I want to share a bit about empathy, because it's been on my mind lately. I've been reflecting alot on various applications of empathy as well as noticing the impact of receiving empathy (or not) and giving empathy (or not). I'm finding it to be a powerful tool for transforming pain, for creating change in unwanted cycles, and for know "what to do" in difficult situations.
What is empathy?
I really enjoy this popular video from Brene Brown, explaining her take on it.
What is empathy?
"Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing." ~ Marshall Rosenberg
Empathy is simply being with someone (or ourselves). It is our willingness to offer our presence, in nonjudgement (wthout evaulating good or bad, right or wrong) to someone in pain (or in celebration). It's when we focus on what is happening inside someone else (or ourselves), with an openness, a curiousity.
Through an NVC lense, empathy is a need. Humans, universally, have a need for empathy (to give it and to receive it, I think). How do I know it's a need (for me)? Simply, I feel better when someone responds to me with empathy and I feel worse (often irritated) when someone doesn't respond to me with empathy (when I want it!)
I like to understand the importance of things by connecting it's function with universal human needs. For me, so many needs are connected to receiving empathy:
the need for human warmth and presence. the need to receive attention. to receive care. to trust that I matter, that my feelings are welcome, that what is important to me is received with openness, that my whole self is accepted (even the uncomfortable parts), to be seen and heard, for my truth to be understood. . .
For me all those needs add up to love.
Empathy is an expression of love.
To give empathy is an act of love.
To receive empathy helps me to feel loved.
Empathy as a Practice
Lately, as I learn and apply NVC in my daily life, "empathy" has been a primary focus of my practice. Responding to others (and myself) with empathy is unfortunately not always my default reaction. As Brene Brown has said, empathy needs to be practiced.
The thing is, although I firmly believe this kind of welcoming, nonjudgemental response is an expression of our innate humanness (that's why it's a "need"), we have been living under a culture of patriachy, which emphasizes moralistic judgement (resulting in structures of domination and power over) for up to 10,000 years (possibly 300+ generations of humans).
So, although empathy is innate to us (as seen in children responding to pain in other children), we as adults, need to "unlearn" our judgemental programing and practice empathy as a skill.
Not only do we need to practice as a skill (like we might practice penmenship or how to sharpen a kitchen knife), we also need to apply it as a daily practice (like yoga or meditation, even if we learn how to sharpen knives, if we don't do it regularly, they will get dull, they wont chop as well as we'd like, and we run the risk of injuring ourselves in the kitchen).
How to Cultivate a Daily Practice of Empathy
The Impact of Empathy
I mentioned at the start of this post that I've been reflecting on the impact of empathy when it's given/received or not.
I've been noticing moments where empathy was not given (or it was given and not recieved) that resulted in pain, emptional distance, conflict, missed opportunities for connection, unresolved requests for support....
And, when I've noticed empathy was successfully employed, I've been consistantly impressed by the ease of connection between human hearts that I've noticed. I've been deeply in awe of the physical shift I see on people's faces and body langauge when they feel heard, welcomed as they are. The best word I have to describe what happens when people are met with sufficient empathy is "healing".
Transforming Pain with Empathy Sessions
As I began to connect with the "healing" impact of receiving deep empathy, I became inspired and excited to offer this as a service.
I have found empathy sessions to be uniquely empowering even as they are healing. As Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, said, "People heal from their pain when they have an authentic connection with another human being."
I offer sessions both in person in Dublin and online via Zoom. Learn more here.
Some Times I wish Empathy Were USed
Finally, I've listed some possible applications of empathy or moments when empathy could be useful (just SOME). Writing this list was really inspiring for me, I dream a world where empathy was this ubiquitous.
I stumbled across this poem on Facebook yesterday.
In case you can't read my hand writing it says:
My heart was struck. It was what I needed to read. It was so good that I stopped everything I was doing to hand write this poem in my bullet journal. It's on the back side of my monthly calendar for September, so I'll be able to look at it all next month.
I've been feeling a bit discouraged lately, faced with flinging my effort into the void that is the internet. I so so so want to bring my work with NVC, both how I use it with my relationship with my self and with my beloved, into the world. I so so so want to support people, to help us all feel empowered to change the world. And I understand that I cannot do that if people don't know I (and my work) exist, thus social media.
And yet I feel daunted, overwhelmed, and disheartened these past few days, primarily about working online. How much to share? On which platform? Does it really make a difference? Will anyone see it or respond? Does blogging, mail lists, facebook, youtube, instagram... does any of it really help me to get my offered support out there and received? Am I just spinning my wheels? Am I inserting myself on a hamster wheel of my own making?
What's the point? Why bother? were questions and feelings rolling through me the past few days.
I've been exhausted by my day job, standing on my feet for hours, and very disillusioned by the financial state of the world... I would love to go back to school but do I really want to take on more debt to do so, when I haven't paid off my student loans yet?
I dream of recreating Eden on Earth, of role-modeling a sustainable way of living and being on this planet.
And even if I do build a business, would it be enough to acquire for my self the small farm I dream of? And more than that, do I really want to engage in capitalism further?
And so on my thoughts and feelings and needs rolled around in me over the past two weeks or so.
Then, yesterday, I came across this poem and my painful wonderings bloomed in my heart into a full "yes!" feeling. "There is someone with a wound the exact shape of your words." Tears fill my throat, but in a beautiful way. In a way that reflects how SEEN I am in this poem, how held and accepted. My effort is worth it.
And now I am remembering the kind responses I've received from people who've gotten coaching from me recently. Words reflecting, for example, how a session with me was "more effective then therapy" or how they were feeling overwhelmed but after an hour and a half with me, they were feeling "hopeful". Just as my support, my words filled the wound in their heart, so too did their words fill the shape of the worry in my heart.
I am feeling so grateful for this poem, and so happy to have come across it in this time. Thank you Sean, your poem is the exact shape of the wound in me.
So, there's an area of my life that I have not been feeling very good about. Things aren't going how I wanted them to go. I have been pushed and pulled within myself to respond to this situation in different ways. Sometimes I want to quit completely, "let it go", and focus my energy on other things. Sometimes, I want to dig in and try to change the experience. I have alot of self judgement about this because it's a pattern that I've noticed repeating over my life. It wouldn't be a big deal, except it's about a topic that I care very much about.
So, I basically have done nothing at all, either way, for almost 10 months. And that doesn't help me to feel good about myself either.
It's particularly "up" for me right now because of some things that have happened recently (I'm sorry this is so vague, but it includes other people so I don't feel comfortable sharing more details than this.)
Since it's been more in my face lately, I decided to take some time this morning to look at it. Because I noticed this as a pattern I've experienced, I had a suspicion that there was an unconscious belief contributing to my experience. I wanted to find out what that was. I'm going to share that here so you can try it out too, if you want.
Selene Aswell is a coach, facilitator and community living consultant.