Compassion Without Empathy Can Be Harmful. I Learned First-hand.

I’m at my friends’ house. They have two kids, Maya and Kiran, and two dogs, Luna and Sol. I wrote about the family earlier in “Stepping Into Poop”.

The dogs are playing in the living room, the kids and I are working on math and essays, the parents are at work.

Everything is peaceful, everything is quiet.

Till we hear one of the dogs whine. Like real whining. The kids and I jump up to find out what’s going on. I feel dismayed by what I see. At least, by what I think I see.

From my vantage point, it looks like Luna is biting the jugular vein of Sol, ready for the kill. I feel terrified, and start slamming Luna on the head… Poor dog, if only I had looked better…

It doesn’t help. The whining gets worse, and one of the dogs bites my left arm, even if only a scratch. I start pulling on Luna’s collar, believing that will force her to let go of the jugular vein, and preventing Sol from being killed…

My goodness, if only I had looked better: the whining gets even worse, and one of the dogs now really bites my arm.

But they do get loose.

However, not by any of my actions.

Maya was the one who saw that Luna’s jaw got stuck under Sol’s collar, and couldn’t get loose. The more Luna (or me) pulled, the more in pain Sol and Luna were. So Maya jerked off Sol’s collar, and resolved the whole tangle.

If we define compassion as the desire to relieve suffering, and empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing, Maya and I both acted with compassion, only Maya had more empathy.

It made me think of all the other times I have acted with lots of compassion and insufficient understanding. Instead of relieving pain, like I intended, I ended up making things worse.

When we don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t see the causes, the correlations, or the consequences of the suffering. It helps to have empathy skills, when we want to relieve suffering. Without empathy, compassion leads to unskillful actions: well-intended and not effective.

Have you ever acted with compassion and insufficient empathy? Would empathy have helped you to relieve the suffering more effectively? Let me know! I would love to learn from your experience.

I’m in a shame storm

I’m in a shame storm. I’m in our NVC group, practicing empathy with a buddy. My husband walks by. He says “I hope my eating won’t disturb you too much, honey.”

I feel the urge to explain to my buddy what my husband is talking about. “Well, uh,… you know,… I have this issue…”

My goodness, why did my husband say that? So innocently expressing his care for me. And triggering so much shame? As if I am exposed in my nakedness, covered in poop?

I look at my empathy buddy. He doesn’t seem too concerned by my stuttering. He just listens with a calm smile. I trust him to listen with empathy. I feel safe expressing honestly. “Well, you know… I hope you will not judge what I’m saying… I fear judgment… I get super triggered by eating sounds.”

Sigh… Relief… The truth is out… I never shared this with anyone, other than with my husband.

“It’s any eating sound: smacking, slurping, licking, screeching your fork with your teeth, or banging your spoon against a glass bowl.”

Another sigh of relief. My empathy buddy doesn’t seem too disturbed by my confession. He’s still listening. “You can fart as often as you want and I won’t mind. But making eating sounds drives me through the roof! I’ll get so triggered that I’ll either find an excuse to leave the table or I’ll turn it against you with something like: ‘There is something wrong with you for eating like that!’

My empathy buddy still listens with care, nodding understanding and acceptance. No judgment whatsoever. I continue “And the truth is, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with me for having this sensitivity. I have the thought: ‘I am defective, beyond repair.’”

I feel a sadness come up. It is the first time I speak about this issue I feel so ashamed about. And it is just as Brené Brown describes: my shame disappears. Shame only survives in hiding. If it is brought into the light and received with compassion and acceptance, it loses it’s power. In the connection, acceptance and understanding, we experience the opposite of what shame wants us to believe. We experience that we are worthy of acceptance, love and belonging. We realize there is nothing wrong with us for having an issue. We notice we are not an issue.

I’m still not proud of my issue. It’s a handicap I didn’t chose. My eating sound sensitivity might never change. And now that I talked about it honestly with an empathy buddy, I can make different choices around it. I can ask for help without blaming or criticizing the other person. I can expand my compassion for everyone else who struggles with their own issue. I can choose mindful walking when my trigger overwhelms me. And most of all, I can work on self-acceptance and my longing to connect, even while eating.

