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.
The first book I'm recommending in this series is Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect by Matthew Lieberman.
This book did not disappoint! I have such a better grasp on WHY we need connection with other humans and what physical mechanisms are impacted within me. I find now almost ZERO self-judgement when I feel lonely, and instead, an almost fierce self-protection in my "right" to long for social connection, and a greater willingness to try to cultivate a social life.
About the Author
The Table of contents
Readability: How is the EXPERIENCE of reading it?
There were definitely some new words I needed to look up. I would jot the definitions in the margins near the words, but there were not so many that it intruded on the experience of reading. There were a lot of names for the regions of the brains that I didn't know, but he defines these for you and reminds you again and again throughout the book so it didn't feel alienating. It felt like learning not like I needed a certain level of preknowledge to understand what he was saying. (So science-y but accessible!)
The author shares plenty of fun stories from his own life and research to illustrate the points he's making, including embarrassing college stories! His voice is present through out the book, which is really helpful; it feels like chatting with your smart friend over coffee when they are gleefully explaining their passion.
It was so interesting I found it difficult to put down; I burned through it pretty quickly. I haven't been able to stop talking about it!
How is it Relevant to Learning NVC?
First and foremost, "connection" is considered a universal human need. It's my belief/understanding that connection is one of the core human needs; other needs may actually be strategies to meet this need (ie meeting my need for touch or community meets my need for connection). One of my goals is to learn more in-depth about each of our human needs, so reading this book and deepening my understanding of the physiology of connection was really really useful for me.
In addition to that, this book is chock full of NVC consciousness and needs awareness in general! I noticed several other human needs in the subtext so frequently that I started jotting the needs I saw in the margins! I also noticed other components of NVC (like observations, for example) and noted those in the margins as well. There were a few times as I was reading that I wondered if the author had been to some NVC trainings!
He also talks about what is happening in the brain that may be vitally important in our ability to give and receive empathy. I plan to reread that section!
SOme things I learned
Want to read it too?
If you want to read it too, here is a link to where you can order the book from Bookdepository.com, which is where my husband and I tend to get most of our books.
Just a clear heads up: if you use this link, I get a small referral commission, which helps me to cover my own costs. It wont cost you anything more, in fact Book Depository is usually more affordable than Amazon or walk-in bookstores, with free worldwide shipping. You can always go to a library for free! I enjoy the non-commercialism of libraries AND my husband and I want to have our own, home library. Also, I enjoy highlighting and making notes in the book, which I can't do if I have to return it, so. . . ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Leave a comment below
After you've read it, let me know what you think down below! :D
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.