Empathy and Privilege

I woke up on November 9th feeling a little bewildered, but not surprised. There were too many Trump yard signs in my blue state in the weeks leading up to the election for me to be surprised by the outcome. And with a little reflection, even the bewilderment lifted as I realized that this election outcome doesn’t change much for me. I’m white and heterosexual. I live in a blue state. I have a college education and although I don’t personally earn any money, my family’s income puts us firmly in the upper middle class. And as for the misogyny, that was no worse on November 9th than it was on November 8th. Today I can still live anywhere in the United States, just like I’ve always been able to. I can still use my passport and leave the country if I want to—and expect to be let back in—just like I’ve always been able to.

More than this, I’ve already been living my values, never as well as I’d like to, but always in that direction. I’ve been wary all along, watching my elected officials to see if they’re overstepping their authority and the powers granted them by the U.S. Constitution. This election doesn’t actually change that. It might end up giving me more to do, but it doesn’t change my level of alertness.

I also don’t believe that things would be all hunky-dory if Hillary Clinton had won. The hate and vitriol and violence, the ugly and dangerous expressions of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia had already been unleashed. It’s possible that it would have been as bad if Clinton had won. Perhaps it would have been even worse because of the backlash against that election outcome.

The challenge for me remains the same either way: To be aware of the oppression going on around me without making it about me. Because I retain all of the privilege I had before the ballots were cast. I will continue to challenge myself to be aware of inherent bias in my thoughts and behaviors just as I was before. I will continue to be ready to step in if I see violence or mistreatment of another person, just as I was—or fervently hoped I was—before. Read More

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.

Social Detoxing

Periodically, I read posts by friends and strangers about cutting “toxic” friends out of our lives or how to deal with “difficult” people. I envision people all over the world making lists—perhaps with the aid of smartphone apps—of the toxic friends and difficult people they need to avoid for their own mental wellbeing.

I’m pretty sure I’m on some of those lists.

I know I have to be on at least a few “toxic friends and difficult people” lists because many days, I make my own list of people I’d be best to avoid.

Because let’s face it: I can be really difficult.

Like, I don’t like talking on the phone so I do everything I can via e-mail, but my e-mails are always excessively long and include way more details, asides, and parentheticals than is conducive to conveying my meaning. That’s annoying. And sometimes passive-aggressive.

I’m also constantly optimistic that things will blow over without me needing to feel the discomfort of actual confrontation. I avoid conflict for so long that when I finally do say something, it’s like I’ve sprung the whole shebang on the unsuspecting person.

Another difficult thing about me is that I like having just one or two close friends, but I’m so socially inept that I end up clinging limpet-like to poor people who are just trying to be friendly. And because who knows when I’m going to move out of state again, I feel a need to make friends fast.  This sense of urgency just exacerbates this barnacling tendency.

But, contrarily, I’m suspicious of anyone who likes me too much. In high school, it was really bad. If someone expressed an interest in me—especially a romantic interest, but sometimes even just a close-friendship interest—I cut and run. I did my best to be invisible to that person hoping they would forget I existed. I’ve gotten better in the last twenty years, but that may be in part because it’s easier to be invisible as a stay-at-home mom so I don’t have to work as hard to disappear as I did when I was as a high school student .

And if someone does succeed in becoming my close friend, they get the reward of dealing with my fierce and inexplicable bad moods. I’ve tried to find a physical, emotional, or climatic cause for my days-long bad moods hoping to find a cure for them, but to no avail. I just sometimes, without warning, become a total jerk. I can see it happening, but I feel powerless to stop it.

And then there’s my flippant attitude about gifts. I know at least a couple of my friends have been hurt when they’ve given me a gift and then found it just a few months later at the thrift store. (Man, I really am a jerk…)

But I think that everyone’s toxic sometimes. (Maybe not the Dalai Lama. But everyone else.) Seeing the ways in which I’m toxic gives me a fair amount of empathy for other people who might be considered toxic. There are still people I avoid—people who are particularly creepy or consistently belligerent or holding firearms—but there are very few people I consider it necessary to avoid all the time.

Being around another person is not like being exposed to nuclear waste. Unlike with radioisotopes, with other people I can—to a point—control how much I’m affected by whatever vibes they’re radiating.

I think, maybe they’re just having a bad day. Maybe they’re feeling as awkward as I am and are overcompensating. Maybe there’s something really big going on for them that they aren’t talking about but that is coming through anyway. If all else fails, I think of them as the baby they once were; that’s almost sure to inspire gentle feelings in me and it helps remind me just how little power I need to let them have over me.

I’ve not met anyone who’s difficult all the time. They might always be difficult for me, but there’s always someone who loves them and whom they love.

Or maybe I just feel this way because it’s pragmatic. Most social interactions carry a much higher price than they do a pay-out for me, and although I need to find some way to not be a hermit, being on people’s toxic lists does help decrease the number of people with whom I need to interact. It saves me from making my own  toxic list.

