in this case the purpose is for you to understand what their behavior could have been motivated from. Doing this allows you to let go and stop letting it bother you.
Empathy is active. Even for me, an empath with mirror-touch synesthesia, I fall too easily into the sympathy route. Empathy is a conscious effort. It isn’t easy. But it is more rewarding than giving advice, brings more peace than finding silver linings, and creates connections stronger than being a “fixer” ever could.