The Power of Empathy

I was in an empathy practice group in California.

That totally sounds like something that would happen in California, doesn’t it? We sat around with our healing crystals, munching sprouted sunflower seeds and spirulina and practiced being empathetic with one another.

Not quite. There were two Burmese cats who would go from lap to lap for affection throughout the meeting, but raw foods and crystals rarely made an appearance. It is true, though, that we were all committed to the practice of Nonviolent Communication (now often called Compassionate Communication).

Each week, one person would tell about something that was bothering her, and the rest of us would go around the circle, taking turns listening deeply to what the person had to say, and reflecting back their needs and emotions.

No analysis, no judgment, no problem-solving, just reflecting feelings and needs. We said things like, “You feel sad because your need for connection wasn’t met,” or “You feel ecstatic because your needs for recognition and appreciation were met.” If we lapsed into analysis or sympathy, the facilitator brought us back to feelings and needs.

It sounds a little mechanical and a lot silly when I write it out like that, but it was incredibly powerful just to feel heard. It was way outside my comfort zone to interact like this, but I came back week after week because I felt entranced by the power of merely listening and reflecting.

I’ve tried to incorporate this kind of listening into my regular interactions, but it’s so hard not to slip into analysis or judgment (even judgment in favor of the person speaking) or “at least…” distancing language. Outside of the empathy group, the language of reflecting feelings and needs seems extra corny, so I’ve had to get creative. Most times I just let it be part of my internal process while I’m listening, but I’ve used the technique in discussions with friends and in group settings when discussions were getting heated.

Like when I was at a mothers meeting in which there was an escalating disagreement about how covered a woman should be if she’s nursing in public. One mom was voicing a dissenting opinion to that of the rest of the vocal part of the group. I could tell that she wasn’t feeling heard because she’d repeated the same point three or four times,  getting more and more visibly upset with each repetition. So, I went into empathetic listening mode, and just said, “It sounds like you feel very strongly about women covering up when they nurse in public.”

And that was it. The conversation proceeded, but that increasing heat was gone. Even though that was my purpose in saying it, I was shocked that it actually worked.

No matter how many times I’ve seen empathetic listening in action, it always astounds me how well it works, even when I’m the recipient of the empathy. Just this morning, I mentioned in an e-mail to a friend that I had been up much of the night with a vomiting child, and she said, “I know how exhausting it is to be up with a sick kiddo.”

And I started crying.

Just having someone be with me—even remotely—and reflect my unspoken feeling of exhaustion brought such a powerful feeling of relief. The tension of the previous night relaxed, and the tears just flowed with that relief.

I’ve not done as much intentionally empathetic listening lately as I used to. It takes so much energy and is so incredibly hard to step back and just reflect without adding anything else, without making the story about me, sharing what’s happened to me, offering my solutions and opinions. But I’m so glad that this friend reminded me of the power of empathy. I really must make a point of using it again because it works. Even outside of California.

Below is an animation of Brené Brown’s explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy. I don’t like that it pokes fun at people who, despite their good intentions, engage in practices that distance them from others rather than foster connection, but otherwise, it’s a pretty good explanation.

Amateur Parenting

I think my parents misrepresented adulthood. I grew up with the sense that adults knew things. Adults had answers. They not only understood the way the world worked, but they also possessed some level of power over the workings of that world. But as an adult myself, I find this not to be the case. With few exceptions, I see adults (including myself) just kind of flailing about, trying to make things work either by copying the ways we’ve seen it done before or by actively rejecting those lessons, not taking a conscious role in designing the world.

We adults are a bunch of amateurs, and that’s disappointing to me, especially when it comes to trying to figure out how to raise my kids and especially when there’s a particular childrearing issue that needs tackling. Like now.

My son’s three, and he’s begun hitting, punching, kicking, pushing, and head-butting. His sister is his primary target. When his sister was three, she went through the same stage, only she had no siblings so she had to beat up on the cats (our poor, patient cats). We tried many, many solutions (including ones that were not in line with our parenting philosophy) but never figured out an effective way to deal with her cat-injuring behaviors. Eventually I gave birth to her brother and she started beating up on him and we ended up seeing a child psychologist and her behavior improved and we had a blissful two years until her brother entered the same darned stage and we’re left scratching our heads about how to manage this yet again.

