When empathy is not easy.

Note: I write this confessional so that you may email it to your spouse. Or learn from it yourself? Either way.

Confession. Empathy is not automatically easy for me.

I was born with a brain that would have guaranteed my certain demise had I lived in a time where Sabertooth tigers roamed. Linear, logical, prone-to-dissociation, pathologically calm- whatever you want to call it, my neurological nature (by wiring, info goes into my cortex and lingers instead of jumping to my amygdala) doesn’t get me fired-up about a lot. Of the two main psychological defense mechanisms for distress- shutting-out/minimizing and completely absorbing/maximizing- my brain decided to go with “shutting out/minimizing.” And, like many people you may know (or may be married to?), I’ve been perfecting this strategy for over three decades.

Left to my automatic mode, I wouldn’t get upset when you’re upset; I wouldn’t get excited about much either; and, having never felt it myself, I’d probably classify your upset as “drama.” I’d be the stereotypical “cold and detached spouse” who is married to the stereotypical “crazy spouse.” I’d roll my eyes at the guy on the street and tell him to get a job; I’d raise my voice to shut out my kid’s sadness about being sidelined at the game (Does this sound like anyone you know?)…If I hadn’t learned better.

My job allows me to intentionally take down walls and feel what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. With professional boundaries in these relationships (read: No overlap of identities, enough room in the relationship to honor both of our unique perspectives.), and my sole focus on the entirety of the person sitting across from me, empathy is natural, and my shared feelings are very real.

However. At home, like many people with my similar psychological make-up, I get “empathy blocks” sometimes. It’s hard to lean into someone else’s feelings and perspectives if I am, in a split second, telling myself something ridiculous. The ridiculous automatic thoughts that serve as empathy blocks at home are generally, “His distress is silly, since I don’t feel similarly,” and “if I acknowledge his distress, I will make his distress worse by dramatizing it.” 

(Other common empathy blocks are resentment shame, and anxiety. People who are stuck in anger, or who have protectively shut-off access to all vulnerable feelings, or who are reacting to control urges/fear, cannot access empathy.)

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Intentional thought to replace incorrect automatic thought: “While faces may be silly, the feelings behind them are never silly.” #truth

Here’s an example that I think is relatable to many people:

My 5 year old son started crying when he found out he wasn’t going to get his own care bear from his aunt (she had sent one care bear as a gift for my two younger boys to share). Acting more on fear than reality, he also started angrily yelling at his little brother that he NEVER SHARES! His sensitive little brother, who looks up to big brother soo much, started crying devestated tears. My split second thoughts were, “There’s no way he could be that upset about a toy.  Gimme a break.” and “I better not validate this because he will think it’s ok to be greedy and take out his frustration by unfairly bad-mouthing his brother.”

“That was mean!” I shouted.  “How do you think your brother feels that you were yelling at him? It’s only a toy! You go give your brother a hug and tell him you’re sorry for hurting his feelings!”

Oops. My empathy blocks totally made everyone feel worse. My five year old went running and crying upstairs to his room, and not only did he not hug his younger brother,  but he was now probably resenting him and jealous of his mom’s understading of brother, but condemnation of him.

Thank goodnesss that whenever we act on our split second thoughts, we can always regroup and repair. 

Ok, Angelica. Think about how he feels; Imagine his perspective; Accept that he may be wired differently or have had different experiences than you; Imagine how his differences reflect on his personal perspective. Don’t project, don’t judge, don’t categorize. Just feel. Even if it feels scary or yucky or foreign, just feel…

I gave us both a couple minutes to cool off before I addressed the situation. Finding him hiding under the covers in his bed (shamed), I took my five year old in my arms and started intentionally drawing on empathy: “Sweetheart, it sounds like you were so disappointed that you didn’t get your own care bear. You really love care bears and had thought you were getting your own. What a let-down. And it seems like you were also afraid Benny wouldn’t give you a turn with the care bear.” He nodded, sniffling. “I can understand that.” I paused and quietly ran my fingers through his hair, letting him feel my empathic comfort and diminishing my earlier judgment. Only then would he hear the next part.

Softly, I explained, “It’s totally ok to feel dissapointed and angry.  It’s even ok to feel scared that your brother won’t share with you. But it’s not okay to be mean to your brother…. Your brother just shared all his birthday presents with you and even gave you two of his very own care bears to keep. He loves you so much. How do you think it made him feel when you yelled at him?”

At this point, little brother had walked into the room, and my five year old, considering what I just said, just looked at him and extended his arms for a hug. While the boys hugged, I reminded them about how much they really do care about each other’s feelings, and I noticed my five year old start crying again. As his younger brother was hugging him, I recognized, in his whimpers, relief, regret, and…..empathy.  (My son, wired to be a little more sensitive to pain and disappointment, is also more sensitive to the feelings of others.) When my youngest tried to pull away, my five year old clung to his torso for just a second longer….

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The next time you have a hard time accessing empathy, ask yourself the following:

1)Do I need to check any automatic thoughts/assumptions?

2)Am I reacting to any fears/urges to control that I need to check?

3)Am I reacting to any anger/resentment toward the other person that needs to be resolved?

4)Have I deeply contemplated the other person’s inner world, including their past experiences, preferences, and the way they are wired/used-to certain defenses?

5)Am I passing any judgment on the other person’s response instead of demonstrating intentional acceptance of differences? Does this judgment come from denying/avoiding something in myself (shame)? Or maybe it comes from a past experience that has nothing to do with the person in front of me? (Like, do you have a raging aversion to “drama” because your ex-wife/mother was this woman? *Or maybe ex-wife/mother was that way partly because you/your father was this guy?? Who knows.*)

6)Am I resisting empathy because feeling the other’s perspective would require me to engage in a behavior which causes me anxiety or other perceived distress? (Like the wife in this post.)

**********

Just something to think about. Says the therapist who uses herself as an example to show that empathy can be learned and practiced by anyone-especially after taking a break to think- and when it is practiced, everyone feels better, even the person who is practicing the empathy… and also would like to emphasize that her kid would have never accessed empathy himself for his brother if he had remained stuck in shame… 

And yes, the unhelpfulness of yelling at our kids while trying to teach them to talk to others with respect, is another point of this post.

For more on kids, couples, and psychology, find OTYC on Facebook.

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One thought on “When empathy is not easy.

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I have always looked at empathy as something we are born with. Like if you don’t naturally feel it, then it comes off as not genuine. Your post made me think though.

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