Practicing empathy, where I was least expecting to need it

empathy Jun 28, 2016

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You know those sayings that make light of hard or challenging times, like “Look on the bright side”? Or “Every cloud has a silver lining?” I’ve recently been given the “privilege” of working hard to find that silver lining.

My partner in life and work, my best friend and dearest companion, recently suffered a life threatening injury. My entire focus was on him — what did he need, how was he feeling, how could I be supportive, what could we do as a family to support him in this journey, what could we do at work, how could we see this through so he was supported…the list went on.

I kept hearing Brene Brown say that sympathy is “me over here in my own world where things are OK, looking down at you in that place over there where bad things have happened, saying it must suck to be you” while empathy is “Me here, with you, so you know you are not alone. I’m with you.” (Obviously, I’m summarizing, not quoting!) I wanted to be sure that he knew I was here for him, in his physical pain, and the emotional pain that goes along with it.

I thought through the 5 steps to practicing empathy, so I could be there for my partner:

  • 1-Perspective Taking

  • 2-Staying out of judgment

  • 3-Recognizing emotion

  • 4-Communicating emotion

  • 5-Mindfulness

Once he got through the initial crisis, and came home from the hospital, I thought we were on the road to recovery, and my spirits would lighten and while I’d still be empathetic and supportive, we could start on the path to recovery — physically and mentally. I thought I could shift from “danger, danger” to “where are we today” in my own mind. While the heightened adrenaline of the initial situation has decreased, I find my self daily in this tightly wound, reactive place of fear, isolation, and worry.

Almost 4 weeks from the injury, my partner is physically recovering. He is healing physically and is starting to see what the road to full recovery will look like for his body. He is patient, thoughtful and working hard to accept the moments of boredom, worry and frustration he is experiencing. I’m so deeply grateful that he is healing that it brings tears to my eyes every time I think of it.

I’m now realizing that this situation has given me an opportunity to learn an important lesson — one I seem to need to keep re-learning over my life!

In order to care for others, you need to care for yourself.

In order to be there for my partner, our family, and our work, over the last 4 weeks I’ve been stretching and extending myself in all directions. And I’m tired, grouchy, tearful and worried. I’ve got pain in my body, and a heart that aches and keeps re-picking the scab of worry from when he first got hurt.

This week I remembered that self compassion is as important as empathy. The work on self compassion by Kristen Neff has been a powerful reminder for me. (You can watch some of her videos on self-compassion here). The steps include:

  1. Notice Suffering — that one is easy. I’m so busy telling myself this is not about me, and asking what do others need, and how do I hold it together - that I’m a disaster. All right — I’ve done this one!

  2. Be Kind in Response to that Suffering. Here would be the source of my problems. Totally shitty at this. No time for the gym, time alone, time to rest, relax or care for myself. If I do take any time I parcel out in tiny bite size pieces, because I better get back to doing what I “should” be doing.

  3. Remember that imperfection is part of the human experience. This one is funny — I’m chuckling to myself. Imperfection is part of OTHER PEOPLE’s experience — I am going to be a really great wife, mother and team member and have my shit together for this whole ride.

So I’ve got the lesson. I’m re-learning it. Duh.

I went to the gym last night. I’m going out for a walk as soon as I finish writing this. I’m going to lighten up a little and find something funny to read. I might even do a craft or colour. I’m going to make some more jam, or some pickles. I’m going to bed early tonight.

I’m going to remember that I don’t need to get it all right, and to accept that this is where I am at today. And that if I’m kind and caring to myself, I’ll be better able to be kind and caring for others. And while my partner’s injury isn’t about me, it is OK that I too have suffered through it. And to be deeply, deeply grateful that my partner is here with me, and whole, and on the road to recovery. And there is nothing I could be more grateful for in the world.


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