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Empathy During Times of Tension

This is my sixth blog about empathy. In the first, Empathy: What It Is and What It Isn’t, I defined empathy as standing barefoot next to someone else, recognizing both their and your current truths and feelings. The second blog, Empathy Struggles, discussed why it is that empathizing is so hard, and how earlier stages of the LovePOEM, Pause and Observe, are critical to being ready to empathize. The next, People with Whom It is Difficult to Empathize, provides explanation for why we struggle to empathize with people we are close to and those who we are not. And the last two, Self-Empathy: Foundation for Empathizing with Others and Empathizing with Others: A Practice in Progression, provides us with tools for growing our empathy practice.

These prior blogs—the understandings, intentions, and practices that they have developed in us—prepare us for the excruciatingly difficult and critical work of finding empathy for ourselves and a beloved during a time of tension.

I’m Scared

Does anyone else have the urge to run and bury their head in the sand? Stick your fingers in your ears and chant, “I can’t hear you!”? As my wise therapist said and I remind myself of so often, “Having the intention is a significant change.” Even though we wish to, we’re not always going to Empathize with ourselves and our Beloved when it would be so useful to do so. We’re going to get this wrong. We’re going to become emotionally aroused, scared, and our survival mechanisms are going to kick in—and we will be anything but empathetic. We won’t remember the LovePOEM—“The what?”—until hindsight criticizes us for our irrational, non-productive behavior. Even recognizing more rapidly that we had choices, that we wish we had done something differently, is a step forward. And, gradually, those baby steps continue to close the temporal gap, until at some crux moment, wisdom pours out of our mouth—and we’re as shocked as anyone else by our constructive, compassionate response. And, once it happens, then you know you can be empathetic and compassionate, while at the same time you are so, so scared. It really is a miracle.

Okay…I’ll Try

Empathizing is brave—and liberating—work. It is liberating to summon the love to look honestly and empathically at ourselves and all those with whom we interact. As we release our well-rehearsed stories and find a more nuanced understanding of our humanness, we increase our options of how we might respond—we enhance our agency. Practicing empathy will lead to insights and changes in ourselves, which will reverberate into our relationships. And it prepares us for the ultimate goal of empathizing with ourselves and our beloveds during heated moments in our relationships. As we increase our practice of empathizing, we can sustain a grounded presence in our bodies and loving care for the experience of ourselves and the beloved, even during heightened emotions.

Just like with empathy practice, our goal during times of tension is to see, “What explains this response?” We may first be successful in empathizing during conflict with intimate beloveds with whom we feel harmony or with people with whom we have very little dependency—our Universal relationships (see All the People We Love for an explanation of relationship levels). For example, while ordering our favorite morning drink, we may hypothesize that the curt barista is unhappy about something beyond us and not take their tone personally. Sometimes, my spouse is grouchy on weeknights; it’s usually a reflection of work stressors, and not an indication of his feelings towards me or our relationship—when I find myself slipping into a well-rehearsed fear-based story, I can instead practice empathizing and ask what’s going on at work. (Of course, I’m never grouchy, so we don’t need to consider the reverse scenario.)

As we get more expert at handling these minor tensions, we can bring our ability to Empathize to our most significant interactions. In times of tension, we feel threatened: we fear that the other person is obstructing our ability to get our needs met. One of the major threats is to our identity. In interactions, we seek to preserve our autonomy, to know that we are appreciated, to maintain or develop the relationship, to assure that we have a valuable role in our group, and to confirm that we are respected. This boils down to the Fear of Being Seen and the Fear of Not Being Seen (see What is Fear? for an explanation of the three fears and hungers). [CH1] We can do a quick empathy scan for these fears: Am I scared that I either will be exposed for something of which I am ashamed or insecure in my ability (Fear of Being Seen), or ignored or not appreciated (Fear of Not Being Seen)? Could my Beloved fear being exposed (Seen) or dismissed (Not Seen)? And, sometimes, the root of the fear is from a relationship with a person who is not in the room—at least, not physically—that one of the current players is bringing in psychically.

How Did This Happen?

We may find ourselves blindsided by a suddenly intense conversation. When we are emotionally aroused, it is harder to Observe. So, we may have little clue as to how the interaction got to this point. This, itself, is a useful observation and something that we can Empathize with: we didn’t realize this was going to happen, we don’t know how we got here, and we (probably) wish we hadn’t. This awareness provides options that proceeding unheedingly would not have. If, in the moment, we Observe any self-criticism or self-blame, we can Empathize with these feelings—unattended, they undermine our ability to Observe relationship patterns. It takes dignity and strength to acknowledge what we Observe ourselves doing; it requires bravery and love to Empathize with ourselves and others. And, doing so provides us with the ability to choose how we will respond, our Message. This is agency.

If we find that we are unable to Empathize with ourselves or our beloved in the moment, it is a good indication that this will not be a productive time to continue a discussion. If possible, we should reschedule this conversation for a later time—preferably, setting when that time might be. This, in itself, is an Empathy victory—we realized we couldn’t maintain our equilibrium and took responsible steps. We determined that we, our Beloved, or both of us need a Pause.

And, sometimes, we will catapult at 100 miles per hour past the opportunity to Pause, and instead do or say something that we regret. Sigh. Welcome to being human! Probably the other person wasn’t perfect in their behaviors, but you also blew it—the part you have control over, how you respond, wasn’t how you wish to be in the world. Admitting this to yourself and then finding Empathy for yourself is the key to moving forward and having greater options—being able to respond rather than react—in future conflicts. If it’s a relationship that you want to continue, or if taking ownership is part of your developmental path, this is an opportunity to practice your apology. That moves us into the Message step of the LovePOEM, so we will save apologies for a later blog.

Practice Makes Perfectly Imperfect

I applaud your courage to seek to empathize during conflict—to commit yourself to trying, knowing full well you will not always succeed. Empathy doesn’t mean to condone—it only means to seek to understand. Empathizing with love, as part of the LovePOEM practice, we seek to understand with compassion how we and others came to our responses. As anthropologist and Zen priest, Joan Halifax, writes in Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom where Fear and Courage Meet,

Empathy is not only a way to come alongside suffering in our small boat, it is a way to become the ocean.

It is scary to look so honestly at ourselves and our beloved—sometimes in our rawest, ugliest moments. Empathizing, instead of armoring up with defensive thoughts or comments, feels so vulnerable. What feels scary, paradoxically, becomes empowering. We leave the small boat of ourselves and become the ocean.

Last week, one week prior to the spring equinox, we got 2’ of heavy, wet snow. In the morning, before it started raining and then turned to snow, I noticed the first flowers to come out in my garden—the beautiful dwarf iris, iris reticulata. I figured that one iris peep was all I would get this spring. To my delight and wonder, when the snow melted, those plucky little irises were blooming profusely. We set an intention, we prepare the ground and plant the bulbs—our empathy practices.  Someday, the snow thaws and we are startled by a tiny beautiful (im)perfect impermanent bloom. When the empathy miracle occurs, take time to savor it!


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