My spouse and I reject corporal punishment in raising our children, but spanking and yelling were both parts of our own childhoods, and I still have those scripts running through my head. When my son hits his sister, the first thing that comes to mind (after the panic that my toddler is hurting my daughter) frequently involves corporal punishment. I don’t want to spank so I yell (because I have some (admittedly illogical) sense that shock effect is important). And by the afternoon when he’s just injured his sister for the seventeenth time that day, I’ve worked myself into the thought that yelling isn’t enough so I need to YELL LOUDER because what else am I supposed to do?

And no, I don’t think that screaming at my three-year-old is a reasonable way to handle the situation. Not only does it leave me feeling like a big, awful bully, screaming at him doesn’t stop the behavior. It’s just what I come to when I feel utterly out of options.

So, I decided to try and give myself more options.

I re-skimmed several parenting books (Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelsen, Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson) and figured out a new plan to try. It feels a little touchy-feely to me, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, so I’m giving it a go.

When my son hurts his sister (or is about to, if I can catch him beforehand), we do four things:

1) Hit pause. I stop whatever I’m doing and hold him in my lap to gently restrain him to stop the behavior in the moment.

2) Talk about his feelings and needs. What was he feeling when he hit/punched/slapped/scratched? What need was he trying to meet?

3) Talk to my daughter about her feelings and needs. What did she feel when her brother hit/punched/slapped/scratched?

4) Discuss alternatives. How can my son meet his needs in a way that doesn’t hurt his sister?

My goals with this intervention:

1) Connect with my son. I don’t want him to feel alone with his Really Big Feelings.

2) Develop awareness and compassion. In all three of us, I hope.

3) Teach that there are alternatives to hurtful behavior. A lesson I’d like to internalize more thoroughly myself.

By focussing on feelings and needs—both his own and his sister’s—I hope my son will get into the habit of self-compassion and empathy. I’m convinced that people only hurt others if they themselves are suffering. By helping my children learn to identify their feelings and needs, I hope they will gradually learn to do so without my help and that they will be less likely to hurt others (and themselves).

I’ve been doing this for one full day. Already my children have changed how they speak to each other about my son’s hurtful behavior. The hitting hasn’t stopped, but I try to remind myself to be patient. It’s only been one full day and this is a major shift in how I’ve been handling this particular issue.

Why am I blogging about it? I know there must be other parents out there who are flying by the seat of their pants with a parenting style that’s not the one they inherited from their parents, and I guess I thought reading about someone else’s fumbling attempts to raise compassionate children might resonate with somebody. And heck…maybe I can get some ideas.

Do you have/did you have a hitting kid? How did you deal with the hitting, and did it work?

The Nature of Evil

I don’t believe in evil.

In my worldview, there is a force (one could call it “God”) pulling us towards love, compassion, and connection. In each moment each of us has the choice to either follow that pull or move away from it. The choices before us in each moment are dictated by every individual moment that came before. If we—or those around us—make a series of choices against that pull, our next moment may contain choices that seem barely loving at best.

For the vast majority of us, the decisions that came in the moments before do not lead us to walk into a school—or a mall or a movie theater or a political speech—and face the choice of whether to use the firearms we’ve brought with us or not, but even that moment of decision is the product of an infinite number of moments that came before.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday was tragic. It was incomprehensible. It was abhorrent to all feelings of love and human compassion. But was it evil? Is mental illness evil? Is owning a gun evil? Is suicide evil? Is killing another person evil? Is suicide or killing another person evil if it stops more people from dying, or in that moment could it be the most loving choice in the end of a series of very, very unloving choices? If something could be evil in one instance and loving in another, does it serve a purpose to label something either?

It seems to me, to call the murders evil is to dismiss them as something that just happened without hundreds of thousands of prior causes. To call Adam Lanza evil is to distance ourselves from him as a fellow human being and ignore the reality that a whole series of moments led him to that school Friday morning. We’re good, he’s evil, and there’s the division. It’s simple, but it doesn’t seem to explain things for me.

