Tag Archives: empathy
I have trouble giving constructive criticism. I prefer the passive-aggressive route: just avoid the person altogether, or put their call on speaker phone and do my blog homework while they’re talking.
I know this doesn’t reflect positively on me as a psychologist. When I have a client who has problems being assertive, I have all kinds of good suggestions. And they usually take my advice. Which is a perfect example of why I often think my clients are more courageous than I am.
Part of the problem is that I can’t stand hurting other people. If it’s a choice between being annoyed by them or hurting their feelings, I choose to be annoyed. Because I can take it. But all those annoyances start to add up after awhile. Like being bitten by 1000 mosquitos. And I’m allergic to mosquitos, too. That’s why I have to keep reminding myself to pick me.
The other obstacle is the whole hyperempath thing, combined with being highly self-critical. When I think of how I would feel if someone were to tell me that I brag about myself a lot, I would be mortified. I’d probably never speak again.
Sometimes the other person is so sensitive that they, too, will obsess about it for the rest of their lives. We can never have a conversation again where the person doesn’t think about it, apologize for it, justify their behavior. It’s painful. It feels just as bad as when they were annoying me, except now I feel guilty, too.
That’s why I prefer to be so attuned to how other people feel that I can sense their annoyance and figure out why without them having to say a word. Which, admittedly, isn’t a great strategy–especially when you’re prone to depression. Because afterwards you have replay every social interaction over and over, trying to figure out where you offended the other person.
I can do it when it involves tennis. Especially when it involves wasting someone else’s time by being late, not showing up, etc. I may not think my time is valuable, but I won’t tolerate someone in my group or on my team who wastes other people’s time. But sometimes I still obsess about how I did it. Maybe if I had said it differently, I wouldn’t have hurt their feelings.
The reality is, sometimes there’s no way you can give negative feedback without hurting the person. And it’s not really my job to make sure that no one ever feels pain. Sometimes pain is necessary. It lets us know that we need to change something. And if something’s bothering me enough to tell them about it, then I am definitely hoping for change.
Sometimes I wish I could be one of those people who are so oblivious that they don’t care that they’re annoying. Someone who can dismiss criticism with some rationalization. Or someone with a really bad memory for negative feedback. But I can’t. I’m me. Empathic, sensitive, guilt-ridden me.
Perhaps I can think of this as yet another opportunity to practice self-acceptance.
I would like to thank Somber Scribbler for nominating me for the Liebster Award. I am new to blogging so I always wondered how people got these awards. What a great way to find out! In the words of Sally Field, “You like me! You really like me!”
What is the Liebster Award?
Liebster is a German word that means lovely or valued. It’s an award for relatively new bloggers with less than 200 followers. Nominating someone’s blog is a way of letting them know that you like their work and a way to interact with other bloggers.
In order to participate, Liebster nominees must:
1. Thank the person who nominated you. (Thanks again to Somber Scribbler, who writes one of my favorite blogs.)
2. Answer the 11 questions given to you.
3. Nominate at least 5 blogs with less than 200 followers (approximately).
4. Post 11 questions for your nominees to answer.
5. Post a comment on your nominees’ blogs to let them know that they’ve been nominated.
Questions from Somber Scribbler
1. Why did you start blogging?
About 2 years ago I started writing a self-help book on self-acceptance, but I thought it was so terrible, I was embarrassed to let anyone read it. I had to figure out some way to let other people read about my ideas, so last September I decided to start a blog, even though I barely even knew what a blog was. It turns out blogging is perfect for my writing style.
2. If you could describe yourself with one word, what would it be?
At the moment, I would say “hopeful.” That’s why I’m a therapist, why I continue to try to get better at tennis, and why I think I can write a book.
3. If you could be famous for one thing, what would it be?
That’s a tough one. I’d like to be famous for just about anything, as long as it’s positive. But I’ll say writing a best seller.
