If I was graded on empathy, I would probably fail.
Maybe that surprises you, maybe not. It probably doesn’t if you know me pretty well in real life (not internet life). But I care about having empathy, so I’ve been in self-prescribed empathy training for a while now.
I wasn’t taught to be empathetic and I definitely wasn’t born with it. I can intellectualize my way around this with the story that my below average empathy is also an asset. That would be true for a surgeon perhaps. But I’m not a surgeon; I’m a life coach. I can even soothe myself with the story that my lacking empathy is the very thing that enables me to help others in pain because I don’t get bogged down with my own emotional reaction.
But soothing myself has only kept me in the following cycle. Hear the word “empathy,” remember that I don’t have much, feel ashamed for it, use my brain to talk myself out of feeling that way, and everything is better. But only until the next time I hear the word. And guess what? I hear that word a lot.
I now think that the same habit of intellectualizing to soothe myself has been part of my empathy handicap. But more on that later. First, I have to confess this.
I feel shame when I think of empathy. I judge myself as broken. I feel unworthy of the work I do. I am jealous that other people have it. Just hearing the word makes me feel not good enough.
Those sentences are the things I need to say, write, and share. I need to acknowledge them as part of the process of learning how to be empathetic. I don’t want the soothing cycle anymore. I want to feel my shame and know that I’m okay. I want to accept and love myself with all of my shame-y bullshit. And yeah, I want to get better at empathy. I want to do that for me, not because I’m not good enough if I don’t have it but because I think it’s a healthy endeavor for any human in relationship with others.
Empathy, as I see it, requires me to do two things I have struggled so much with:
- Feel all of the emotions and know how every emotion feels
- Dive into the well of emotional experiences when confronted with someone else’s feelings in order to really see the other person
Empathy Training Part I
I used to think I just didn’t have all the emotions other people have. But really, I had an excellent defense mechanism. Whenever I got even the slightest whiff of a vulnerable emotion, I immediately mobilized my battalion. These are the emotions that would either protect me like armor or protect me by attacking first: anger, judgment, disapproval, disgust, etc.
My battle emotions were there to hide the tender ones. Showing tender emotions felt like exposing my most precious treasure to a bunch of barbarians who were going to smash it to bits, so I taught myself to never show things like sadness, loneliness, humiliation, or shame. And I got so good at it that it seemed to me like I didn’t actually feel those things. Until empathy training.
They are actually there. I just had to disengage my defense mechanism and start out as an emotional toddler. I had to actively investigate what I was feeling behind the armor. Here’s another reason I wanted to do this, in addition to increasing my empathy. By rejecting those feelings, I was really rejecting myself for all those years. That is completely misaligned with my mission to love myself. So, my work for the first part of empathy training has been to identify, feel, and share my emotions.
Empathy Training Part 2
When confronted with another person’s vulnerable emotions, I would employ another intellectualize-to-soothe trick. Instead of diving into my supply of emotional experiences to tap into what the other person was feeling, I would find one of my survivor narratives. Maybe I didn’t have a similar emotional experience but I could find similar circumstances and in 100% of the scenarios, I conquered and rose victorious. Instead of feeling all the pain and telling people about those times and getting stuck in those emotions (ugh, who would want to do that?!), I persevered!
Let’s add a fear-driven desire to the mix. I wanted to know everything and be the expert because I thought worthiness must be earned. Not only did I need to bury the bodies of my emotions and fast before there were witnesses, I also needed to spin every unpleasant experience into something I could teach others. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that except that it was the well I was drawing from when someone was feeling pain near me. In someone’s moment of vulnerability, my habitual response was to figure out how expert-me could help you solve your “problem.” It never even dawned on me that the damsel in distress may not be looking for a hero. She might just want to be acknowledged and connect with someone.
The second part of my empathy training has largely been to do my best to shut up, listen, and maybe ask questions. Respect the pauses. Resist the urge to share for the purpose of making myself feel valuable. And most importantly, tap into this emotion that is present.
I want more out of this life and my relationships.
I want to have the courage to feel. I want to see the people in my life. I want to be seen for more than my triumphs and advice. I want real connection and intimacy. And so, empathy training continues.