For weeks have I been percolating around a conundrum about empathy. Having the ability to empathize is one of those things that points to the existence of humanity or consciousness.
Humanity might be too egotistical as I’m certain I have witnessed dogs and dolphins express empathy. It’s probably not something inherent to humans alone.
More specifically, when humans are incapable of empathy at all, we often see narcissism disorder enter the room. If Narcissism is ‘bad’ then empathy must be ‘good’, right?
granted these are all moral judgments, setting that aside for the moment
The tricky thing about empathy is that it can lead some of us into codependency, or maybe it is a gateway or something. Some of us (raises my hand) want to understand others, we work to put ourselves into their shoes to understand and relate better, and the codependency trap can spring. The more we walk around in someone else’s shoes, the more we stop living our lives and feeling theirs. With a person close to us such as a spouse, family member or friend, the potential here can be greater.
I came across a hypothesis that utilizing objective compassion instead of empathy might be a healthier approach, or ‘Why Empathy is Bad‘. I have been playing with this hypothesis in my mind since I read it. Empathy can allow us to understand someone’s challenges better. It can also draw our focus in on an issue (their issue) and in our minds give it a disproportionate level of importance in our own bigger picture and priority list.
When we have a hyper focus in the wrong direction, it creates peripheral blind spots all over the place.
That’s nice But How do we use that concept of objective compassion?
First, we cannot fall into empathy traps. We can hear people out and work (hard) to remain conscious that their challenges are not our own. We can have compassion for their plight, and objectively stay focused on our own challenges. We can assist if we like or if there is common cause in a challenge contemplate joining forces.
We do not have to take on their load and carry their burden on our shoulders.
Sure we can help, if we choose. I want to emphasize the ‘have to’ aspect of the sentence above.
If we start ‘feeling’ compelled to help out of empathy, maybe too much empathy, then we are potentially sticking our toes into the pool of codependency.
Rubber hits the road in a real life example
I’ve had many examples of all of this express itself to me. This week one in particular stood out. It happened on Facebook.
Two friends of mine, friends in real life and friends on facebook, had been married. They divorced. The divorce was finalized this week.
I do not know all their details. This did not appear to be a happy, we’re still great friends type of divorce. I’m not judging, just observing.
I learned about the divorce from a post that he shared online. I had seen hints that the divorce was coming for months, including witnessing a physical separation social profile name changes. I didn’t have any confirmations that this was going on, just circumstantial stuff.
He shared a post stating that the divorce papers were final.
I would describe this post as angry. There were insult hashtags directed at her. There was an image of him flying the bird at an image of her as she faced him, back to the camera. There was an icon of a cracked heart.
My impression was that he was angry and hurting.
Feelings do not mark us forever
I have witnessed many people on different sides of divorce feel and express with great venom the anger that they feel. Anger is one of the stages of the grief cycle.
In my experience, it is one that is tolerated the least. Anger has a way of turning happy people off and turning them away. It alienates the angry from most other people. Anger attracts anger often times, it reenforces and grows.
This post did not anger me. I did not feel angry. I witnessed it and chose not to try it on and feel it. I replied with a comment expressing my happiness that he was moving on to another stage in his life. I did not reenforce the anger.
I chose to show and share compassion for someone that was hurting.
Well, that’s a tough one. He’s my friend. I met him through her originally. She’s my friend too.
I want to see both of them come through this thing happy and healthy. I do not want to witness them hurting themselves nor each other.
I chose not to reenforce any of the negative, and focus on the positives.
Solutions Rather than Explanations
This choice of mine stemmed from lessons I learned reading Michele Weiner-Davis’s book titled ‘Divorce Busting‘.
Disclaimer: This book did not save my marriage. I also did not hire the coaching service either. Maybe that would have helped, but I chose not to do that.
In the book, it describes a type of therapy called ‘Solution-Orientated Brief Therapy’ or SBT for short. It’s a results oriented therapy approach. It grew from the notion that we can look inwardly all day long and the knowledge of what ‘truly’ caused a psychological problem, that knowledge may not free us from the problem. Ergo SBT focuses on the things that get results and help people live, be happy and maintain a good relationship.
Note, I was not looking to heal nor save this marriage. That is totally not my thing. I’m not the marriage rescuer. I have zero skills in this area. 🙂
This marriage was done, the paperwork on the divorce done too.
I did see a friend angry and hurting.
I shared compassion. I did not add fuel to the fire.
