The healing power of empathy| 10.26.2022
In this episode, Kristen talks about how to cultivate compassion and empathy and why empathy is essential in healing.
- What empathy really means
- What are the ways we can offer empathy to ourselves and others
- Why boundaries are so important when offering empathy
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Welcome to the Close the Chapter podcast. I am Kristen Boice a licenced Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice Pathways to Healing Counseling. Through conversations, education, strategies and shared stories, we will be closing the chapter on all the thoughts, feelings, people and circumstances that don't serve you anymore. And open that door to possibilities and the real you. You won't want to miss an episode, so be sure to subscribe.
Welcome to this week's Close the Chapter podcast. It is such an honour to have you here with me listening to this episode on cultivating compassion and empathy. In my opinion, it's one of the most essential skills and embodiment of love and grace that we can offer to ourselves and other people. It is the pathway to healing, it is essential to healing. I am convinced working in my own life. And with meeting people and their deepest pain, grief, loss and suffering and hurt. That is the most important element to create safe connection is true empathy. And part of how we cultivate empathy is by doing our own work. So what I encourage you to do today, if you have not gotten the free journal, I encourage you to do that right now. You can go to Kristen k, r i s t e n, d Boice boice.com, forward slash free resources and emailed to your inbox and start using it. Start doing your own work to open up a space inside you to be able to access empathy freely with curiosity. And with an open mind, it will change your life, I promise you if you do what we're going to talk about today. And I know that sounds so grandiose, it is the most important element in my life. Now I'm not saying to not have boundaries, you can still have empathy and have boundaries. As a matter of fact, I can't have empathy without boundaries, an essential component to creating healthy connection with other people boundaries, what's okay what's not, okay, if someone isn't able to offer that or really see you, then you can still offer empathy in a different way.
So what I encourage you today is to get Pen Paper, take notes, really look within to expand yourself. If you get something out of this episode, I would love for you to post on Instagram, or Facebook, at Kristen D Boice. You have to have the D in the middle. You can tag me on examples of empathy in your life or sharing stories, either you can just write it out and share it of how people have offered empathy to you, and how it's changed your life. So the first thing I want you to notice is Have you had a situation where you were heartbroken, you felt broken open, you didn't know how you're gonna get through the pain, you didn't know how you will get on the other side of feeling better. And someone offered you empathy. And it was like a bomb. It was like soothing ointment on the wound that cuts so deep. They didn't try to fix it. They didn't try to problem solve it. They didn't try to quote unquote, make you feel better. They had no agenda, no judgement, just an open heart where they listened. Attunement means I could look in your eyes, I'm noticing your body language, I'm looking at your breath. I am not projecting my own shame story, my own fears, my own thoughts, my emotions or my own opinions onto a person, I am just a vessel of presence, to be able to hear the person in front of me, non judgmentally try to understand with humility, their experience, not pretending to know what they're feeling or project my own experience of what they've been through. There may be a common link there but I don't jump the gun. I stay with listening and asking important questions and then offering tender, nurturing, kind, compassionate response to let them know I am with you in this. I am with you. I'm walking alongside you. And that helps the other person feel safe, seen acknowledged less alone in their pain. And so I'm gonna tenderly be walking through this conversation and as I'm walking you through the conversation, and if a memory comes up where you can remember where someone offered you empathy and the time of need and what that did to your nervous system, what that did to your physicality, what that did to your emotions, what that did to you mentally write it down, write that memory down, you can either pause the podcast, you can keep the podcast going, I want you to have a empathy list of experiences where you are on the receiving end of someone offering you empathy. And I'm going to give you a recent example. So if I get teary eyed, you'll know where it's coming from.
