empathy is one of my favorite things

I have this rebellious teenager who lives inside of me. When I picture her, she is sort of stuck in the 90’s. She’s a little goth or “alternative,” but don’t tell her that (and whatever you do, please don’t call her “artsy” either). 

This internal rebellious teen is not a fan of things that are too trendy. 

society: This thing here is ALL THE RAGE.

her: (rolling eyes) Well it must suck. 

She is likely the part of me who is responsible for the post I had made a few years ago that talked about how it’s ok to feel ungrateful sometimes (because this was right around Thanksgiving time and I was seeing posts about gratitude all over the place).

15 year old me

15 year old me

Back when I was starting my private practice, it seemed like Brené Brown (who is best known for her research on shame) was all the rage. I could not escape an interaction with a therapist friend without a Brené Brown quote or reference. My internal rebellious teen dug her heels in. “Nope. We don’t care about what’s trendy.”

Somehow (maybe through Faceook), I was exposed to a Brené Brown Ted Talk about shame and felt like I wanted to convert to whatever cult following she seemingly incited. Her work is undeniably phenomenal and I’m really excited to hear that she has a Netflix special coming out next month. 

This blog post is dedicated to both Brené Brown - who inspires me in many ways - and to my internal rebellious teen - who has fought very hard to learn how to love herself and build shame resilience. 

Believe it or not, I’ve been writing this for weeks. In addition to the hours of time I spend with my beloved clients (and that’s not sarcasm - I am incredibly lucky to love my work and the people who honor me with sharing their stories), the hours of mom-ing, and all the time I invest each week with various relationships in my personal life, I have been stealing time here and there to dump out my feelings and thoughts for this post. I’ve also been going through a fascinating process of reading old journals (the ones that I hadn’t burned), piecing together the bones of what will hopefully become my first published book, and reading five different books. So I’m not being too hard on myself for spacing blog posts farther apart than I’d originally intended (promise I’m not being too hard on myself).

This post is about empathy. And again, thanks to Brené, I have come to the realization that empathy is one of my top two priority values. (The other one is vulnerability - go figure). 

I recently joined a small book club in my neighborhood that consists of all therapists. Our first reading assignment was Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” Since finishing it, I can’t stop talking about it - especially parts that relate to the importance of empathy. 

According to Brené, empathy is not about relating to an experience of another person, but rather it is being able to identify the underlying emotions attached to the other person’s experience. It is a skill and a practice - which means that it can be developed and it also is not something that anyone gets perfectly every time. 

Empathy is an incredibly important skill to me as a therapist, a mom, a partner, a friend, and just about any relational role I can think of that requires me to show up with my humanity. 

Interactions that lack empathy activate my nervous system in a way that alerts me that something is wrong. Sometimes it can take a while to figure out the source of the problem, but I can feel something is off because it’s difficult to self-soothe. 

If we’re stressed or triggered, we will struggle to physiologically calm down until we feel understood. And when we’re in relational conflict and both people are triggered, it can feel nearly impossible to get to that place of understanding when both people are deep in their defense mechanisms. 

Empathy requires differentiation. I am me and you are you and although we’re not the same, we’re both human. We need to respect our differences and honor them as much as we do our similarities. We can’t expect a partner or a friend to have the same reaction as we do with a given situation - so if we have an understanding of who they are and how they feel, we are able to actually see them. 

Empathy requires the willingness to connect. It is an essential part of healthy relationships because the more you share empathy with someone and empathy is reciprocated, the more emotional safety you will feel in this relationship. 

Empathy requires humility and risk taking. This means guessing, at times, but with the willingness to be wrong because you realize that you’re not the expert on the other person’s experience. You are merely tapping into what you think they might be feeling…so please ask away and don’t expect to be right every time. (I do this often as a therapist, a partner, a friend, a parent, etc.) 

Empathy requires us to have access to all of our feelings. And you can’t have access to all of the feelings if you’re in defensiveness. You need to be able to tolerate your own discomfort or anxiety in order to use your empathy skills. We can say that we need a moment (or moments) when we’re not able to show up for someone. To shut down and walk away without acknowledging our need to take a moment can feel like abandonment on both sides. 

As Brené explains, there’s a common phrase known as “empathy failure” that she reframes as an “empathy miss” because the word failure feels too harsh in most situations and connotes that there’s a way to do this perfectly. It’s so helpful to know that you can screw this up and try again. One of my favorite parts of “Dare to Lead” is an example described in which Brené and her team require participants at empathy workshops to sign a document that states, “I agree to practice empathy, screw it up, circle back, clean it up, and try again.”

In the following paragraph, she states, “You have no idea what it means to someone when you can say, ‘You shared something hard with me and I didn’t show up the way you needed me to. I care about you and what you shared. Can I try again?” 

It can take a tremendous amount of ego strength to do this, but I can attest to how powerful this is from both sides of the situation. I believe it’s worth the risk even if it feels terrifying to practice this because it offers an opportunity to deepen connection. 

Empathy requires my other favorite value, vulnerability - which will be the topic of the next blog post (and I’m sure Brené will come up again). 

Here’s a 3 minute video that describes the difference between empathy and sympathy (in case you’re wondering), narrated by Brené Brown. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

For more information about Brené Brown’s work, check out her website here

Thanks for reading.