Trouble is, I can’t explain it without “evil,” either.

How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean not only the children who fell or the teachers who protected their classes when they heard the gunshots or the parents who approached the firehouse hoping that their children would be among those walking out, scared but whole? How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean Adam Lanza, too?

I don’t believe in evil. But I don’t know how to explain this.

Still More Grocery Store Lessons: Who Deserves Compassion?

I’ve written about my realization that feeling a sense of scarcity and like the world owes me something is a choice and that I can choose to feel differently. I’ve written about how much better showing compassion feels than feeling annoyed does. Now I come to the third thought that’s been percolating since my grocery store trip the other day:

Who deserves compassion? Read More

More Lessons in Compassion at the Grocery Store

I mentioned in yesterday’s post a recent trip to the grocery store, but I only told the middle of the story. Here’s how it began:

So, we’d managed to make it to the checkout line with only a few more items than were on the list and with me still on speaking terms with both of my children. I pushed my cart up to the conveyor belt as best I could and began unloading groceries. My son was enthusiastic about helping that day but is too short to reach into the cart with his three-year-old arms, so I would hand him an item and he would put it up on the belt while I rushed to put up five more items before he toddled back to the cart for something else.

I had just handed him a box of instant oatmeal and turned back to grab a few more things when I heard the man in the next line over say, “Oh, no,” in a grave voice. I turned to see my son sprawled on the floor holding his ear, the man bent over him saying, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.” Read More

Grocery Shopping: Lessons in Compassion

At the grocery store the other day, I was struggling to hold a crying three-year-old with one arm while using the other to put my groceries on the conveyor belt when I noticed that there was a man standing there impatient that I was holding up the line (and partially blocking the way to the adjacent line between my body and my child’s body and my cart). I felt irritated that he didn’t even ask me outright to move, much less offer to speed things up by helping me with those last few items. He just stood there with obvious impatience. In my annoyance, I imagined that the man saw me as just a stranger holding up the line because she can’t handle the kids she probably shouldn’t have had in the first place.

Then it dawned on me: I don’t have to feel this way. Read More

Self-Compassion: How Thinking About Bad Experiences Can Make You Happier and More Compassionate

Welcome to the March Mindful Mama Carnival: Mindful Mama Challenge

This post was written for inclusion in the Mindful Mama Carnival hosted by Becoming Crunchy and TouchstoneZ. This month our participants have challenges they’ve set for themselves toward becoming more mindful. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


There was a show on NPR a few months ago about an anonymous person who left $100 at a coffee shop and said that it was to cover coffee and treats for anyone who came in after her for however long it lasted. The owner of the coffee shop talked about the positive effects of this generous act, including how it’s inspired other customers to do the same thing. The owner suggested that if we practice random acts of kindness, like paying for someone’s tank of gas as well as our own next time we’re at the pump, we can increase the overall level of compassion in the world.

My first thought: Wow. What a great idea!

My second thought: But wait…what if the person in the car you just filled with gas is a murderer and needed a full tank of gas to carry out his plans? Or what if he’s getting ready to kidnap his child? How do I know I’m helping the right person?

I often let this kind of fear prevent me from compassionate action. I have identified three categories of reaction that keep me from generosity:

1) Fear of helping the wrong person. This is the one I described above. Along with this is a fear of being taken advantage of. I don’t think this is an unrealistic fear. I mean, Elizabeth Smart’s parents tried to help out a fellow who was down on his luck, and look what happened to their family.

2) Fear of negative judgment from the person I’m helping. Usually what I imagine they’d say is, “What a weirdo!” or “How dare she presume to know what I need!” or, along similar lines, “This [whatever item I’ve given to them] isn’t useful to me at all. What a pain in the butt that I have to get rid of this thing I don’t want on top of everything else I’m dealing with!”

3) A sense of scarcity. “What if I give too much and don’t have enough left for my own needs?” This is the one that comes up most often when I’m trying to decide how much money to pledge to my church, but I also get it when I think about volunteering my time. What if I make a commitment and then find it’s too much to give?