4. What advice would you give to fellow mental health sufferers?
Listen to that voice that tells you to believe in yourself, regardless of how small it may be at the moment.
5. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Another tough one. I will interpret “thing” as “ingredient” and say anything with sugar, for obvious reasons.
6. Which fictional character do you relate to the most and why?
Ellen O’Farrell in “The Hypnotist’s Love Story,” by Liane Moriarty. She falls in love with a man whose ex is stalking her and becomes obsessed with her stalker because she has so much compassion for her suffering. That would totally be me.
7. What did you want to be when you grew up?
The first thing I remember wanting to be was a cashier when I was 5 because they had access to all that money. But then my parents told me that money wasn’t theirs. So then I wanted to be a bank teller, but my parents said that money wasn’t theirs, either. After that I clearly gave up on any attempt to make money.
8. What is your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?
I would have to say that my greatest strength is my biggest weakness, which is my empathy and compassion for other people’s suffering. It helps me to help people, but having too much empathy can be overwhelming at times.
9. What is your dream vacation?
Maui is one of the few places that has lived up to all of my expectations, so that’s where I would go for my dream vacation. With Roger Federer.
10. Which of the many quotes about mental health speaks to you the most?
My favorite quote is from Kung Fu Panda (although I’m sure it’s originally from somewhere else):
Yesterday is history,
Tomorrow a mystery.
But today is a gift.
That’s why they call it the present.
I have a lot of trouble living in the moment, which is why in my blog I often start sentences with “In this moment….” A lot of suffering can be minimized with the practice of mindfulness.
11. What is the most positive thing about today?
Today I got to spend time with my niece, Sadie, which is always a gift.
I’m going to interpret “new blogger” loosely so that I can nominate some of my favorite bloggers. So in no particular order, I nominate:
1. Amy Purdy, who writes Bipolarly. Her blog on bipolar disorder is informative, personal, and from the heart.
2. Matt Fried, who writes Fried’s Blog, because he is committed to honesty and to eradicating stigma against mental illness.
3. Tim Clark, who writes Life, Explained, because he rooted for UVA to win the NCAA championship in basketball after his team was eliminated.
4. Joy Page Manuel, who writes Catharsis, because she is a fellow Filipino and we think alike.
5. Somber Scribbler, which is probably cheating, but we think alike, she also writes about mental illness, she also includes doodles in her blog, and she would have been my first nominee, had she not nominated me first.
1. What job would make you say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”
2. What’s the last dream that you remember?
3. Who was your favorite character on “The Brady Bunch” and why?
4. What was your New Year’s Resolution this year?
5. What do you want to be remembered for?
6. What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a blog?
7. How many jumping jacks can you do in a minute?
8. If you could put 3 things into a time capsule, what would they be?
9. Who is your favorite superhero?
10. What song best describes you?
11. What’s the last book that you couldn’t put down?
Here is a random picture of Sadie and me in Legoland.
My name is Christy Barongan and I am a swashbuckler.
I mentioned in a previous post that I’m reading The Art of Empathy in an attempt to help me with my hyperempath problem. I finished the chapter on empathic love, and it is so true of me that it freaked me out. I almost had a panic attack and had to take a nap afterwards.
In this chapter she lists 4 impediments in a potential mate: 1) a lack of emotional skills, 2) an active addiction, 3) unhealed childhood trauma, and 4) the presence of a toxic ex-mate. These impediments are practically criteria for a relationship for me. I like challenges, but come on! This is ridiculous! Reading this list drove home the fact that most my relationships had little chance of succeeding from the start.
Ironically, reading this chapter also helped me to not beat myself up about my relationship choices. I am drawn to people with these problems for the same reason that I chose to be a psychologist. I want to help people. I believe everyone is capable of turning their life around, and I am confident that I can help them do it. I never back down from a challenge, and I never give up. These are all qualities that I’m proud of.
