Empathy finds it's 15 minutes of fame
This is great. On CNN's website this morning was a link to a story about how cardiovascular health is improved through the experience of empathy. "This workout consists of deliberately cultivating empathy. To empathize literally means "to suffer with," to share the pain of other beings so entirely that their agony becomes our own", says Martha Beck of OPRAH.com.Developing Empathy
She goes on to talk about how you can develop the capacity for empathy by putting yourself (imaginatively) in a stranger's shoes. She suggests trying on their posture and facial expression (this is a great exercise because it really works) to discover what it feels like in the other person's body. Trying it with difficult family members allows you to transform your relationship with them. Even if you still don't feel you can communicate with them, or want to spend time with them, it alters how you feel about them.A real time experience of Empathy
A client of mine, I'll call her Samantha, had always resented an uncle who had, she felt, abandoned her as a child. Samantha had worshiped this man as a child and he had chosen to spend special time with her when her parents had been horribly abusive and uninterested in her emotional well being. Her uncle, Jack, had been playful and empathetic with her, and suddenly when she turned 13, he completely withdrew his attention to her. He even moved out of state and rarely visited her. Samantha's parents had died and virtually every other extended family member. Jack was her last connection with her family, but she was terrified of contacting him because she felt such intense anger toward him. In session one day, Samantha began talking about what it had been like in her family at the time of his abandonment of her. Her parents alcoholism had escalated to the point no one was safe from their verbal attacks. Samantha herself had become a rebellious teen using drugs and alcohol to medicate the pain she was experiencing. Samantha realized, that Jack, though he loved Samantha's mother dearly, had left the scene because it had become too painful for him to witness what was becoming of his sister and his sister's daughter. Melting into tears, Samantha suddenly felt a wave of empathy for her uncle. The fear of calling him, the anger at his disappearance, and her resentment toward him vanished. Now, she could call him and have the chance to reconnect after 30 years of resentment.More than Empathy
But empathy alone is not enough. Many of the clients I work with suffer from "too much" empathy. Because without respect, empathy becomes rescuing. If we don't respect the other person's choice to be how they are, to live with the choices they have made, and to be strong enough to feel their own feelings, we have the tendency to try to take their pain away. Often, we will step in to take over for them to relieve them of the pain we sense they are experiencing.
But this doesn't respect their ability to manage things on their own. When we do this we are keeping them small and encouraging them to stop evolving. As a parent we do this when we see our children really wanting something, so badly, say an ipod or a set of drums. We have so much empathy for how much they want this thing, we feel their pain. What we do then, often, is give them what they want without their having to do anything to earn it. We take from them the character building opportunity to earn and save money toward purchasing this thing for themselves. Now, I'm not saying giving our children gifts is a bad thing, what I am saying is that giving them everything they want kills their potential for growth. When everything is handed to you, you become unable to reach for things yourself.Owning our own stuff
Empathy without ownership is equally painful. When we have too much empathy for someone we can loose our sense of self. In order to experience healthy empathy, we have to be able to know where we start and end. We have to be connected to what feelings are ours, and what feelings belong to the other person. We are not responsible for the other person's feelings; we are only responsible for our own.Compassion is what is required
Together these three elements: Empathy, Respect and Ownership are what make up compassion. We have to be able to experience all three, together, to be fully present for ourselves and others. Compassion allows us to remain wholly ourselves and yet present and available for others. Compassion allows us to move out of our egocentric view of the world and experience ourselves and other people differently. Oh, wow, this changes everything.How about you?
Have you experienced empathy without respect or ownership? Have you been able to be fully compassionate for another person? I'd love to hear your story. Comment below.