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and especially for my spouse and children:

Empathetic Medicine

My daughter turned seven this past weekend. I wanted to post about her birthday, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. Thinking about my children’s birthdays is equivalent, for me, to thinking about their birth days. And my feelings about my daughter’s birth are still so complicated, it’s difficult to know what to say.

Then yesterday I was driving around without the kids in the car, a rare and precious thing in and of itself, and I heard a story on NPR about the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. In this optional program, medical residents read literature and write narratives from their patients’ perspectives to help them better understand where their patients are coming from. I really like the idea of fostering empathy in doctors, especially given the by-and-large un-empathetic treatment I’ve received from doctors.

One of the residents interviewed for the show talked about how she becomes so frustrated when a patient won’t accept her advice. She said that she was hoping that the class would help her to understand her patients better so she could better convince them that the advice she’s giving is the right advice for them.

That statement led me to thoughts about the interactions I had with doctors during my pregnancy and birth with my daughter and why it’s so difficult for me to feel heard by physicians.

My experiences with doctors during my first pregnancy and birth were rushed and filled with coercion and scare tactics, out-and-out misinformation and power struggles. I was experiencing a miracle, but they were experiencing a day at the office. I felt like an individual engaged in the incredible task of growing and nurturing a living human being, but the doctors saw me as a bundle of problems and potential problems that each had a clear-cut solution. I saw myself as the necessary part of a natural process, but the doctors saw me as an inconvenient interloper between them and the fetus in my belly.

My midwife, on the other hand, recognized and celebrated the miracle. When I went in to interview her, before I’d even decided for sure I wanted her to be my midwife, she offered to let me listen to my baby’s heartbeat on the doppler. With excitement and wonder in her voice and her eyes, she led me on an auditory tour of my belly. At the end of the visit, she hugged me and we celebrated this momentous occasion together. Contrast this with my first belly-listening session with my doctor, in which I got about ten seconds of the baby’s heartbeat before the doctor said she couldn’t stand the sound of that doppler and shut it off.

I had planned to have a home birth, but on the advice of my midwife, I had tandem care between my midwife and an OB, just in case we ended up at the hospital. I hated my OB. I hated the whole practice. As soon as I got my GBS test results back, I quit going. Even though it cost more, I preferred to go to my midwife for the last month of my prenatal care.

But I ended up at the hospital to give birth—pitocin, epidural, absence of informed consent, and all.

I’ve spent the past seven years trying to figure out how to frame that birth experience. There were so many very positive things about it, not the least of which were the healthy baby I birthed vaginally. There was the incredible L&D nurse who helped me maneuver the baby into a favorable presentation so that labor could finally progress. There was the opportunity to (gently) tell off my OB, who was intent upon performing a surgical delivery even when everything was finally moving along and baby and I were looking great. There was the power I felt as I pushed my baby out. There was the wonderful postpartum nurse who taught me how to co-sleep with my baby.

But there were so many other things that haunt me about my experience in the hospital and have left me with an anxious and pervasive sense of powerlessness and an almost pathological distrust of doctors and hospitals.

Let me be clear: I am not upset with myself for having an epidural or even for going to the hospital in the first place, even though I can think of things I could have done differently that might have kept me at home to birth. I am uncomfortable with the feeling of being funneled into a system in which the only options are the ones that someone else has pre-decided for me and in which I am irrelevant as an individual, thinking human being. It’s the objectification of my Self that I have so much trouble working past.

My primary memories of my daughter’s birth are fear, confusion, powerlessness, and loneliness. There were times when I didn’t know where my husband or any of my three doulas were. There were times I didn’t know where my baby was. I was stranded among strangers and unable to make myself understood.

I wonder if the residents in the Narrative Medicine program would be able to put themselves in my shoes and see why being treated with kindness, empathy, and compassion would have made so much difference. I wonder if they could understand that there is more than one way to reach a “healthy outcome” and that there isn’t one right answer to most of the questions that arise. I wonder if they would be able to recognize and share the miracle rather than taking it as their own.

That resident who wanted to understand her patients better so she could get them to accept her advice? She makes me doubt that any of this is possible.

If a doctor is listening only to try and get me to come around to her point of view, that’s not really empathy. On the contrary, it’s just another form of coercion. If a person—including a doctor—truly understood my perspective, she would accept that the choice she’s trying to make for me really isn’t the best choice for me. She would accept that I can make an informed decision that is contrary to her advice.

I had my second baby in a portable tub of water in my dining room. My primary memories of that birth are the feelings of profound connection between me and my body, my husband, my daughter, my son, and my sister, midwife, and doula who were also there. My midwife steadfastly refuses to take any credit for how well his birth went. She insists, rightly so, that her moms do all the work and she’s just privileged to be invited to a part of that miracle.

I so far haven’t met a doctor willing to step that far back. I know they must exist, but they seem to be a rare breed indeed.

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-My Son’s Birth Story, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3