"Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” Brene Brown
I saw a tweet the other day that stopped me in my tracks and made my jaw drop. How could someone so succinctly summarize this seemingly convoluted concept I had rattling around in my head. She said, "Americans are really good at acute compassion, but pretty bad at chronic empathy. We without questions, haul strangers out a raging flood, give blood, give shelter. But we are lousy at legislating safe, sustainable communities, at eldercare, at accessible streets and buildings. It is the long-term work that makes the disasters less damaging. But we don't want to give to the needy, we want to save the endangered. We don't like being care workers, we want to be heroes. The world does not need more heroes. We need more care." Sigrid Joy Ellis
We struggle with sustained care. We want to fly in, save the day, and fly out. We want instant gratification. We want to benefit from our altruism towards others. Nothing is done without self-interest. That seems a bit pessimistic but it's also the truth. Giving has to cost us something but we always get something in return (self-satisfaction, gratitude from others, praise, etc.). We often meet situations that require empathy with sympathy. Sympathy keeps people at an arm's length away. Empathy is a hug where your ears touch. Sympathy has us feeling bad for people; it says I'm sorry for you (and I can't/don't relate). Empathy has us feeling with people; it says I'm here with you and I'm doing my best to understand. Sympathy is us asking people how they're doing in passing while never stopping our movement or looking at them. Empathy is planting our feet, waiting for their response, and asking follow-ups. Sustained care is no small feat. It takes dedication to be there for people beyond platitudes. Yet still, it's simple. We just have to ask. We just have to push. We just have to do. The bar is so low it's underground. People rarely ask. All it takes is for us to be different is to do it.
I can name the seven people in my entire life circle of community that have asked me how I'm doing more than once since my mom passed away. They've stopped what they were doing and brazenly asked me about how I'm feeling. They asked specifically about how I'm processing this life transition. They don't beat around the bush. I will never forget the kindness they have adorned me with. I can also vividly remember all those who said they would check on me, care for me, and love on me that have been silent ever since. I play dumb in response. I promise you as the person impacted I am not going to coach you through being kind to me - that's not my job. If you are unable to speak the words out why should I be brave enough to tell you my truth that I'm living? There were hundreds of people who texted, called, left voicemails, posted, etc. and it's down to a few people. So much posturing only to fall flat. You said you would be there for me. You weren't there. You couldn't take the initiative to sustain your care.
You get stuck in your own head and about how awkward you're feeling. It becomes about you and saving face. It becomes about your embarrassment and need to not make mistakes. I'm not asking you to be perfect. I'm not actually asking for anything but to do what you said you would and show up. It's the bare minimum least you can do. I need people to remember, and to try. It's a lifelong change. I have to live the rest of my life without my mom - do you understand? You choosing to pop-in when it's convenient for you is more patronizing. There's no weight there. There's no purpose there. There's no substance there. It's about you getting to pat yourself on the back instead of prioritizing the needs of someone in pain. There are so many people in pain right in front of us. Do we see them? If we do can we get out of heads enough to address them? Can we ask the specific questions necessary or engage them directly enough to be meaningful? We have a choice to make. We can either let people fall by the wayside or we can prove our sustained care with them.
When it comes to being with people there are no quick fixes. We can't save people. We can't call it a done deal. We can't make it all go away. That's where we run into trouble and can even exacerbate the feelings of hurt and harm others may be experiencing. When people share and we shut them down. We invalidate. We question. We critique. We prioritize ourselves by shrugging things off as awkward, or too heavy. We try to lighten the mood for our own benefit. We're being selfish. We're being cruel. Oh to be presented with the opportunity to be kind, to strengthen a relationship, and to share in a profound human moment only to run away from it. We just communicated to that person that they and their feelings don't matter to us. We just told them that we are not to be trusted. We just pushed them away. We just made it harder for them to ever work up the courage to be vulnerable again.
It is wildly important for us to listen to understand, and listen to internalize. We need to take in what others are sharing with us. We have to sit in it. We have to process it. We have to feel it. We need to give it the space to make it make sense. What happens we're the cause of pain - do we continue to center ourselves, dismiss emotions, and absolve ourselves of our impact before it's even been made explicit? Do we conflate with intent with impact to justify? Do we conditionally apologize or apologize vaguely instead of taking the time to let our apology have the specificity and gravity it desires?
- Avoidance - changes the subject quickly; makes jokes
- Positive Spin - toxic positivity and says to look on the bright side
- Dismiss - No big deal or other people have it harder than you
- Advise - Offers an immediate solution; quick fix
- Storytell - Connect by sharing a story or another's story that is supposed to be related
- Overreact - Cry, have strong emotions that make you console them instead
Practicing Empathy - 1) Listen 2) Connect 3) Acknowledge 4) Care 5) Affirm
One of the best things we can do is be honest. Name our feelings. Name that we don't know what to say or to do. Name that we're struggling. Name that we want to be present but may not know how.
It's a challenge to go there with people. We often don't ask the significant questions of and about people because we are either unprepared or unwilling to be emotionally present. If we don't know how why haven't we put the effort to learn? If we're scared why are we unable to face down our fears? Oftentimes we are concerned with protecting ourselves. We're worried in going there with others that we ourselves will get stuck there, or we don't want to tackle our stuff in the process. It's funny because that's also within our control at times. We get to choose how we engage with others, what we discuss, and how we do it all. Empathy is being able to understand the emotions of those around us in their context.
Brene Brown describes it as recognizing someone having a strong emotion and being in a hole then jumping down in there too. There is nothing more Earth-shatteringly powerful to honor the humanity of the person in front of you than to say "me too" or "I'm here." When we are at are more fearful, when we are in our darkest moments, and when we feel most isolated someone - anyone - to break through that solemnity to assure that we are not alone matters. It's a blip of hope. It's a beacon of light. It's an extended hand. It's the recognition that someone else is here. Are we capable of being here? Being all in, fully focused, and dedicated to this person in desperate need of compassion for someone else? Can we hold them tight literally and figuratively? Can we just sit with them? We don't even have to say anything. Sometimes that's enough. Can we just be here? Is that okay?
We have to follow up consistently. That's where we often lose people. We check in with them once. We have them bare their souls, and have these big emotional catharses only to never show up for them again. How can we be there, and then not be. What's the point of forging that connection only for it to be nonexistent soon after? Why should we invest the time in letting someone in if they don't want stay there or at least visit periodically? It feels like a slight of hand. It cheapens it all. We have to be better in continual presence. We can't just make a big deal once, and then disappear. We need to keep going back. We need to keep building. We need to keep showing up. Practice and persistence. For us to be dependable, and to be someone others know they can rely on to continually be there is significant in times of instability. Be stable.
AND be upfront. We should not offer ourselves up as a resource, confidant, or support if we are disingenuous in offering our time to be so. We need to set boundaries and carve out space. If we are unable to do so, sharing that is appreciated. It lets others tailor their expectations of us and gives us the freedom to meet the minimum and show up more when we can. People are not endangered to be rescued and forgotten about. People are to be nurtured, cared for, and rehabilitated until they can do so themselves, and even then we should still expect to maintain some semblance of connection with them. Commitment to care is the care we're most often looking for from others. Are we able to give it? X