I saw the potential for fuel to amplify this as a couple possible scenarios:
- Encouraging the anger by empathizing or responding in kind with my own expressions of anger or past divorce experience that made me angry
- Castigating my friend for expressing his anger in the way that he chose to do. The day divorce papers are finalized is often a very emotional day. Like on any highly emotional day, I have witnessed that anyone can let things bubble up and out that they might not when in more control and command of themselves. We all make mistakes. I was not there to judge. I was not there to be the internet/facebook police either. Doing so in my mind would have been an act of ‘public shaming’. In my experience, public shaming generally causes people to entrench and double down on their behavior. They get defensive. Public Shaming rarely generates results as quickly as other approaches. In fact, I recently read that its important to be public with our praises and private with our criticism. That applies even when someone else is being public with their criticism. Two wrongs don’t make something right.
I separately reached out to my other friend to express my compassion to her. I did this privately as there was no message publicly. She is my friend as well. I was not choosing sides in this divorce. In some ways, I feel closer to her and have more history with her.
I will not share that private conversation. I will state that we are no longer connected as friends on Facebook.
His post might be construed as cyber bullying. I’m not agreeing that it is nor defending that it isn’t.
As I mentioned before, I am not judging his actions. That does not mean that he is not accountable to someone for his actions. It just means I choose not to be the police, judge or jury in this situation. I’m not in an objective place to do that. He has his shit to own. She has her shit to own. I have more than enough of my own shit to own without dipping into either of theirs.
I did witness one of her sons, his now former step son, call him to account for his actions. I was proud of the son for sticking up for his mother. In some positive ways, it reminded of actions my own son took in somewhat similar circumstances. It was one of those moments when we get to witness a child of someone we care about, we witness that child do the right thing. We know that no matter what, that child has come into their own power.
They spoke truth to the power of their former step-father.
For me, it was a life moves on moment.
When empathy makes everyone feel bad & improves little
Owning my shit, I am reflecting back on my choices here. My actions had consequences. I do not know if I chose wisely or not.
I do know that my choices did align with my current path in life. My life path may or may not be ideal. I’m not perfect and never will be. I am working to learn and working to grow.
In this case, I chose not to pick one person or the other to ’empathize’ with and thereby zero in on the feelings of one friend over the other, choose sides, and attack the other.
This might have been a passive choice. Sometimes passive choices might be the wrong choice and sometimes they might be the wrong choice.
I do know that I witnessed a young man rise to the moment and do what he felt was the right thing.
I do know as well that I did not add fuel to the fire of anger that my friend was experiencing on what might be one of the more emotional days of his life. I have experienced people fueling my own fires (despair not anger) and know what it feels like to be pushed even further, maybe too far.
I am happy that I added my voice in the way that I did. I am happy that I was able to be there for both friends as I was.
My choices and examples might not have been what either wanted. That’s ok. They can take or leave me. They are their own people. Their paths might be light years away from my own. That’s ok.
I see them as friends and want to see both of theme survive, heal, grow, and thrive.
Our paths may or may not cross again in the future. That’s ok. I cherish some amazing memories I have with both of them. They may or may not know it, but together, when they were together, they helped me achieve some amazing realizations in my life. They put me on a path that was life altering. It was not easy by any means, but I sincerely appreciate their influence on me.
Alone, their influence was that of people that were simply friends. But there was that time when they were together when it was magical and significantly influential and helped me. I will always be grateful for that.
Their marriage did not last, but I feel that their marriage was definitely important, even if it was only those moments that I witnessed.
And their influence is also part of what is now enabling me to see the power and pitfalls of empathy.
I am focusing on Solutions rather than explanations of what or why someone should or should not say what they might say.
I am focusing on doing things that Help with Life, not the opposite.
I see no help in applying a scarlet letter to someone’s actions.
I do see help in showing compassion and calm.
The people around us have to feel what they have to feel to move through their lives and learn their lessons. I can’t tell someone how to feel. I definitely can’t tell them how to live. I know that doing these things do not help. Even if I had the power to make them ‘feel’ or make them ‘live’ in a certain way, it would not help them. Without free will they would not grow, they would not be happier.
I certainly wouldn’t be better for having that type of control over anyone.
I love living knowing that my friends will rise to their challenges. They have their shit covered and will get there.
Along my way and as our paths cross, I will share my light and love and compassion. I will listen attentively and work to notice their light and hear their compassion too.
I will not pick up the shit they drop and add it to my pack.
I will continue with my strategy. I will live my life. I will open up to people and be honest. When I take action, I will focus on what helps with life and focuses on results and not on explanations about judgments of others behaviors.
Or at least that is what I am about at the moment…. 🙂
My way is not the only way. My way may not be best way on other paths.
I might even be blind or ignorant to a better way for this path of mine.
Maybe your own experiences have led you through a similar path? Maybe that path showed an alternate way, a more effective way that delivered better results and helped you, helped those that you cared for?
Maybe that even inspires you to share an alternate way?
If so, I thank you in advance and will love to contemplate it. I do not know the answers. I simply am looking for more.