However, I am beginning to realize that every challenge has a cost. Even if I do something I enjoy, like play tennis, write a blog post, or talk to my brother, it drains me mentally and physically. Which is OK. I love doing these things, so it’s worth it. But in the past, having the ability to help someone was reason enough to do it. Whether I wanted to do it or not was irrelevant because my wants and needs didn’t count. And I never paid attention to the impact that giving so much of myself had on my well-being.
In a way, that’s one of the benefits of being prone to depression and anxiety and of having allergies, GERD, and asthma. Now I have to pay close attention to everything I do and how it will affect me. I have to be intentional about all of my choices. It’s a pain, but it forces me to take care of myself.
Also, when I choose to do something challenging, most of the time I’m not too attached to the outcome–except in relationships. I’d like to move up to 4.0 in tennis, but if I don’t, I’ll just keep trying. Same with writing a best seller. I know the odds aren’t in my favor, but I enjoy the process, and if it never happens I won’t be devastated. I don’t even take it personally when I can’t help a client get better.
If I had the same attitude in relationships–that I gave my best effort, and that’s all I can do–then perhaps I wouldn’t feel like such a failure in them.
It also helps that McLaren calls people like me swashbucklers rather than codependents or love addicts. She describes swashbucklers as people on a heroic journey filled with impossible tasks and mythical beasts. Sort of like relationship warriors. But like Odysseus at the end of his adventures, I think I’m ready to come home.
Maybe I can use my superhero skills to save myself. After all, who is better qualified to help me than me? I don’t even have to do it alone. I could create a support group for hyperempaths. A 12 step program for swashbucklers, if you will. I think it could be a big hit.
So if you’re interested in participating, let me know.
One of my favorite books of all time is What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. It was our most popular book in our Remedial Book Club; we actually had a meaningful discussion about it for the entire meeting. Ordinarily we talk about the book for 30 minutes–mostly about who would play the characters if the book were turned into a movie–and then we eat, drink, and gossip about people in the tennis community for 2 hours.
The book is about a woman who falls off her bike in spinning class and loses her memory of the past 10 years. In her current life, she is about to turn 40, has 3 children, and is going through a bitter divorce. After the accident, she thinks she is 29, madly in love with her husband, and is about to have her first child. The book also follows the stories of Alice’s mom, sister, and grandmother, all of whom are in the process of letting go of grief. In addition to being hiLARious, the book also makes you reflect on who you have become and what you thought your life would be like.
I am now in the process of filing for divorce, at my husband’s request. I am glad that I waited until he was ready, because now he understands why our marriage can’t work. I have a better appreciation for the significance of rituals. Even though it’s just a formality, since we’ve been apart for almost 4 years, the legal aspect of it has reawakened my grief about losing him. Of all the people I’ve been with, he is by far the one who was the most stable, reliable, and trustworthy. It saddens me that this wasn’t enough to make things work.
I will be 45 in a few months, and I would have never predicted that this is what my life would look like. Although it is still sad and scary to be alone at times, I am thankful for this opportunity to get to know myself better. I am still experiencing compassion fatigue from my last relationship, and I really want my next one to be different.
I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, by Karla McLaren. It’s the first book I am aware of that teaches hyperempaths like me how to keep from burning out. I’m hoping that this will help me be more intentional about my next relationship. I’m hoping that it’s possible to break the pattern of relationships that you’ve grown up with and that you’ve followed all your life and to start anew.
Since I have reached my goal of 100 posts, I thought I would also take stock of my blogging life, which is much more positive. This blog is the first time that I’ve shared my writing with others, and I am so proud of what I have written so far. Even prouder than I was when I finished my dissertation.
I’ve been trying to write on and off for about 10 years now but only took it seriously a few years ago. Until then, I never realized how demon-filled the writing process was. Every time I sat down to write, Perfectionism, the Inner Critic, and the Drill Sergeant were all there to meet me, reminding me of how much I suck. So to commit to blogging 3 times a week–and to share the most vulnerable parts of myself in every post–is a huge accomplishment.
