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?

Week 41 Review: Simmering

This week I’ve been thinking about how external circumstances affect my mood. I’ve noticed that I go through my day wondering if this will make me happy or if that will make me happy.

Then I catch myself and remind myself of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication in which he posits that nothing can “make” us feel one way or another. Rather, we choose how we’re going to react to different situations. (I go into this in more detail in one of my early posts.)

So I revise my self-talk: what action will best set the stage for happiness?

Which is sort of a cop out because it’s essentially the same question as “Will this make me happy?”

The question that’s been simmering away on the back of my mental stove is, “How do I disconnect my mood from my external circumstances?” I don’t want to be a slave to whatever happens to be going on in my day. I don’t want to blame my kids when I feel angry. I don’t want to feel anxious and irritable just because I’ve had a religious discussion with someone on Facebook. I don’t want to be surly and pouty when we’re driving across Nebraska in a rented minivan next week.

I realize that I already know how to divorce my emotions from my external circumstances: mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the person on whose work the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class I’m taking is based, talks about how suffering results when we wish reality was different from what it is. This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to change our reality, just that we learn how to accept the way things are in each moment. Railing against pain only makes it worse.

I knew this even before I started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class. The trouble isn’t that I don’t know what to do; it’s that I don’t want to do it. Mindfulness is boring. And it’s slow. And it requires me to stop ruminating on negative things, stop poking that bruise. It requires me to realize just how much I depend on feeling anxious and depressed and how I perpetuate those feelings because they’re so familiar. It’s what I know. Not only is mindfulness is a big unknown, but it threatens to take away that old familiar pain. And where would that leave me?

The reason I turn away from mindfulness is that I know it works. And I’m not sure I’m ready to give up the comfort of that pain.

(Zoie from TouchstoneZ describes her difficult path out of depression in her magnificent post Unraveling What I’ve Knit Together. She makes a similar point to mine with more eloquence than I do here.)

Ebb and Flow

Last week, I wrote about “flow,” the feeling of ease and contentment that comes when one is engaged in an activity in which there is a balance between challenge and skill. While experiencing flow, a person loses track of time.

I think what I’ve been feeling for this week could be called, “ebb.” Things feel effortful, halting. Time is not flying.

Renee commented the other day, “is our life just a bunch of happy or unhappy moments? does this all collectively make us happy or not?”

It seems logical that lots of little happy things would coalesce into an overall state of happiness and result in a Happy Person. But whether I’m happy or not doesn’t seem to be linked all that closely with what’s going on in my external environment. The same things that made me smile yesterday don’t make me smile today, and something that irritated the heck out of me yesterday doesn’t bother me today. This would suggest that the origin of my happiness (or lack thereof) is internal, someplace not touched by the things going on outside.

This is rather disheartening, because the inside stuff is so hard to change, but it’s not a new idea. Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication, talks about how we often say something “makes us feel” one way or another. He encourages people to change their phrasing and to say instead, “When X happens, I feel Y.” This, he says, helps us take personal responsibility for our emotions and gives us a sense of control over them. He notes that the same event, when experienced by two different people, can elicit two very different emotional responses. How then could that event have “made” either of them feel the way they did? The event wasn’t the origin of the emotion, but rather the emotion originated within the person and the event was just a catalyst.

While I appreciate the semantic distinction, I don’t find it terribly helpful in determining what course of action to take to feel happier. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to think that, no matter my life circumstances, I have the ability to feel happy. On the other hand, it’s not so much fun to know that, no matter my life circumstances, I have the ability to feel unhappy.

According to Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss, even the experts in the study of happiness have trouble determining which circumstances lead to happiness. There are apparently many contradictions when they look at the origins of happiness. Another argument in favor of the “happiness comes from within” hypothesis.

*sigh* Just my luck. At least I know that, in the fullness of time, this “ebb” will move back into “flow” whether I figure out how to make it happen or not.

August: Thoughts About “Mindfulness Month”

I am so glad that I started this project with mindfulness. Making a practice of bringing awareness to the moments that make up my day is a great foundation for the rest of the project.

I started the month with three resolutions:

  • Daily Emotions Log
  • Be Aware of Judgmental Thoughts
  • Breathe

Within the first two weeks, I abandoned the daily emotions log. Instead, I brought awareness to my emotional state and recognized the needs that were being met or not, but I didn’t write them down. It could have been useful data as I fine tune my resolutions for the upcoming months, but it just wasn’t happening. I decided that the awareness part was more important than the data collection part.

The overall effect of practicing these resolutions has been that my mind feels calmer. The little hamster that’s usually racing away in my head is much more chill. And he uses much less foul language. I have more patience with my children, with my husband, and with inconvenient situations in general. I definitely want to keep up these practices in the coming months in addition to my new resolutions.

I’ve had several challenges that have given me extra practice using my new skills of breathing and awareness. The dishwasher broke down, and I got to practice mindfulness while my hands were in a sink of soapy water several times a day. Then it took three visits from the installer guy and the removal of several floor tiles to finally install the new dishwasher. My daughter and then my son developed separation anxiety and for a period of time wouldn’t let me leave them with the babysitter. Breathing and awareness helped me make it through these challenges with much more grace and gratitude than I normally exhibit under duress.