One of the most powerful experiences that I've recently walked through, I lost my mother, she had a sudden heart attack, and has died. It's been a long journey, and the empathy that came from that has been transformational. And what I mean by that is my stepfather was there and had to give you a trigger warning in case this is too much had to attempt to revive her. And then in the hospital, I was able to meet him and offer him tenderness. I hope this is how he experienced it. This is at least how my heartfelt, my heartfelt, very pure, my heartfelt, very tender for him, my heart wanted just to hold space for him to process his experience. Even though I was also walking through my own grief, there was some therapeutic element to me offering compassion and empathy to him. While I was also walking through my own grief and loss, we were able to have listen with open hearts. And without judgement at all, there was no judgement. So he could say, good experiences, heart experiences, he could say what he liked what he didn't like, and there was no judgement about it, I just knew he needed to process that's it wasn't about me wasn't about judging his grieving experience or his experience of the loss of my mom, it was simply the understanding that he needed a safe place to process and empathy. And it was like a South was a bomb, meaning that when he would talk, and he would share his gut wrenching grief, and I would just say, It's okay to let it out. You missed her, you love her. This is so hard. That's what empathy those are empathic statements. And it wasn't just coming from my cognitive, my head, my thoughts, it was coming from my heart. So we can offer empathy, very robotically, and cognitively, and while that can be helpful, we're not embodying what empathy is, empathy is offering a non judgmental, curious space of curiosity, warmth, and compassion when someone is opening up about their emotional experience or their experience in general. And then he was able to offer me the same and that doesn't always work like that. Sometimes it's a one way street, but he was offer ability to offer me such tenderness and compassion and warmth. It wasn't fake. It wasn't what he thought he was supposed to do. It was coming from his heart filled with love. And he was able to say, I know this is hard for you, too. And that is very helpful. So in this instance, what was more powerful was me being able to offer him empathy, because it helped me almost soothe my own self in a way. So empathy is a two way street, we think we're giving it to somebody else for that other person. In all reality. What has struck me this week is it's for both parties. It's for both people. It's the person offering the empathy is getting nurturing back for themselves, coming from the heart and soul and spirit. And it's also for the other person at the same time. It's like a win win for everybody. And there's no greater gift you can offer someone else that's in excruciating pain, sadness, fear, anger, grief, and they don't know how they're gonna get to the other side of the pain. You saying, I'm with you in this, I'm here for you, and may not have the right words. And I can just listen, I am here to just listen. And you show up. You show up in the heart. A lot of people get really uncomfortable with people having pain because we want to make them feel better. And when you can go in and say, My presence is enough. Just me being with this person is enough and just people texting or saying I'm just thinking about you. I know you're exhausted. This is hard. That felt so helpful to me because I was exhausted and I still am tired, but I'm coming on the other side of it. It's exhausting walking through grief. It's exhausting walking through pain, loneliness, heartbreak, breakups, divorces, death traumas, and it wipes your nervous system out.
So empathy It's helpful to kind of help fill the tank up a little bit when you need it the most. I was reading a recent article in the psychotherapy networker and Douglas flemons. He's a PhD in licenced Marriage and Family Therapist wrote about cultivating empathy. And it was an interesting article, as he had a couple of different takes on Brene Brown's work, very affirming of her work, and at the same time had a little bit of a different spin, because she's done a lot about empathy and sympathy. And I wanted to kind of give you the definition that he generated about empathy. It comes from a Greek word, feeling or suffering into develop a sense of another's experience through the exercise of your proactive imagination, which means you're opening yourself up with curiosity, you have a desire to develop and communicate of visceral, meaning embodied understanding of the others experience from inside their world, not what you think their world is, learning and exploring, by asking curious questions by saying something like I am with you, I bet this is so hard, because it's exhausting, trying to keep it together. caretake everyone else, when you're having your own experience, that's an example of an empathic statement, you're coming from a non judgmental level of acceptance, you're focusing on their experience, not your experience, you can do that kind of duel is a dual process, you can still nurture and soothe your own experience, while you're being attuned to somebody else that actually helps you be more attuned, you can fully show up and engage in listening, actively listening, without interrupting. Without going well, this was my experience when my grandma died, or this was my experience when my mother died, or my father died, you can get to that. But it really at the beginning is about listening to the other person's experience, because many times they're different. Yes, Grief can bond people. And at the same time, it can look very different for everybody. And how do we get to empathy, some of the skills that I teach, especially with couples and family systems is mirror back what you hear with their exact language. So I might see something like, what was the hardest part for you? And this is important question to ask people. What was the hardest part for you? And they might say something like it was all hard, or the hardest part was their facial expressions, or the hardest part was making the 911 call. The hardest part was not saying getting the say goodbye. The hardest part was, I wish I wouldn't regret I wish I would have done or done something or known that this was coming. And I can just say, Yeah, that makes sense that the hardest part was you wish this would have known this was coming, you would have wanted to do something different, but you just didn't know this was coming. So I'm mirroring back what they're saying. I'm embellishing a little as if this conversation went on. But mirroring back simply means I'm repeating back what I hear in a soft, non judgmental way to say I hear you and the words you're using are important. And I'm using your exact words, because those words are important to you and your process, not projecting what I think you're trying to say, or what I think my experience was, a lot of people say, Well, I know when my mother died, this was how it was for Being Well, it's not the time at the beginning to share your experience is the time to hold the space for the other person's experience. And it's important when you're doing empathy, that it doesn't become about you that it's about the other person, because it creates trust, safety in the relationship, the person feel seen, heard, important, cared for and understood. And we're kind of noticing an attunement, someone's facial expressions, their eyebrows, their eye movement, their nose, their mouth, and more importantly, their breathing. So if I notice someone has really shallow breathing, I can see that there's probably some anxiety there. Maybe there's some trauma there. And I'm just going to maybe take a deep breath myself, so I might go.