And then when I let these fears keep me from compassionate action, I feel ashamed and guilty, which, I’ve found, doesn’t inspire greater compassion. Apparently this is consistent with what a number of scientists have found, too (not with me, but with other people, but I assume the results could be extrapolated to me).

When I did my yoga teacher training, one of my instructors was Kelly McGonigal. At the time, she was finishing up her Ph.D. Since then she’s been very busy. She’s been pretty hot lately on NPR and on the Today Show and various other places for her book about willpower (The Willpower Instinct) and for her book about yoga and chronic pain (Yoga for Pain Relief). At the time, she struck me as a very self-confident yet compassionate person. Her yoga practice was beautiful and seemingly effortless. And she cut her own hair, which is, to me, the pinnacle of self-assuredness and not being afraid of what others think. I found her fascinating, but I also felt intimidated by her confidence in herself. She’s one of those people who inspire a recording of Wayne and Garth saying, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” to start playing in my head. But then, I felt pretty much out of my league during the entirety of the teacher training.

At any rate, I’ve been checking out Kelly’s blog and her interviews off and on since she started appearing on the national stage, and I recently watched a video on her blog about the benefits of self-compassion. If you want to check it out, you can find it HERE. It’s thirteen minutes long, and the sound is a little echo-y, but it’s well worth the time.

One of the things that she said particularly struck me. She said that lack of self-compassion is associated with a fear of being compassionate to others. Specifically, people who were lacking in self-compassion were more likely to agree with the statement, “People will take advantage of me if I’m too compassionate.”

Hmm. Yes, that sounds somewhat familiar.

People lacking in self-compassion were also more likely to engage in negative self-criticism and unhealthy perfectionism, and to experience shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression.

Yes, [clears throat] also somewhat familiar.

McGonigal then briefly outlined a practice that was used in self-compassion studies and which appears to correlate with positive outcomes, including reduced procrastination, reduced anger, better resilience after a setback, and increased happiness compared to a daily practice of self-criticism and guilt.

I could really get into these kinds of positive outcomes.

I admit, self-compassion seems really, really corny to me. But I’m at an age where I’m starting to realize that if I don’t get moving on making changes and accomplishing great (-ish) things, I’m not going to have the chance to do that kind of thing, at least not in this lifetime. So, I’m going to give this self-compassion thing a try.

As part of the Mindful Mama Blog Carnival, I’m going to do the self-compassion daily journaling practice McGonigal describes in her presentation every day for one week. Basically, I’ll journal (not blog…journal. I’m not doing this self-compassion thing in public!) each evening about the most difficult event of my day with a focus towards writing down words of empathy and compassion for myself, rather than the usual “You dweeb. Why can’t you ever do [X] right?”

And I’ll let you all know how I do.

If you’d like to give it a try, too, please take a look at Kelly’s video (linked above a couple of times). I would love to know how it goes for you, so please leave your feedback in the comments section or blog about it and leave a comment with the link to your post.


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Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

[Insert Awesome Post Here]

This was going to be a really awesome post I’ve been planning since Sunday. But when I sat down to write it tonight, I couldn’t figure out what my point was and worried that I was just meandering and complaining and perhaps even insulting some people unintentionally.

I was certain that I was going to link to this post on “Live Your Bliss” (entitled “When ‘Paying it Forward’ Really Matters”). That is an awesome post, and I had something really profound to say about it that worked in This American Life and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Oddly, when I sat down at the laptop tonight, the post didn’t really come together like I thought it would when I mentally drafted it in the shower this evening.

But here’s basically what I was trying to get at:

The “Live Your Bliss” post helped me realize that, while online connections and keeping in touch with geographically distant friends won’t help me feel connected to my local community (and won’t give me someone to have tea with on occasion), I can use my long-distance connections as inspiration for relationship-building, compassionate action in my everyday life.

I might not be able to take a meal to a sick friend in Utah, but I can take food to a neighbor here.

I can’t give a friend a ride to SFO, but I can drive a recent immigrant to the grocery store.

I can’t drive my mom (who lives 11 hours away by car) to her post-surgery doctor appointments or clean her house for her while she’s recovering, but I can nag my younger sister and brother to do more for her.

