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Empathy vs. Compassion

self-compassion

I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.

Sixth Sense

elephant

I read recently that elephants can detect rain storms from 150 miles away. This is a helpful ability to have in Nambia, where it rains very little. Researchers aren’t exactly sure what the elephants are sensing but suspect that it might be related to their ability to hear very low frequency sounds, since this is also how elephants communicate with one another in herds.

I have been really anxious lately. Sometimes for no reason, which is really annoying. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes I’m anxious about something that hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not because I’m worrying about something in the future. And it’s not that I’m psychic. I have no idea why I’m feeling anxious. But then something happens, and my anxiety makes sense. Except that the cause and effect is reversed.

I think I might be like an elephant. I think there’s something that I sense that goes beyond the usual 5 senses. I can sense distress from far away. Anxiety, like sound, is also a way that herds communicate. If you are in a pack of gazelles and one of the gazelles in the back sees a lion, it’s not like the gazelle can say, hey everybody! Run for your lives! We are about to be attacked! And whatever means of communication they use has to be instantaneous–like when we break suddenly to avoid hitting a deer. Even though you’re not supposed to do that.

People can feel it when someone is anxious, too. I think that’s why people try to stop other people from feeling. Because they don’t want to feel anxious. And usually the anxiety isn’t adaptive. These days we usually aren’t feeling anxious because we are about to be attacked by wild animals. We’re anxious about something that isn’t life threatening at all–like an interview. Or because we slept through our alarm clock and are running late. Or because we are imagining how we would get to work if we broke our leg without having to call our ex. (I was really worrying about that a few days ago for some reason.)

The problem is, my instinct to move towards the source of distress isn’t like an elephant moving towards water. Moving towards water is adaptive. Moving towards danger is not. If anything, I should be running for my life, like the gazelles.

But then again, there are people who run towards danger. Like the firefighters and police officers in 9/11. In fact, when you talk to someone who has done something heroic, like jump into a river to save a stranger’s life, and you ask them what they were thinking, they say they weren’t thinking anything. They were just responding. So we do need people whose instinct is to run towards danger.

I have always considered myself risk averse, but maybe I’m not when it comes to psychological things. Maybe I’m like a psychological fire fighter. That doesn’t sound so crazy after all.

What Love is Not

Not love

Sometimes I’m still not sure I know what love is.

I’ve said I love you many times, but often immediately after the relationship ended I was like, what the hell was I thinking?! It’s as if I had been in a trance, and once the person moved out of my empathy range, I could not understand how I ever convinced myself that I loved that person.

Once the person decided that they loved me, I felt obligated to love them back. I felt like it was my job to give people what they wanted, so I tried my best to focus on the person’s good qualities. In positive psychology research, being able to overlook your partner’s negative qualities is actually one of the best predictors of a happy marriage.

And admittedly, sometimes I would try to change the things I didn’t like about them so that they could be more like someone I could love. That’s part of the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship: I don’t trust myself to accept the person as they are. In my defense, sometimes I was responding to their desire to be helped. But sometimes it was just because there were things about the other person I couldn’t stand.

But isn’t that true in loving relationships, too? I’ve often heard couples say that there are days when everything their spouse does gets on their nerves. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you feel loving towards them all the time. This is what I would tell myself as a way to justify staying.

And like I’ve said before, if Jesus said we should love our enemies, then surely I can overlook the fact that this grown man picks his nose in public. Even though that was a good enough reason for someone to break up with Seinfeld.

In a couple of relationships I actually felt like I hated the person. My friends would explain away my hatred with the the old adage that there is a thin line between love and hate. But that wasn’t why I hated them. I hated them because they exhibited the kind of narcissism that characterizes psychopaths, and I was their latest victim. And I hated myself for trying to love someone who was a borderline psychopath.

I still have nightmares about one of my exes. I’ve had dreams where somehow I am with him again and I feel panicked and trapped. Like Julia Roberts in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” where she walks into her house and sees her husband standing there, even though she faked her death and changed her identity in order to be free from him.

That can’t be good. That hardly sounds like love at all.

I don’t want to give the impression that all of my relationships could be turned into psychological thrillers. Most of them were good guys. And I truly loved the two that I married. The problem is that I never knew for sure whether I really loved someone until the relationship was over. Until they were far enough away that I could distinguish my feelings from theirs.

Yet another example of how empathy isn’t always a good thing.

These are not easy relationship patterns to change. But I have not given up hope. I like challenges. I’ve figured out knitting patterns that were beyond my skill level.  Surely I can learn to choose love, rather than have love choose me.

