I am a word girl. I love words and their power. Their beauty. Their significance. Their singular ability to express emotions, feelings, fears and delights. To me, words are like individual sparkling jewels, which, when strung together can create the most dazzling bracelet. But there are words that cause even me great consternation. And “empathy” is one of them.
So I checked in with the always erudite dictionary.com:
Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Also: The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.
I asked my friends to weigh in.
“Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Yes, it is always a good idea to walk a mile in another persons’ boots. To try to understand their motives and reactions and decisions. A good idea but not always the easiest task.
My pal E has decided she would like to have an affair. Her hubby doesn’t do it for her (or to her) anymore and, even though she has no inclination to leave the marriage, she does long to set a fire or two between the sheets. She asks me to understand. To acknowledge. To give her my green light. To empathize with her plight.
Well okay, yeah, I get it. Middle-aged sex can get ho-hum, hum-drum and let’s face it, infrequent. Who wouldn’t want to reignite the passions of youth?
But can I empathize with E? Can I identify with her pain and then psychologically understand it as if it was my own?
Nope. I can sympathize with her and I can even attempt to comprehend but I cannot walk that mile in her shoes because they do not fit me. I cannot make those shoes fit me. Far too painful.
Another friend offers that empathy is “Knowing that even when you’re struggling, you can still spare a second to recognize when another person is in need of the same help you could’ve used.”
That is really lovely. And we should all aspire to such altruism. But is it empathy?
I return to dear old E. I know she is struggling. If her hubby would just show up in the boudoir with a little more enthusiasm she would most likely never contemplate adultery. I too have been in relationships where the desire for carnal acquaintance was painfully lopsided. And again I say, I sympathize with her plight. But do I empathize?
“Empathy is meeting everything and everyone with love!”
I love this concept of “meeting everyone with love” (and will probably write a blog about it one day) because it speaks to non-judgementalism, sensitivity and compassion. I also believe we can be non-judgmental, sensitive and compassionate and still not have a flipping clue what someone else is enduring. We can sympathize. We just can’t empathize.
“Listening with your soul, not just your ears.”
Yes. Beautiful and poetic. And this also goes to the above: listening without judgment. Without advice or discrimination or guile. Listening ONLY to hear, absorb and then love. No matter what you actually THINK.
Fuck, that is hard to do.
“Understanding, feeling and even absorbing others’ challenges and sharing them so their burden is not as heavy.”
Another resounding YES!
But absorbing someone else’s challenge? Sucking it out of them so that they are lighter and YOU are now weighted with the pain? Also really fucking hard. I recall many years ago I told a “secret” to a trusted friend. This secret had been damn near killing me and the act of unburdening it to her lifted its weight considerably. I was SO grateful for her empathy.
She, in turn, immediately told her husband. She had promised me it was ours and ours alone but she immediately told her husband.
I don’t blame her. The matrimonial bond is and should be sacred. But THIS is exactly why empathy is so hard. Empathy demands that we place someone else’s needs/feelings/pain ABOVE our own. And that is damn hard work because we are most definitely hardwired to avoid pain.
What we are “wired” to do is solve problems. And as it turns out, empathy has absolutely nothing to do with solving problems.
I took a life-coaching course several years ago (wellcoaches.com) and “empathy” was one of the first BIG concepts we discussed. Because you cannot coach without it. You can advise and counsel and bully and even inspire but you cannot coach.
One of my coach-buddies was a yoga instructor from the west coast. He was fit and buff and entirely Birkenstock. He had to practice coaching on me and I had to come up with a “problem” that was realistic and coachable.
“I want to lose 10 lbs.” I said. (It was true.)
We spent an hour going up and down the hows, whys, whens and whatevers of me losing 10 lbs and not being able to do it. I could feel his frustration growing and I chose to feed it with even more obstinance (apparently I am good at that). He finally just lost it completely and bellowed, “Vickie, for God’s sake just eat less and work out more! This is NOT rocket science!”
But it was. And is. Coaching is rocket science. Because it is not enough to TELL your client what to do. It is your job as a coach to empathize with WHY your client hasn’t already done it. You know, without you. It is your job to crawl inside your client’s guts and get so entrenched in their muck and slime, to become so intimate with their failure and frustration, to know their fear and their hope with such intimacy you can now plan that elusive roadmap to salvation. WITH them.
“Understanding and relating to another’s struggle through experience, or similar experience. Sympathy is rooted in compassion, albeit without experiential knowledge; empathy is rooted in the compassion driven by bonding with another because you have traveled a similar path.”
And that, dear reader, is the golden ticket. If we have never felt despair we cannot empathize with despair. If we have never been melancholy we cannot empathize with melancholy. If we have never known abject wretchedness, we cannot empathize with abject wretchedness.
I learned empathy via music.
You see, a long time ago I left my husband for another man. And of course, this other man had a wife. And soon thereafter, I heard a song by Lara Fabian called “Broken Vow.” And when I heard the lyrics of that song I wept and wept and could not stop weeping. Not because of the painful mess I had created but because it was HER voice singing that song. Not Lara’s. My lover’s wife’s.
Tell me her name
I want to know
The way she looks
And where you go
I need to see her face
I need to understand
Why you and I came to an end
Tell me again
I want to hear
Who broke my faith in all these years
Who lays with you at night
When I’m here all alone
Remembering when I was your own
That was the absolute moment I knew I understood empathy.
I knew I was feeling empathy.
I knew I was living empathy.
Because that song was not about me. Trust me, there were, at that time, a lot of songs about me and I listened to them all interminably. Sniveling, pouting and feeling sorry for myself.
But “Broken Vow” was about HER. Not even about her. It WAS her. Her pain. Her rejection. Her voice. And I heard it loud and clear.
In all the years since, I have never removed that song from my library. When it comes up on shuffle, I crank it loud and absorb every word. It used to torture me relentlessly. No more. Now it makes me wistful. A little sad. But also somehow grateful. Because I now know that I do know empathy. And not only do I know it, I can sing along with it.
So I guess that is my personal definition: “Empathy is when you can sing someone else’s lyrics as if they are your own.”
Thank you, Lara.