However, now that I’ve learned more about publishing, I am forced to accept that the odds of writing a best seller are not great, and even if it does happen, it won’t be any time soon. I’m not going to give up, of course, because I never give up, but I’m trying to focus more on the process of writing rather than the end result.
I’m trying to approach blogging the way I approach tennis. I’ve made $60 in prize money, which was several years ago when I won the 35 and over singles division of a tournament. (I was also the #1 rated 35 and over singles player in Virginia that year!) But I spend hundreds of dollars a month on tennis, so as a money-making enterprise, it’s a failing business.
But that’s OK. I’m not doing it to make money. I play tennis because it’s fun, because it challenges me, and because I have made wonderful friends. Although my romantic relationships have been a disappointment, my friendships have far exceeded my expectations.
Blogging is also fun and challenging, and I enjoy getting to know my readers and other bloggers. And it’s way cheaper than playing tennis. So I’m going to set another goal, which is to write another 100 posts by my blog’s first birthday, which is September 24.
Hope to see you then!
I just finished reading The Emotional Life of Your Brain, and although I started losing interest towards the end, it presents an interesting view of personality that is worth sharing.
Based on brain research, Davidson identifies 6 dimensions of personality:
1) Resilience (fast or slow to recover from adversity)
2) Outlook (negative or positive)
3) Social Intuition (puzzled or intuitive; A.K.A. emotional intelligence)
4) Self-Awareness (opaque or aware)
5) Sensitivity to Context (tuned out or tuned in)
6) Attention (unfocused or focused)
If you are interested in where you fall on each of these dimensions, click on the link above and you will find a short survey. Here were my results, which probably won’t surprise anyone who reads my blog:
1) Resilience: fast to recover
2) Outlook: positive
3) Social Intuition: very intuitive
4) Self-Awareness: very self-aware
5) Sensitivity to Context: very tuned in
6) Attention: focused
As with most personality dimensions, the goal is to move your set point closer to the middle. In practice, however, one end of the spectrum is usually more desirable than the other. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each extreme:
1) Resilience: Being too fast to recover may make you less compassionate and seem unfeeling and insensitive to others. Being slow to recover makes it difficult for you to function and you may focus more on your pain than on other people. But usually people try to learn how to be more resilient.
2) Outlook: A negative outlook puts you at risk for depression and annoys other people. An overly positive outlook makes it difficult for you to learn from your mistakes and postpone immediate gratification. But usually the goal is to develop a more positive outlook.
3) Intuition: Being too intuitive may make it difficult to function because you’re constantly picking up other people’s negativity. (Hmmm. That sounds familiar). People who are at the puzzled end may have problems in all aspects of their lives in which they have to interact with other people–which is essentially all aspects of life.
4) Self-Awareness: Being opaque makes you prone to missing signs of illness and make you unable to take care of yourself. Being too self-aware can make you a hypochondriac. But in general, it’s better to be self-aware.
5) Sensitivity to Context: Being tuned out might make you feel and act in ways that aren’t appropriate to the situation (e.g., anxiety disorders). Being too tuned in can make you prone to losing touch with your true self because you are constantly changing your behavior to fit the social situation. But usually people try to be more tuned in.
6) Attention: Being too focused annoys people because you don’t pay attention to them when you’re doing something. And you tend to “not see the forest for the trees.” Being unfocused puts you at risk for ADHD. But usually people want to learn how to be more focused.
Guess what the best way is to move toward the resilient, positive, intuitive, self-aware, tuned in, attentive end? Meditation! My favorite meditation guru is Jack Kornfield, and on his webpage he goes through the 5 basic meditations:
3) Forgiveness Meditation (which I really need to practice)
Jon Kabat-Zinn also teaches meditation for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), but you have to pay for his stuff. You could also seek out a therapist who specializes in MBSR.
