30 Nov We’re All Only Human: Cultivating Empathy for Yourself
My writing career started at age 8, in a small, red-velvet covered book with the word “Diary” embossed in gold cursive. The first entry is a record of my young self navigating the trenches of humanity… My friends had gone roller skating without me. I documented the exquisite pain of being lied to and excluded, and wondered about their interior worlds, as well as their behaviors.
I’ve kept a journal, more on than off, since then. And throughout my meandering decades, I’ve organized myself and made sense of the world around me through writing. The titles of psychologist, friend, sister, daughter, wife, and mother combine through my uniquely colored lenses: various pieces refracting, shifting, and sifting, each influencing each other.
Over time, I’ve realized that I feel things deeply. Perhaps I feel them more deeply than others, perhaps more acutely… I’m not entirely sure. I do know that I cry easily. Novels leave me gutted. Movies, even corny, sappy, comedies require tissues. At the first violin strains of Superbowl commercials, my husband turns towards me whispering conspiratorially, “You’re not going to make it.” And it’s true. I always shed a tear, or more. It doesn’t have to be sadness that causes the response; it is just as often something lovely and happy that overwhelms me to the point of weepy laughter.
In my early years, I assumed that others experienced feelings in the same way that I did. But at some point, realizing that was false, I turned against myself. I felt that others must be “right” and my way of being had to be wrong. My depth of feeling didn’t feel like a gift, more like a curse. No one else was crying at the end of every television show. Others seemed to be okay with the various slights that were flung their way each and every day.
So, I tried to change myself, to harden to the pain I saw, to stuff down the joy I experienced. I attempted to become less emotional, less overwrought, less myself.
In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that my plan didn’t work out so well. I got depressed and then anxious, maybe the other way around. Every feeling was a landmine, every moment was an opportunity to do something wrong; or rather, to be wrong. I didn’t understand why I felt so awful. Nothing had “happened” and there wasn’t something I could pinpoint to blame.
Eventually I started therapy. I learned to sit with the feelings that bubbled up, and over time, I realized I was judging every internal moment by some outside spectre. I remember the moment when one therapist, in the line of therapists that I’ve seen in my life, said to me, “Oh, you’re a super feeler. You feel things very deeply.” And something in me broke wide open.
I felt seen in that moment, recognized for what was my natural state of being. Not judged, not lauded, just observed. We sat there together, tears rolling down my cheeks.
I had a moment of clarity. My work was not to change myself into something or someone else. My work was to become more myself.
Since then, my undertaking has been exfoliating the layers of my internal criticism, eliminating the harsh crust of self evaluation, and to accept myself as I am.
I am someone who feels things deeply. It’s part of why I am good at my job. It’s not a curse, it’s not a gift, it’s just part of me – the good, the bad, and the ugly all rolled into the essence of who I am.
I’ve come to realize that part of what I do professionally is put myself in the emotional clothing of others. I hear a story, and I imagine what I might feel like in that same situation. I’ve learned to use my feelings as a guide to help me through the emotional sticky points of my work. I can sit with someone in pain and use my own self knowledge of my feelings to ask them if that is what they are experiencing. Sometimes I am right, and we can sit together in a shared feeling. Often, I am wrong, and hopefully this helps us both to form a clearer understanding of what’s happening under the hood of their experience. This has helped me to crystalize my strongest belief: people crave connection. We want to know that even in our most broken moments, we are not too much, or too little, only human.
The English word empathy is derived from German, and one definition I’ve stumbled across is, “feeling into.” This resonates with what I do when sitting with someone in the mess. There are two types of empathy: cognitive and active. The difference is just as it sounds. Cognitive empathy is being able to understand intellectually how someone might feel. Active empathy is being able to join the other in their feeling state. When empathy bubbles up inside you, you want to spring into action, which is because, in a way, those feelings have become your own. Scientists have found that people have differing levels of empathy, and that there are people whose empathy “meters” are mis-aligned (you know them when you meet them). There are ways to improve your empathic responses, if you feel you need it, and certainly, I’ve had to learn ways to dampen my own responses sometimes. After all, no one needs their therapist dissolving into a puddle of tears when recounting a tough story, empathically or not.
Looking back at my stack of journals – the pages of grief and the lines of worry – I wouldn’t change a thing. My experience has required a journey to get to where I am: decades of learning enough empathy for myself to understand that all the messy, uncomfortable, unpleasant feelings allow me also to find deep meaning in my work, and in the world around me. And for that, I am extremely grateful.