Okay, that last one wasn’t really a good example. But I’m confident that I’ll improve with practice.

And I might just have a stronger local community when all’s said and done.

How Not to Pray for Me

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...
Image via Wikipedia

During a weekly Skyping session with my in-laws, we were discussing my husband’s job search. My mother-in-law said that she was praying for us.

“I’m praying to God, though, not to Buddha. Sorry!” she said.

I want to say that I love my mother-in-law. She’s one of the nicest, warmest women I’ve ever known and while it’s trite to say so, I feel grateful all of the time that she’s my mother-in-law. I also recognize that my religious exploration is a little confusing to her (or perhaps just unsettling given that, for her, the stakes are so high…we’re dealing with her grandchildren’s immortal souls, after all).

I ended up smiling and saying nothing because I really didn’t know what to say. I mean, in Buddhism, God isn’t really an issue.

From the Buddhist perspective, an anthropomorphic god isn’t something that can be proven to exist and neither can it be proven not to exist. As a result, their basic response to the question of God is, “no comment.” Buddhism is about living our lives with compassion, using the teachings of Buddha and other teachers to help us with the struggles that go along with feeling compassionate towards ourselves and others, especially those with whom we disagree or even those who mean us harm. Buddhists don’t pray to Buddha (at least not any Buddhists I’ve met). Some chant the sutras (the teachings), some meditate, but I’ve not met any Buddhists who pray, per se. And certainly none who pray for something. “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a new pair of shoes,” is not something you’d hear from a Buddhist. Buddhism is a personal path towards compassion. The other stuff doesn’t really come into play. Buddhists also have no trouble with people being some other faith in addition to being Buddhist. You can be a Christian Buddhist or an Atheist Buddhist or a Jewish Buddhist, except that that one’s really hard to say fast.

Even though I don’t pray, I really appreciate when people I care about say they’re praying for me. I respect the sentiment behind it when people say they’re praying for me. I translate that into, “I care about you, and I want you to feel the good feelings I have for you.” My mother-in-law saying she’s praying for us is an expression of her love and compassion for my family. I heartily accept that love.

An example of a situation in which I have trouble with a person saying they’re praying for me happened today.

A friend is in Prague for a month with her two children and is blogging about their experiences homeschooling in a foreign country. I really enjoy reading her insights, both about the homeschooling bits and about the differences between living in Utah and living in Prague (there are a few, it turns out). In one of her posts this week, she described the difficulty she had explaining the graphic depiction of the Stations of the Cross in one of the churches they visited.

“I have tried to shelter the kids from the brutality of the end of Jesus’ life, but alas the Catholics hold nothing back,” she wrote.

I am also friends with her on Facebook, and soon after her post there were comments on her link from two friends of hers talking about how important it was for children to see the brutality of the crucifixion because that’s their only path to salvation. I, wanting to empathize with my friend’s position, commented that my daughter is very sensitive to brutality unless it’s part of the predator-prey relationship, and recognized that a lot of religious imagery wouldn’t be age-appropriate for her sensitive nature, and that it’s intense sometimes even for adults. One of the commenters replied and asked how my daughter would feel if she were the prey. Then she asked me about my relationship with Jesus.

She quoted the book of John to me and suggested that if I “can find a bible,” I might feel differently about things.

If I can find a bible? I have five different versions of the bible on my bookshelf, in addition to the Tao Te Ching and writings on Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. I graduated undergrad with a minor in Religion. I may lack faith, but I know about religion, and I love talking about it, especially with people of faith (way more interesting than talking to atheists about it, in my experience). I was the kid in college who invited the Mormon missionaries in to discuss scripture. Two of my closest friends have minister/priest husbands (nondenominational Christian and Russian Orthodox). And hello? I live in Utah, where one can’t escape religion even if they try (and I don’t try).

With as much self-control as I could muster, I pointed out that she knows nothing about me and that disagreeing with her was not the same thing as ignorance of her position.

She offered to tell me about how Jesus has changed her life, and then she said she would pray for me.