So there you have it–your cheat sheet for “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” It took several months for me to get through the book, so feel free to make a donation to the Federer Fund if you found this helpful. Tickets to Grand Slam or ATP Masters 1000 events are also acceptable.
This doodle sort of looks like a brain. And it has 6 different colors–one for each personality dimension.
I have a confession to make. I did not go to church yesterday. I don’t really have an excuse, except that I can’t get out of bed unless I absolutely have to because of my sleep problems. And because I rarely go to church. In all honesty, I’m not a very good Catholic (but still a good person–most of the time). But I do try to go on Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter, at least. So for my penance, I thought I would write about what Holy Week means to me.
I really like the reading of the Passion. It’s the place where I can relate the most to Jesus because it is where he is the most human. One of my favorite parts is where Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane. My interpretation of his prayer goes something like this: God, I will do this if I have to, but if there’s any way that I don’t have to, please let me know. To me, this shows that even the Son of God was afraid of the suffering that he was about to face, and I find great comfort in that.
I have said a version of this prayer many times. In the last few years I have started asking God what He wants me to do, which is always a little scary. What if it’s something that will be painful? But I figure if God asks you to do something, it’s best to say yes. So my prayer goes something like this: God, if there’s anything that I’m supposed to be doing, let me know, and I’ll do it. But please give me the courage to do it, too.
The other part I like is where Jesus cries out on the cross, asking God why He has abandoned him. I find comfort in this, too. One of the things that has always been difficult for me to comprehend is how God can allow people to suffer needlessly. I talked about this in my post on God’s Will. But when I think about the Passion, I don’t know where I even got the idea that we are not supposed to suffer. If anything, the life of Christ shows us that no one is immune to suffering. Even if we’re really, really good, it’s still going to happen.
Lately I’ve been talking about empathy as though it were a curse because it’s overwhelming to have to feel other people’s pain all the time. But I know it’s a gift to be able to give someone the experience of knowing how they feel. For me, reading the Passion is a reminder that Jesus is with us in our suffering, because he has suffered, too. Which is literally what compassion is about.
A few years ago my niece was obsessed with Jesus. Even though it was Christmas, she wanted to know more about how Jesus died on the cross. The next year she drew this picture as a Christmas card. I guess for her, the Passion is also the most memorable part of the life of Jesus.
Today I saw a client who exemplifies why I became a therapist. His life is filled with traumatic stories involving drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and abandonment, yet he is amazingly well-adjusted–on the outside, at least. He’s never had a chance to tell his story. In fact, he’s been coming to the counseling center for almost 2 years, but there’s very little in his chart about his family history.
Not all my motives are altruistic, however. It’s gratifying to give someone what you wish you had received. It feels good to be important to someone. And in all honesty, when you work with clients like him, you are changed just as much in the process. I know it’s cliche to say that I get more out of it than they do, but it’s true.
Not coincidentally, he bears an eerie similarity to my first husband. It’s unfortunate that the compassion that helps me to be an effective therapist has not served me well in my romantic relationships.
I understand why. With my client, I can be there for him, but he doesn’t have to be there for me. Nor should he be. In a romantic relationship, it needs to be closer to 50/50. But when you are in a relationship with someone who has been traumatized, their needs always seem to trump yours.
Some people see the red flags right away and steer clear of these kinds of relationships. But to me, they look like those orange flags that the ground crew at airports wave to direct you to the gate. They are more like a signal to move in closer than a warning sign of imminent danger.
I haven’t yet figured out what to do with my empathy in red flag relationships. How do I ignore someone’s cries for help when every part of me tells me to go to them, comfort them, and help them feel better? Their pain is my pain, and I don’t want to be in pain.
One of the advantages of being alone is that there is finally room for me to register my own feelings. It turns out that I’m not as needy as I thought I was. But I wish I had someone who can do for me what I do for other people. Today, I wish I had someone to come home to so that I could tell him about my day. Blogging about it helps, but it’s not the same.
