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How Empathy Helps

It might be easy to ‘poo poo’ empathy, as in ‘Empathy plus ninety-nine cents, what’ll that get me? A donut?’ But honestly, out of all my therapy skills, I think it’s what my clients hunger for the most. Heck, I think it’s what I hunger for the most! Unfortunately, albeit with the best intentions, people usually want to ‘fix’ us when we are upset instead.

For-example, the day I learned that my first husband was serious about divorce, I tearfully told a friend, and her immediate response was to advise me that the most important thing to do in cases of divorce was to make sure my children stayed in touch with my mother-in-law. Even though the advice was useful later on, at the time it felt jarring and dissonant. Empathy feels the opposite, it resonates, and that alone can feel helpful and comforting enough. However, I’ve noticed that once people feel understood and cared about they are generally more receptive to hearing a healthy perspective and/or to brainstorming creative solutions.

This isn’t really a piece on parenting, but parenting is where I learned most about empathy. My all time favorite parenting book is called Whole Child/Whole Parent by Polly Berrien Berends. She writes that the purpose of parenting is not to make our children ‘whole’, but to become aware and love that they already are. In her words, “our wholeness already exists and is not something to be given or forced upon or gotten or taken from each other in the future – but rather, now upon now, awakened to.”

That felt revolutionary to me when I first read it 21 years ago. Whole already, moi?! I didn’t think so. I didn’t exactly feel broken, but I was afraid I was at least pretty banged up and it would take a lifetime of self-improvement to whip me into something that might at least have others believing I was whole, or at least wholeish! Before reading her book my natural inclination would have been to do whatever it took to make my children ‘whole’ too.

This is the real problem of trying ‘to fix’ someone who’s upset: the implication is that because they’re upset they are no longer whole and need to be fixed. The truth is that being upset is part of being a ‘whole’ person. This still seems a little revolutionary to me, in a wonderful way.

Unfortunately, instead of perceiving someone who is suffering as ‘whole’ it is all too easy to judge them as ‘weak’, ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’ and to perceive ourselves that way as well.

Recently, I’ve been working with quite a few clients who have suffered from domestic abuse and one thing I’ve noticed is that people often have a difficult time empathizing with either the victim or the perpetrator in these situations. Still, the victim tends to be easier to empathize with, especially when they want help. However, many of their friends, family, caregivers will still yell at them in frustration, “Why haven’t you just kicked him out yet?”. Their aggression tends to remind me that they are consciously or unconsciously identifying with the aggressor, perhaps because it is less painful.

Serious contempt however, is reserved for the perpetrator. Even in care facilities, the focus is on the perpetrator learning to have empathy for their victims, but almost no-one is discussing empathy for the perpetrator. I understand why this is difficult too.

However, this is when I get fascinated with Polly Berrien Berend’s next idea. Her discussion about wholeness evolves into a discussion about ‘oneness’. By this she means that not only are we all whole, we are also all connected: victim and perpetrator, light and shadow, all these reside within, and thus all need our empathy. To accept that we are all ‘one’ means it’s important to stop thinking of ourselves or others as ‘good’ people or ‘bad’ people, and instead to see each of us as both ‘whole’ and flawed, capable of doing great harm and great good.

Admittedly I understand why we so often want to reject this thought. However, I have found tremendous truth in it. Above all, the realization that I am both perpetrator and victim teaches me that I must empathize with both parts of myself, first and foremost. This alone is a huge task. The temptation can be overwhelming to reject both these aspects of self and instead try to medicate them, fix them, ignore them, and, most commonly of all, to chastise ourselves for having both parts.

Choosing to be empathic to the part of us that has hurt someone else, or been hurt by someone else, doesn’t mean that what we did or what they did is okay. And it doesn’t mean we will become self-pitying fools who excuse bad behavior. Boundaries and consequences will prevent this and they are essential in healing from something or someone that has caused us pain.

After boundaries and consequences are firmly in place empathy with our own pain will at least give us the ability and courage to empathize with others and sooner or later to find people who can truly be there for us in a similar way. In this way we can heal from the shame of those we have hurt and develop the courage to walk away from those who still might seriously hurt us. What we’re left with is the ability to love our imperfectly perfect selves and each other, including if we are so inclined, the people who may be dangerous to us. We just need to love those ones from a safe distance! As long as there are healthy boundaries it’s far better to live in a world where we experience ourselves and each other as whole and ‘one’, instead of living in a world where we feel separate, fearful, mistrusting and bitter. In this way empathy becomes infinitely more valuable than a donut: It is worth everything.

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