Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Love, Sympathy, Empathy and Drowning Victims

This morning, my sinuses feel like I'm coming down with a cold.  I didn't get a lot of sleep last night because I kept hearing my cats make noise all over my house.  The only problem with that?  My cats both stayed at the vet last night.

Which of course means I'm missing my kitties because I haven't seen them in two days.  I'm sitting here at work when I'd rather be curled up in my bed drinking hot tea or chicken noodle soup.

Do you feel sorry for me?  Sympathetic?

But at least I'm inside where it is warm and dry rather than working outside in the snow or rain.

But at least my kitties are both actually still living and simply had to stay at the vet overnight due to some construction at my house.

Those sinuses?  Probably not a cold, but just the day after breathing in a bit too much dust from my house  ....   where I am having my kitchen and bathroom rebuilt.

Still have sympathy for me?

This morning I watched an excellent video about empathy and sympathy on Facebook.  I highly recommend it.  The Power of Empathy!  It really caught my attention because only last night I was emailing my therapist and telling him I felt I needed to be a bit less empathetic.

The first time I ever really considered the difference between empathy and sympathy was when I was reading a self-help book I found at a thrift store.  It was called Know Your People and had been published by some church.  (Sorry, I don't remember which one.)  The premise was if you can understand other people's behaviors, you can populate your world with people who help you rather than hurt you.  The only takeaway I had from the book was a little story about a man whose wife sympathized with him.  The man had always wanted to be a writer.  In terms of actually writing and getting the work done, he was a writer, but he had never been published.  By the time he married, he had an entire shoebox of rejection letters.  His wife watched him write.  She knew about his shoebox and when he received his first "Sorry we're not interested at this time" after their wedding, she put her arms around him and said,

"I'm sorry, honey.  Here you put all that work into your book and no one appreciated it.  Maybe you should just take a break from writing for awhile."

The man never wrote again.  The story really caught my attention because I have always wanted to be a writer and, like the man and woman, I have mistaken sympathy for love.  As a matter of fact, I have only been married once, to a man who was not a bad guy, but who simply didn't live by the same rules as I did.  I lived through story after story where, rather than do what I would have considered the polite and loving thing, he did the thing I found the most inconsiderate and rude.  Like any ego-blocked emotionally immature 24-year-old, I simply told him how he should have behaved and kept moving forward.  Then, after spending the night at his condominium, I woke up feeling much as I do today.  He tucked me in with a blanket on his couch and turned on his television.  Before he left for work, he checked my temperature by touching my neck or my brow and gave me a kiss goodbye.  I was delighted, thinking I had finally seen an unmistakeable sign that he loved me.

There is so much wrong with my way of thinking then that I almost don't know where to begin to unravel it for you.  First, I should have been looking a lot more at whether or not I loved him than whether he loved me.  (Early in the relationship, my empathy for him and his childhood generally ruled the day on that front.  He had a handful of embarrassing stories and hurt feelings and since I had a fistful of my own, I felt for him.)  Second, I should have given a lot more weight to the incompatibility of our style of loving.  It is hard to live a joyful, happy life when you are always correcting someone as to how they should treat you and it is just as difficult when someone is always correcting you.  Truly loving someone means accepting him or her as is, without expecting them to get it after awhile.  It means not looking for where your partner will let you down or offend you.  It doesn't mean simply allowing a person to treat you badly.  The first person you need to love is yourself.  Do that and you will naturally attract a partner who loves him/herself and neither of you will be trying to fill an empty love bucket that can't ever quite be filled.

Sympathy kills dreams and keeps a person a victim.  When we are victims, we've always been cheated in some way.  We never have enough and, like one of Pavlov's dogs, we become trained to ring the poor me bell to get those drops of sympathetic attention.

What if the man's wife had had similar dreams to his?  What if she had years of rejection letters herself for photography or painting.  Of course, it depends on why the man wanted to be a writer.  If he simply wanted to see his name on a book, perhaps it isn't such a bad thing that he stopped.  But if writing was something that made him feel alive, something for which he had a true passion, wouldn't a response that encouraged him to continue working on his dream been more loving?

"I'm sorry honey.  I know you must be disappointed.  I've been there myself.  Remember, Harry Potter wasn't accepted at the first publishing house J.K. Rowling submitted it to."

Wait a minute.  Here I am advocating empathy over sympathy, but at the beginning of this blog entry, I said I had told my therapist I felt I needed to be less empathetic.  How does that work?

I believe that every person has a story.  Each and every one of us has these fragile little moments where we were hurt or afraid.  Let me give you an example.  I used to go camping up on the Mattole River with a bunch of acquaintances.  I only knew one or two of the people there, so I spent most of my time hiding behind a video camera documenting the event.  There were two large rocks that made for natural diving boards and one year I filmed a young girl who climbed up to the highest rock only to find herself a bit hesitant to jump in.  I filmed her relentlessly, thinking what a wonderful film I would have of her overcoming her fear.  Except she never did.  After a half hour or so, I turned off the camera, realizing I had actually documented her failure and moment of succumbing to fear.  I felt horrible.  Instead of having a triumphant video to give her parents, I had a moment, perhaps beautiful in its fragility, but documenting a person's fear and weakness.   Now I stopped going to those camping parties, so for all I know the girl jumped off the rock the very next year.  At the time though, it felt like someone had placed a heavy thumb on my chest because, while witnessing her turn and slowly descend back down the rocks without jumping, I could remember all the times I had done something similar.  I could recall and revisit just how I felt letting my actions be guided by fear.

I need to empathize less because it is a tool I usually bring out to understand someone who I believe is hurting.  I never see someone who is ecstatically happy and try to touch the place inside me that felt the same.  I dig into my worst moments to understand other people's behavior.  Hurt people have a tendency to hurt people.  I am the sort of person who believes that my best chance at protecting myself, as well as being any sort of benefit to that hurt person, is by empathizing and understanding.  At the same time, there are people who have been hurt far more than simply being afraid to jump off a rock.  Being able to empathize while also shielding yourself from taking on that pain is like developing a muscle.  It takes time and there will be days where you can hurt yourself with the weight.  Like an inexperienced lifeguard, I could be swept away myself.  But even that isn't actually the reason.  In my coaching lessons, I've been taught to distinguish between potential clients who are "interested" in the material and those who are "truly committed" to making a change in their life.  As I told my therapist, some people are like open dirty sores and they have no intention of cleaning them.  Understanding and empathizing involves taking on a bit of that pain, if only for a moment.  What I've learned is it is better to limit myself to those who have willing stepped into the lifeboat.  It is the more loving path for both of us.  For them, because I am accepting them as they are and not expecting them to change and for me because I have more gifts to give than simply swallowing and understanding another human being's pain.

Finally in the words of my therapist, "there is something wrong when you are working harder than your client."  In contrast to drowning victims,  no one really saves anyone else from their emotional battles.  We all save ourselves.  When you keep fighting the good fight for someone who isn't fighting for himself, you are actually being dishonest, like telling someone who is standing upright at the shallow end of the pool,

"Look at you!  You're swimming!"

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