Effective Empathy

Metamorphosis at 1440 campus: a sculpture by California-based artist Welton Rotz. This 3,500-pound sculpture turns with one finger, revealing a figure emerging from darkness to the light. Metamorphosis mirrors the experience of our labyrinth from which one may emerge clearer and balanced, connecting to the self within.
The past month has been trying and emotionally taxing for one friend who was diagnosed with cancer--it was caught early, but she needs to have surgery and chemo/radiation treatments. Another friend lost her grandmother and is trying to cope with the enormous loss. The funeral for my close friend’s grandma was so sad and devastating for my friend’s son who was very close to his great-grandma. I was already somber after the funeral and then found out about my friend’s cancer diagnosis. It was a life-changing week for both of my friends and their families, and it was a somber but humbling week for me, it reminded me to be more loving and kinder to others and myself.

After that tough week, I started to look for better ways to cope in catching the flood of emotions before they wash over me and turn me into a blabbering mess each time something sad or life-changing happens to friends, loved ones or me. My go-to reaction to sadness is to project my thoughts and feelings of how I would feel if I was diagnosed with an illness or if a loved one died. Then, I talk about how I met a woman at the store who had the same disease or lost a loved one, etc. I make things about me out of discomfort and coping inadequacies. Unknowingly, I end up inflicting pain or discomfort on the people who need support. My thought is that I’m trying to “fix” the suffering, but instead I become intrusive and annoying with unwanted offers to make them feel better.

Then enters wonderful author, Martha Beck with a great video about confusing empathy with “trying to fix the suffering.” She used socio-cognitive neuropathy of empathy as the wording, but I’m using the terms loosely here. She said there are four components to effective empathy—Affect Sharing: when you’re feeling other people’s emotions. Cognitive Empathy – we understand logically what another person is going through. Self-other differentiation: the ability to experience and understand what others feel without confusion between oneself and others. Emotion regulation: Whereas you start to dive into feeling awful for them – you pull yourself back with your own coping strategies so that you can be present for the other person and not disintegrate.

Martha said on the video, “I remembered that today when I was going into the dark places again, and I remembered how Byron Katie teaches people to go out of being too identified with another person’s suffering, Byron says, [the thing I love about separate bodies is that when you suffer, I don’t. It’s not my turn.] I love that she said that because it reminds me that the ubiquitous nature of suffering is that everyone gets a turn. We’re all going to go through this. Acknowledging that, that we all get a turn and that it’s not my turn right now when it’s your turn. It makes more sense of both the suffering that we’re experiencing on our own and our ability to relate to another person who’s suffering. If we understand that this a process that we all go through and that life hands it to us, and we make what we will out of our suffering. We make meaning out of suffering, and without suffering, we don’t have as much ability to have meaning.” There it was, my inadequacy to have empathy for strangers, friends and myself. On a good day, I probably use one of the four components of effective empathy, so that means that I butcher my empathy job each time! I get in my own way. I want a turn in the suffering when it’s not my turn, so I end up not present and make a mess out of a well-meaning act of kindness. It shouldn’t ever be about fixing the suffering or getting in my head about the circumstances. I learned so much about effective empathy in that video! Thank you, Martha Beck for your wisdom and gentle nudges that clear up my haze of old patterns.

In hope, I am fearless.



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