With empathy and honesty, we can explore creative solutions that work better.

Let me know how you deal with issues you feel shame around.

Living a life of purpose

It’s Easter weekend, and many Christians are commemorating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things that always struck me about how the event is told in the Gospels, is how reluctant Jesus was at being crucified: “Please, Father, take this cup from me”. Jesus wasn’t that excited about being killed, and I wonder if he was convinced he would be resurrected from death. His fear tells me he might not have been. To me, this is the most poignant example of Jesus choosing a purposeful life over a happy life.

Martin Seligman describes in “Authentic Happiness” a happy life as a life where you cultivate positive emotions about the past, present, and future. An engaging life is a life where you use your core strengths and virtues to achieve a sense of flow, being fully engaged with what you’re doing. The purposeful life is a life where you use your core strengths and virtues to contribute to a goal that is larger than you, even if it comes at personal cost. It is the life where you see the oneness in the fragmentation, and your motivation follows meaning.

History is full of examples of people willing to make personal sacrifices for a higher purpose. Martin Luther King and Ghandi are well-known, my grandfather and millions of others less well-known.

Jesus inspires me to live a life of purpose, pledging allegiance to love, care, and inclusion of the outcasts. Up till now I have enjoyed a comfortable life, being married and enjoying my beautiful home and loving friends. I have a happy life, an engaging life. I also believe my life has meaning: I have a strong sense of purpose in the work I do.

And yet. I wonder if I have the guts to sacrifice my comfort, when circumstances call me to stand up for what I believe is true. I am scared that I won’t be willing to follow Jesus’ example, when it comes at an expense to me. I ask myself ‘Do I need to?’, hoping the answer will be ‘no, sweetie pie, go back to sleep’.

When you ask yourself these questions, what comes up for you? I would love to read your response.

What does Triominos have to do with Interbeing?

I’m playing Triominos. By myself. Usually I play with my husband, but he isn’t home. I put nine tiles in front of my right hand, and nine tiles in front of my left hand.

My right hand has the triple five and starts.

My left hand needs to take a stone.

My right hand is excited as it puts down a perfect match for the triple five.

“Bummer” — my left hand needs to pass again.

“Awesome!” — my right hand puts down its third stone — “I’m winning!”

Then my left hand puts out a stone, relieved.

“You blocked my move!” — says my right hand, irritated.

My left hand can put down a second stone — “Nothing is lost yet. Pfew.”

My right hand gets agitated — “Again: you blocked me!”

After a few more rounds, my right hand can finally declare victory — “I won!!”

Playing by myself and hearing these habitual voices about winning and losing go through my mind, I think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on interbeing:

“Non-violence can be born only from the insight of non-duality, of interbeing. This is the insight that everything is interconnected and nothing can exist by itself alone. Doing violence to others is doing violence to yourself. If you do not have the insight of non-duality, you will still be violent. You will still want to punish, to suppress, and to destroy. But once you have penetrated the reality of non-duality, you will smile at both the flower and garbage in you, you will embrace both.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger, p. 70)

I love this teaching.

I also struggle with it.

I get it when I look at my right and left hand playing against each other. They are part of the same body.

I forget it when I’m in conflict with people and think they are the cause of my hurt, fear, or anger. When I see ‘them’ as the enemy and ‘me’ as the angel. I want to withdraw, or lash out. I want someone to tell me how right I am and how wrong they are.

And yet, when I utter harsh words against my husband, I feel miserable. When I yell at someone in traffic, I feel anxious and upset. When I ignore the suffering of Syrian refugees, I feel ashamed.

As much as I struggle to put the teaching of interbeing into practice, I continue the effort, because in my heart I know it’s true. I feel more at peace if I see the interbeing of Nazis and Jews, white supremacists and blacks, the one percent and the 99%.

I want to remember that in the end we are held in the same Earth, who accepts us unconditionally, without discrimination. I want to remember that we all return to compost. Especially when I feel a frustrated urge to withdraw or an angry urge to lash out.

