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’m writing this from my room in Bled, Slovenia, sitting at a small table with a red checkered cloth, next to the window (and the radiator!). The view out the window is the reason I’m writing today. Let me see if I can describe it to you, I tried to take a picture but my camera is criminally incapable of capturing this moment.
The sun is shining over a hilly ridge, to my right. To my left, the Alps, with their snowy pointy heads. Between these two is a small valley, where my room is situated. The view is off of my balcony. There are a few houses around, but mostly, I see pasture land, directly in front of me is the tiniest barn you’ve ever seen, I’ve seen spoiled chickens with bigger coops. Who lives in this barn? I imagine it would be the handful of sheep lounging next to it. There is a chicken coop next to the sheep, but I see no chickens out and about. Maybe they, like me, thought it was too cold to go outside.
It was -4C this morning around 9, to drop down to -5C around 10 am, so I did not join my husband on his proposed 2-3 hour walk. He went out on his own, and I stayed in, to take in the view and the incredible feeling of potential and possibilities present here.
A red tractor has rolled by me, pulling a fair bit of what looks to me like soil. Behind the sheep lies a smallish pasture, which you could probably walk the width of in a matter of minutes, marked off by a decrepit fence, partially blown over, several feet of which is laying on the ground. Clearly, there is no real need to keep anyone in or out.
On the other side of the unnecessary fence is a bit of boggish land, with a small pond and a stream running through it, and on I assume, to eventually join up with the Sava. On the other side of the pond is another fence, this one upright, another greener pasture, another fence, and then horsies wearing blankets (obviously). Beyond the horses, another yummy looking green pasture, then, a treeline and we are at the base of the foot hill I initially mentioned.
Just a note that I am using the word pasture loosely here, certainly they are functioning as pasture land, each pasture is probably only half an acre or less, but, the sheep don’t seem to mind. “Content” is the word that comes to mind when I watch them, lazing about their field.
Content is certainly how I feel, deep in my body, somewhere around the area of my heart and yet deeper in. I slept, cocooned in silence, the palpable silence of space that is found in the country, where the number of people as far as the eye can see is less than the number of people I typically serve coffee to in a few hours.
My body feels the contentment of the moment, the quiet and peace of this place, but my mind, bless her, is anything but content, she has already started racing thinking how could I possibly create a view like this for my daily life… this view being a symbol of my goals and dreams.
My mind worries about money, student loans, and global climate change. Beneath this worry is fear… a fear that I will never achieve my goal and instead spend the rest of my life dreaming rather than experiencing the life I want.
And beneath this fear, is a deep yearning to be alive… to live a full life, vibrantly experiencing the joy of existing on Earth.
So my fear is there to communicate to me how very important it is to my inner self, to be so fully alive. Can I feel fully alive while living in an urban setting that frustrates me more than delights me? Probably. But I don't want to placate my innerself, as if she were a toddler drawing on the wall, saying, look here is some paper you can draw on. That toddler is Van Gogh and that wall is the canvas of our lives. I want to run singing through life, I want to paint the walls of my life with the bright and vibrant strokes of fully experiencing the moments of my life.
No, I will not placate my inner longing by saying “oh, but life can be good in the city”. No, I will listen as honestly as I can to this fear and this longing, I will let it motivate me, as hunger motivates us to eat. I will take it seriously, as a life-affirming instruction from my innerself. We yearn for this life of clean air, sparkling moving water, and dirt to get our hands into. And
And, as I take this yearning more and more seriously, even as I write this to you, I notice my worries are lessening, and that feeling of contentment is shifting up into my mind. The truth is we don’t know the “how” but as I connect to my longing, the fear is not fear at all anymore, just pure longing. And this longing is the energy of life itself. I want to open my mind to this energy of life itself and see what happens.
The next time you notice your mind in anxiety, try to connect to the message the fear is communicating to you. What is it that you are longing for? That longing is a signal from the spark of life within you, telling you what kindling is best suited to feed that flame.
Selene Aswell is a coach, facilitator and community living consultant.