Self-Soothing

Self-soothing

While some people acknowledge having an inner child, I have an entire internal family. This includes a child who I call Sophie, but also an inner infant–a part of me that doesn’t have the words or the awareness to express what I’m upset about. This idea of an inner infant was confusing to some readers, so I thought I would describe her in more detail.

It is as though I am a new mother with a baby that is easily upset but I have no idea what’s wrong with her or how to comfort her. And obviously she can’t tell me because she’s a baby. And I am not a patient mother. I am in a hurry. I don’t have time for this.

My therapist would always tell me that I haven’t learned ways to soothe myself–to comfort myself, calm myself down–which is part of the reason why I’m so anxious. I sort of understood but not really. I was kind of like, well then tell me how to soothe myself!

But now I realize that learning how to comfort yourself is a lot like getting to know your baby. You learn from trial and error how to distinguish the hunger cry from the tired cry. You learn the idiosyncratic things that make her feel better–like driving around the block, or putting music on, or cradling her in a certain way.

I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, and in the chapter I just finished, McLaren gives some examples of ways that babies and children soothe themselves. Some of them I wouldn’t have thought of as attempts to self-soothe–like toe-walking, foot stomping, and fidgeting. It made me realize how often we tell children to stop doing things that are annoying us when they are just trying to make themselves feel better.

I am slowly learning how to be a better parent to myself. I am trying to be more patient when I appear to be anxious for no reason. I am trying to be more compassionate. More comforting. More understanding. It’s unfortunate that being mean to myself comes so naturally but being nice to myself takes so much practice.

But that’s OK. I’m willing to put in the work to get to know myself better. And I have a lifetime to practice.

Heartbreak

Regret

I’m working with a student right now who is heartbroken. I’ve always been bothered by how adults distinguish puppy love from “real” love.  I remember when I was in grad school a fellow student was talking about how boring it would be to work in a counseling center where all you do is help students with insignificant problems like breakups. No one questions that divorce is painful, but heartbreak as a teenager or young adult is apparently no big deal.

It took me a long time to get over my first love from high school. It also took a long time to get over my divorces.  I can’t say that my pain was more real or more legitimate as an adult than it was in my teens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have been any wiser about falling in love or more mature at handling heartbreak than I was when I was a teenager. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I  think that dismissing someone’s feelings as puppy love is just one of many examples of how we trivialize emotions in general. We judge some feelings as being more or less legitimate.  Puppy love is not to be taken seriously. You can’t be angry without a good reason. It’s better to be depressed if you have a “chemical imbalance.”

And because we haven’t learned helpful ways to deal with pain, we try to push people along too quickly.  So we tell them that they are better off. Tell them to suck it up. Shame them out of their feelings if we have to.

I never talked much about how I felt when I’ve had my heart broken. Certainly not as much as I wanted to. I knew that I wouldn’t hear what I needed to hear. At the time I couldn’t even articulate what I needed to hear, but now I can. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings counted. That my pain was real. And that when I was ready to move on, I would.

This is still what I need to hear, even if I’m just saying it to myself. And this is what I tell my clients when they are heartbroken. And I keep repeating it until they are ready to move on.

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Sensitivity

I am reading The Secret Life of Bees for book club, and I love it! I know it’s old, but in our last meeting we discussed which books made us wish we could spend more time with the characters, and one of the members mentioned this one. I can see why. I love all of the characters, too. Well, maybe not June so much. She’s a little too guarded for me. Although I wish I could be more like August, the matriarch of the sisters, I am actually more like May–the fragile one who feels other people’s pain too deeply. Not as deeply as she did, thank goodness. But more so than I would like sometimes.

On the one hand, I recognize that it is a gift to have such a keen sense of empathy. I know I have helped a lot of people because of it. But I am also easily thrown off balance when the people I care about are in pain–especially since I am also prone to depression and anxiety. I have always assumed this meant that I was weak. Fragile. Too sensitive.

I spent time with my brother this weekend–the only one of the four siblings who does not have a mood disorder. In talking to him, it was clear that he does not experience his feelings as intensely as I do. He does not get his feelings hurt very often. He is better able to maintain distance from family drama, and his advice really is to tell them to suck it up.

I envy him for this, but I cannot be him. I can only be me. I feel things intensely. My feelings get hurt easily. And when someone is in pain, I feel what they feel and try to help them, even if it hurts me.

But rather than berate myself for it, I am learning to accept that this is who I am. We all have different vulnerabilities. Some people may be prone to heart disease. Other people have diabetes. I am a hyperempath with depression and anxiety. Therefore, I have to be sure to take care of myself in certain ways: make alone time a priority, set boundaries, and be more selective about who I spend time with.

I used to joke that I’m not trying to save the world–just the people that I meet. But perhaps I will have to narrow down my scope in my life-saving efforts, too.