Then the other person may mirror me as I'm trying to create safety for their nervous system to calm. Many people think empathy is about saying, I understand how you feel. But you can't completely know how someone else feels because you're not inside of themselves. You're not inside of their head. You're not inside of their body. You can maybe discern some things, but you can't actually know until they tell you so you have to come from the place of I don't know, tell me. They don't know empathy is part of not knowing and letting someone share their story. People mean well, because they want to show understanding when they say I know how you feel. I tell people was take that out of the vocabulary. Do not say I know how you feel that is triggering to folks that is disconnecting. And people want to say you have no idea what it's like to lose a child, you have no idea what it's like to go through this traumatic event. So they will actually feel less seen less note, when you say, I know how you feel, strike that from your vocabulary. It's one of the one things I tell people to take out. I know how you feel, I understand how you feel are two phrases to not repeat. Because you don't really understand completely. I know, you feel like you do understand, in your mind, you feel like you're getting it. It's very disarming for people to say, I understand because they want to go no, you don't, you're not walking through this in the same way I am, you're not my head. So try to eliminate that from your vocabulary, because it doesn't feel empathic, respectful. Humility means you really don't have a clue what someone else is going through. And I like that term, respectful humility, I really don't completely know, I may have an idea. I don't really completely know. So go into it saying, Tell me what this has been like for you. I can only imagine that this has been exhausting. I love that phrase. I can only imagine it's very tentative. I am checking if that's true. Let the person share. How are you feeling? What is this been like for you. And if they don't have the energy, the empathy statement is that makes sense that you're exhausted and just don't have it in you to say one more word. And that's okay. Empathy looks like you can sit in silence with somebody by holding their hand, rubbing their back by just a tender loving expression. Sometimes you don't have to have the words but your body is saying everything. Open curiosity, and a commitment to learn is important with empathy. And they get to decide whether you get them or not. You might feel like oh, you got this and you nailed empathy you may or may not have, it's not a way to win or lose. It's not an all or nothing proposition. And I think that's really important when we're looking at empathy. Some of the pitfalls that people get into is they over identify with a person's pain. And I think I mentioned in that we start sharing our own experience. And when we do that, at the beginning, we're not letting the person share their own experience, because we want empathy involves letting someone process how they feel, what does that mean? That means I'm holding space to say, how do you feel, and then I'm offering acknowledgement for the pain that that brings, oh, that is so hard, that is so painful, I might even use the words that they're telling me, it creates an opening inside of someone to say you care enough about me to hear my story. The second pitfall is people can get into. So when we get over identification, that means that you have not done some of your own processing, potentially, that is still left undone. So if you're really feeling activated, really intensely, the intensity increases, chances are you still have more of your own processing of maybe what you're over identifying with. So if it's rejection or abandonment, or a death, it's important that you are processing your own pain around that. So you're not sharing that other person's pain and your pain at the same time. The second thing is empathy, fatigue can lead to burnout. So we're over identifying, chances are, we're like overly empathetic, and we're trying to fix rescue or save someone else. And obviously, we can't do that I wish we could, we can just hold the space and allow the person to get out whatever they need to get out. Now, again, boundaries are important. Boundaries are essential for empathy, because we have to know our limits of how long can we do this. When do we it could be a few minutes, and then we have to take a break and that's okay. But that can lead to burnout. And defensiveness can lead to a barrier to being empathic because we feel the person is wrong, that this is it right? We can get into right, wrong, good, bad, all or nothing. And that can block us from accessing the soft, tender place inside, to be able to see the person in front of you to be able to love the person in front of you. One of my favourite quotes, I looked up from my research today, lots of quotes, and I love Carl Rogers, who was a therapist, he really is the pioneer of in my mind, compassion and empathy. So let's look at what Carl Rogers offered and his teachings. We think we listen but very rarely do we listen, with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind is one of the most potent forces for the change that I know. And I think that is so important to note and here's an Run by Stephen Covey. And we all know Stephen Covey was big. Back in the day. When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems. And then an Rumball, a psychologist lecturer at Northern Arizona University, said empathic people ask themselves write this down, and Pathak, people ask themselves as an rumble May, I need to find out more, before I jump into harsh judgement, may need to find out more information. Basically, before I jump into harsh judgement, we can't be empathic and foreign judgement. It's just the bottom line. It's hard to be empathic when we are in judgement. And I feel like the people in the most amount of pain that decide I'm gonna learn from this pain, and I am going to have so much more compassion for other people that go through pain. It's life changing, which is what has happened in my life.