I’ve also done some great reading this month and gotten some great support and suggestions from people reading my blog. I’ve read portions of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living and The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. I’ve read part of Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh and re-read portions of Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I’ve also discovered several blogs, both by friends and by people I’ve never met, that I enjoy and that give me food for thought. And most recently, I’ve read portions of the Bible and added several more books to my to-read list as a result of suggestions from friends. As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading, and I love incorporating other perspectives into mine.

In the future, I hope not only to be aware of judgmental thinking, but to transform it into empathy and compassion. I feel disappointed that I’m not more compassionate. I take small comfort in the knowledge that I’m even more judgmental with myself than I am with others. I realize that this lack of compassion with myself is probably the largest barrier to my having compassion for others. I’m working on it and trying to be gentle with myself when I fall short of where I’d like to be.

I remain surprised at how intense my mindfulness practice has been this month. I feel such profound changes as I struggle to be aware of my thoughts and emotions. I’m looking forward to seeing where my project will take me, even as I’m feeling a little anxious about the challenges that I’m certain await me.

Emotions Log: Getting to the Root of the Problem

I’ve been having some trouble getting myself to complete my emotions log. This doesn’t really surprise me. I’m not a fan of recognizing my emotions, much less recording them for a rather abstract purpose. I also have trouble remembering to write my emotions down when I actually take notice of them. I’ve been putting them in my day planner, but that thing doesn’t ever seem to stay in one place.

Through this thought process, I identified three main issues that are keeping me from logging my emotions:

  1. I don’t like noticing my emotions because I don’t feel very adept at it.
  2. I lack motivation to record my emotions because the purpose behind doing so isn’t clear to me (even though I made up the resolution).
  3. I can’t keep track of my day planner, in which I’ve planned to record my emotions.

I decided to tackle the middle issue first in the hopes that a clearer purpose would help bring me closer to tackling the other issues. As luck would have it, the person to whom I apparently loaned Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg brought it back just the other day. This was lucky not only because this book has proven incredibly useful in this current endeavor, but because I couldn’t remember who I’d loaned it to or, indeed, if I’d actually loaned it (I thought perhaps I’d never owned it in the first place and just thought I had).

A brief glance through the book reminded me of the wealth of information included in this short text. Further reading helped me realize that my three resolutions for August actually fit together remarkably well.

Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication (NVC) is intended to connect individuals on a human-to-human level by helping us to recognize our feelings and the needs behind them and to communicate with others based upon this empathic connection. In order to empathize with others, we must recognize their feelings and needs. In order to recognize others’ feelings and needs, we must first give ourselves empathy by recognizing our own feelings and needs. Turns out, the emotions log hits the very first step on the path to empathic communication.

In addition, Rosenberg identifies three main types of communication that block compassion, one of which is “moralistic judgments.” There’s my second mindfulness resolution, be aware of my judgmental thoughts. So now, with two resolutions, I’ve got one that takes me the first step towards compassionate communication, and another that helps remove a barrier to compassionate communication. The third resolution, breathe, is imperative to having the clarity necessary to do either of these things. I love it when I accidentally put things together in a logical fashion.

With the purpose portion squared away, I chose to tackle the feeling of ineptitude I have around identifying emotions. Rosenberg recognizes that many of us have become cut off from what we’re actually feeling. We tend to avoid taking personal responsibility for our emotions at all, using phrases like, “X makes me feel…” We also mistake thoughts for feelings. Rosenberg explains that a feeling is expressed with the formula, “I feel X.” Any time we say, “I feel like X,” it’s an indication that we’re expressing a thought rather than an emotion. With this means of communicating and understanding our emotions so ingrained in our culture, it’s no wonder most of us are pretty rusty at recognizing what we actually feel. The solution is to practice. The book includes a list of basic emotions we all have so when we’re stumped as to what we’re feeling, we can look down the list trying on different emotions until we find one that fits.

In addition, Rosenberg contends that every emotion is the result of a met or unmet need. Once we identify an emotion, we then identify the need that is behind that emotion, which will then help us to identify the changes we might make to meet our needs in the future. Again, this can be a challenge, and practice is the ticket to improving our skills at recognizing our needs. Rosenberg includes a helpful list of basic universal needs for our reference, too.

With this reminder, I decided that I could make my emotions log more relevant by not only identifying the situation and the feelings, but also the need that is met or unmet in that moment. This would give me potentially valuable insight into what situations lead to what feelings, as well as give me practice in recognizing my feelings and giving myself empathy several times a day. I could be wrong, but this seems like it could be a great way to feel happier.

So, that just leaves the problem of my wandering day planner. For the purposes of recording my feelings and needs, I would like something small, easy to use, and that I carry or would carry with me everywhere. Looking about, I discovered a voice memo function on my phone. I set up a quick link to that function and tested it out to make sure I knew how to use it. I only have 72 seconds of memory, but I think that should be enough if I make a practice of transcribing the voice memos to my day planner at the end of each day. I think I may also keep a small memo pad in my diaper bag, which I take nearly everywhere, so that if I’m in a situation where I want to record something but don’t want to speak out loud, I have that option, too.

And there you have it: the thought process that led me to use my phone as a voice recorder. Next time: addressing the problem of forgetting to charge my phone.