That kind of praying from a stranger who’s just trying to win an argument with me is the kind that I find offensive. Pray for me because you know me and care about me and want me to have the strength to handle the adversities of life. Don’t pray for me because I disagree with you. Pray for yourself that you can have compassion dealing with people who disagree with your deepest convictions. That’s what I do when I meditate.

Just Deserts

Do I deserve this?

I’ve not been following the not-crazy diet very well the past couple of weeks. When presented with a cupcake or a martini, I think, “I’ve worked hard. I’m stressed out. I deserve this,” and scarf it down.

Others in my life seem also to have internalized this idea that we either deserve or don’t deserve certain things. The day I started the not-crazy diet was the day my husband was laid off. Friends suggested that I postpone the diet a day, that because of our situation, I deserved a cupcake or a cocktail.

Thing is, I feel like crap when I eat sugar or drink alcohol. I enjoy myself (a lot) while I’m consuming the treats, but then I feel surly and bloated. I get a headache and cold sweats and end up feeling worse emotionally than I did before.

So if I say I deserve a cupcake or a cocktail, I’m kind of saying that I deserve to feel like crap. That’s rather an unpleasant thought, although the possibility that I make choices based on self-loathing has crossed my mind. And who knows? Maybe I do deserve to feel like crap. If it’s possible I deserve a treat, it’s just as possible that I deserve to feel awful.

Who decides what we deserve and what we don’t? When I was a kid, they had that “You deserve a break today at McDonald’s!” ad campaign. Where does this idea come from, that if we work hard or are feeling stressed we deserve some kind of treat that won’t actually help our basic stressful or overworked situation at all and will just add more stress when we see our food bill or the reading on the scale or our cholesterol level?

Doesn’t this imply that if we’re feeling good and happy with our lives, we don’t deserve a treat?

And then you have programs like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, in which people who are down-and-out send in videos about themselves (or friends and family send in videos about them) telling their sad tale and why it is they deserve to have a house built for them. What does one do to deserve an enormous brand-new home that’s built for and revealed on national television? Does this mean that someone who’s down and out but rents their home doesn’t deserve a new house?

It all comes back to the idea of punishments and rewards. If we do the right thing, we deserve a reward. If we do the wrong thing, we deserve to be punished. My parents made a concerted effort to not attach rewards or punishments to food, but they certainly used that model (as most parents do) with the rest of us kids’ lives. I think what that translates to for me as an adult is that if good things happen to me, I must have been good, and if bad things happen to me, I must have been bad. To avoid the feeling that I’m a bad person, I tell myself that I deserve the cupcake or the cocktail or the new pair of shoes.

In reality, “deserve” doesn’t even enter into it. Do I want a cupcake? How will I feel when I eat the cupcake? If I’ll feel bad, is it still worth it to eat the cupcake? I don’t get a cupcake because I’m good, and don’t not get a cupcake because I’m bad. I get one or not because I’ve made the choice to eat one or not. I don’t have a headache because I’m bad, I have it because of the spike in my blood sugar brought on by the cupcake. I could have prevented the headache had I avoided the cupcake, but that doesn’t mean I was bad for eating it.

The lessons of childhood and of our culture are so pervasive I can’t even eat a meal or spend an afternoon in the sun without judging myself worthy or unworthy. Do I deserve to feel good? Do I deserve to be happy? If I’m not happy; what am I doing wrong? How can I be a better person so I’m happy all the time? How can I be happy all the time so I feel like a better person?

I think the answer is to replace “just deserts” with compassion.

If we can love others especially when they’re doing “wrong,” maybe we can learn to love ourselves even when we’re bad. Punishing ourselves doesn’t make us better people. Punishing others doesn’t make them better people. Loving ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t want to make changes in our lives. Loving someone doesn’t mean we agree with them or even let them continue what they’re doing, if it’s harmful.

And rejoicing at the misfortune of our sisters and brothers, even if they’ve wronged us, makes none of us feel better, not in the long run.

The only thing anyone—friend, stranger, or enemy—deserves is compassion.

It is not because that person is of the same religion or has the same color skin as we do that we love them. It is not because a person loves us that we love them. We love our brothers and sisters because they are suffering and need our love. It is as simple as that.

-Thich Nhat Hanh