I feel like I've already had compassion and empathy, but it just got taken to a new level, and it softens you. So try to inquire about how someone's feeling. So you can then access more empathy. We have several levels of empathy, we have kind of a cognitive empathy, which are about someone's thoughts. We have emotional empathy, which is about someone's feelings. And then we have like physical empathy. So someone that feeling well, they're feeling sick, we can empathise on the physical level. So there's many levels of empathy. And we want all three of those, that's what we would love is to have empathy about the emotions, the thoughts that can kind of torture us or the thoughts about something, and then the physical impact to the nervous system and how you feel about it. So what are some tips to cultivate empathy, because I teach this to clients, a lot of people did not experience empathy as a child. And I feel like if you're a parent, this is something I highly encourage you to put as a goal. To make it your goal to be more empathic, your children will learn more naturally how to be in pass, not to take on other people's emotions, but to just witness them where they are, acknowledge them. Because you don't need to care. You don't need to put that in your backpack and be responsible for them. And when you offer empathy to them, they become more empathic embodiment and empathic people. And if you are in a relationship, or romantic relationship, I highly recommend you work on empathy. If you are a co worker, if you are in a family system, empathy is key, I spent a lot of time in therapy, teaching people how to have empathy. And first we have to listen well, without defensiveness. And then the next step is mirroring. So mirroring would be exactly what they say. Or once you get better at it, you can paraphrase it using their language. And this empathic statement might be Oh, that is so hard. I am here with you. I'm walking alongside you in this pain, and this hurt, that's empathy. I'm not fixing it, I'm walking alongside them. So number one, we have to listen without interrupting or trying to fix it got to put your tool belt down. Empathy is not about fixing anything. It's not about controlling, manipulating or getting a different response, or changing the outcome, you're unattached to the outcome. It's simply showing up with love. And you can kind of relate to the emotions of the person shares, their sad, you can go Oh, no, I'm not pretending that I know what their sadness feels like, I just can access my own feeling of sadness. Number two, pay attention to their body language and facial expressions and breath. We kind of went over that. Number three, ask people questions about how they are feeling, what thoughts they have, and what's happening in their body. ask people questions about how they're feeling. What thoughts people have a what's going on in their nervous system or their body. And then acknowledge how hard that is. Let's just acknowledge how hard life is. Can we do that? That's like, what empathy is, period? Can you acknowledge the hard things that we all go through that bond us together? Number four, seek to understand your own biases and blocks, and how they impact your ability to be empathic with other people and yourself. Empathy really begins also with being compassionate towards yourself. And that's hard to do because our inner critic wants to take us a different direction. Number five, look for connection points, rather than getting defensive, to look for ways to see oh, we have that in common. We have that in common. Even if you don't have anything in common, you can still look for ways. Even if you don't have anything in common, you do have your humanity in common. Let's not bypass each other's humanity. Isn't that something if we could just acknowledge the circle of life and how hard it is? How much more connection we would have as a culture and sense of belonging? Unless loneliness, number six, be willing to practice more vulnerability, and open about how you feel in general in your life, the more you open up and people are empathic back to you, you're going to see how wonderful that feels. Truly, when you share your hurt when you share your pain, when you share your gut wrenching heartbreak, and people offer you compassion and empathy, there's nothing more therapeutic, your nervous system is like, can take a breath, I am seeing people don't think I'm crazy. People really love me and care about me, despite me going through this hard thing unless alone, if I could sprinkle out empathy, and give it out to everybody, I would including myself, because empathy is hard, especially when you feel blamed for something, empathy is going to take a while to come around, is not just going to flow freely from you. So making the sound so easy, but when we're hurt by someone else, and it's hard to access that empathy, when we're disappointed in someone, or we're feeling disappointment, it's hard to access empathy. So you have to just know when we're angry, there's going to be more of a barrier there to access empathy, try to offer yourself compassion. And then empathy is