For my greater happiness. And for the greater happiness of others.

Let me know how this landed for you.

Diagnosis and understanding

I am not a big fan of diagnoses.

From 1997-2007 I worked for mental health institutions. I have seen the same person diagnosed as manic-depressive, then depressive, then borderline personality disorder, then back to depressive. I have seen more than 100 people who carried the diagnosis ‘schizophrenia’, not one of them the same. Their symptoms might have had some resemblance, and their individual behavior was so different that the diagnosis could only partly help you help them.

Diagnoses reduce human beings to a uni-dimensional view of their being.

I believe in seeing whole humans. People with different backgrounds, different vulnerabilities, different potentials. People trying to meet precious, human, universal needs in different ways.

I do believe that diagnoses can help us understand people.

We can use a diagnosis as a working hypothesis for what might be going on. If this person is diagnosed with schizophrenia, does that help me understand that their aggression is a result of them seeing people I don’t see? If this person is labelled autistic, does this explain why they don’t make eye contact? Can I better accept that someone is in bed 18 hours a day, if I know they have clinical depression?

My compassionate response to a diagnosis is that – while incomplete – it might help me better understand what another person is experiencing. When one of my clients thought there was another person in the room, and talked to him while we were in conversation, I was respectful until he finished. I didn’t tell him there was no one else but us, because I accept that his reality is different and no less valid than mine.

With this unconditional acceptance, I can step into their reality and try to see the world through their eyes. When I know my friend has delusions, I accept that his truth is that the Suriname Embassy is trying to kill him. I might try to distract him, offer this moment right here as an alternative to his delusions, and reassure him that his life has meaning to me. If someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis, needs structure and predictability, I can try to be complete when I tell him my schedule. If my friend is diagnosed with Borderline, I support a clear sense of boundaries in our connection and open myself to the beauty they have to offer, and deflect their anger.

Diagnoses do not define people. They can be an incomplete starting point for understanding.

And I am a big fan of understanding. Anytime. Anywhere.

Restore your core-value

“I feel frustrated with my marriage. I am done with it! I don’t want to deal with his anger and resentment anymore…”

“What would the absence of his anger and resentment bring you?”

“A sense of peace. Someone who is available to me, someone who is willing and able to listen and support me. Maybe just enjoying life… You know, I am 43 and I don’t want to spend the second half of my life with someone who is constantly dissatisfied with life. That was not my vision when I married him.”

When you are married to someone who struggles to hold his unmet needs in a way that respects your needs, you might take it personally. You might start losing your self-respect and self-worth, and think you are at least partly responsible for his anger and resentment.

If so, Steven Stosny suggests four choices to reconnect to your own basic goodness, your core value as a human being:

  • Appreciate. When you appreciate what brings you joy, a sunset, the flowers of the plant you carefully nurtured, the smile of delight of your baby, you reinforce your values, your sense of self. You reinforce your inner goodness by appreciating outer goodness.
  • Connect. When you connect to people who stand by your side no matter what, you realize you are lovable enough to receive love, acceptance and belonging. Even if your husband doesn’t meet those needs. It doesn’t really matter whether your friend is a human being, your pet, the nurturing part within yourself, God or nature. Any connection with someone who has an unconditional, positive regard for you helps you connect to the place of positive regard within yourself.
  • Improve. When you improve your life, you restore your sense of self-agency. You are not in control of how your husband feels, thinks or acts. You are in control of improving your own life, whatever he does. It might be cleaning up your room, finishing chores, weightlifting, taking a class in ceramics: anything that makes your life a bit better. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to get better.
  • Protect. Protecting what you care for, something that is vulnerable and precious, calls upon your inner warrior. The one that protects and defends. Not against anyone, but for someone. It is not reactionary, it is pro-active: “This is important to me and I won’t let you contribute to harm, because I care for this and for you.” You appeal to the compassionate core value of your husband. You call upon him to be more than his unmet needs and act from the place within himself that wants to contribute and protect.

Try these strategies out and see if they help. I also suggest you read “Love without Hurt” by Steven Stosny. I find it highly valuable to maintain your core value.