I am still hopeful that I can find a relationship where someone can be there for me. But for now, I’ll try to limit my rescue efforts to my clients, my family, my friends, and myself.
At the risk of sounding completely inconsolable, I have to admit, I don’t find most of the self-help articles on social media helpful.
Take, for example, the article 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself. I have no problem with the suggestions themselves, but I don’t like advice that begins with the word stop. In therapy, if after the first session I were to say “You’re problem is that you look exclusively to others for happiness. Stop doing that,” I’m not sure the person would come back.
Research supports the idea that stop statements are not helpful, because when you say something like “stop being idle,” you put the idea of being idle in the person’s head. If you’ve taken psychology classes, you’ve probably heard the example “don’t think about a pink elephant.” You probably weren’t thinking about one before, but you are now.
A lot of people do find advice like this helpful, and that’s great. Personally, it makes me feel more judged than inspired. I respond better to strategies that emphasize empathy and compassion, self-acceptance, and forgiveness. And I prefer suggestions that encourage me to be the best version of myself to admonitions for doing things wrong.
If I were to come up with a list like this, here’s how I would paraphrase their recommendations:
1., 13., 19., & 20. Spend time with people who bring out the best in you.
2. & 23. Have faith in yourself; it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.
3., 25., & 26. Commit to being honest with yourself and to others.
4., 21., & 27. Put your needs first. Period.
6. & 8. Practice forgiveness of yourself and others.
7., 23., & 29. Take risks, even if it means that you will fail.
9., 10., & 28. Happiness cannot be found out there in the future; it comes from within, in this moment.
11. & 12. You can move forward, even when you don’t feel ready.
14. Let people get to know you, even if it scares you.
5., 15., & 16. Make your standard of comparison the best version of yourself rather than someone else or some perfect ideal.
17. & 18. Negative experiences teach us lessons that we wouldn’t have chosen to learn on our own.
22. Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain.
27. Practice gratitude regularly, and thank the people who you are grateful for every chance you get.
It takes a lifetime to put these values into practice, so be patient, have faith, and be kind to yourself in the process.
I’m adding designer marbles to my doodle collection.
You know that expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions?” It’s probably slightly overstated, but I think it’s essentially true.
First of all, it’s not often that we have the intention of hurting other people. And when we do, we know we’re being bad. That’s why in an argument you want to think long and hard before you say something cruel, because it’s not going to work to say I didn’t mean that afterwards. You can’t take it back. Whether you meant it or not, your intentions weren’t good.
In my experience, most of the time when someone uses the good intentions excuse, they were just as concerned–if not more concerned–with seeming helpful. That’s why they get defensive rather than apologize.
I am no exception to this. Especially since I’ve dedicated my life to helping others. So you better be helped, damn it! And you better appreciate my help!
The other reason people say well-intended but unhelpful things is because they want you to stop hurting, but they don’t know how to make that happen. So they tell you to stop in ways that are sometimes downright hurtful.
Some of my personal favorites are I’m suffering more than you, in response to my first divorce. And well, at least you have 3 other kids, in response to my brother’s coma that resulted from falling out of the car when he was 4.
Some clients are aware of how offensive good intentions can be, so they ask for advice about what to say. I tell them to ask the person directly what they can do. Maybe the person won’t know in that moment, but they know they can ask you for help when they need it.
The other thing I tell them is to listen carefully to what the person has to say. This isn’t easy, because most of us aren’t very good at bearing witness to other people’s pain. So you have to practice by starting with yourself.
You know all those unhelpful things you say to yourself to try to feel better? You have to replace them with accepting, nonjudmental statements about how it’s OK that you’re upset. That it doesn’t have to make sense. That you don’t have to know the reason why. And that you will be by your side for as long as it takes until you start to feel better.
When we can be good to ourselves in this way, we will have more to offer than just good intentions.