going to flow from that place. And I was also reading a little bit on Fred Rogers book the world, according to Mr. Rogers important things to remember by Fred Rogers, I feel like he tried to teach compassion and empathy, and feeling your feelings on Mr. Rogers neighbourhood, and to have a lot of respect for what he worked to teach children that he thought would then transform the world. He says, I've always called talking about feelings, important talk, knowing that our feelings are natural and normal for all of us can make it easier for us to share them with one another. That's empathy, knowing that our shared humanity comes with emotions and emotional pain. That is how we can go, oh, yeah, I get that. This is hard. And the purpose of life is to listen to yourself, to your neighbour, to your world, to God, if that's what you believe, in when the time comes to respond in as many helpful ways as you can find from within. And without that is empathy. Do you want to give more empathy in your life, make the commitment now, don't wait. Because you never know life is short. I know you hear this, and we're like, blah, blah, blah. But really take a moment to decide if you want to be a person that helps people feel seen, heard and understood. And if you want to take the time to really cultivate that in your life, and see if it changes your life, when you are on the path to healing when you're dealing with trauma, empathy is essential to healing. He goes on to say, I want to say a few more things, the world needs a sense of worth. And it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worth while. An empathy is the gateway to feeling like you're worthwhile. And again, I want to make the point. And I think it's important to really emphasise this that we don't can't have empathy without boundaries. Let me say a little more on that. So if I feel taken advantage of, and I'm just going, Oh, that's hard. Oh, that's hard. And I'm not maybe saying it's hard, and it's not okay to talk to me that way. I'll talk to you later. I love you. Bye. And I'm gonna get off the phone. You see, I still was empathic, and I had a boundary. It's not an either or I can have both. And that's healthy. And okay. So I want to make sure I'm clear on that. Because if we think that was just supposed to tolerate bad behaviour, that's not what empathy is. And one of the most important pieces of this conversation is to know that empathy takes work. Empathy is built through heartache, pain, betrayals, hurt, loneliness, heartbreak, heartache, grief, loss, death, and the list goes on trauma, that is the birthplace and I'm not saying it has to be because I don't believe it has to be. I do believe that those that we all experience pain and you can't get around it, you have to go through it. I wish we could get around it, but we can't we have to go through it. And by going through it then offers us the empathy if we're open to it. Unless I'm going to put my protective and defensive parts up then it's going to be harder for me to learn how to have empathy. So here's the last piece of what I want to say. Let's start asking people how they feel. Let's start checking in with people and seeing how they're doing. Let's start remembering what we need as humanity. In the last quote from Mr. Rogers as a different as we are from one another as unique As each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different, that may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow towards being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults, we are all connected, and the same and this human not the same, same, but we all have this humanity that we share. And if we can only see more of the same, meaning our hearts and our humanity, and honour the differences and acknowledge the differences, and see how we all have hurt and pain, just differently. And it's okay to have different experiences and don't project your experience onto somebody else, the more empathy we're going to be able to have. So my challenge to you is I want you to keep for the next 30 days, it's up to you, I'm just wanting, I know how hard it is to break patterns. So for the next 30 days, I want you to each day, offer empathy to either yourself or somebody else, and I want you to write it down. So if you offered empathy to yourself, let's say you got dysregulated with your kids, and you apologise you acknowledge their hurt, I want you to offer yourself empathy and write that down, offer myself empathy, because I got dysregulated with my kids, you could even write this in your journal. And the second day, maybe someone had a loss in their life, and you sent them a card, and you sent them a text saying, I'm here to walk alongside you, I may not have the right words, and I just want you to know, I'm here for you. And I love and care about you. Empathy, write that down, and do that for 30 days. And then I want to do a check in and I want you to tell me, how is this experience, I want you to fully commit, like, if you really want to do this, and you want more empathy in your life, I encourage you, let's put it that way to do this for 30 days, one way to show empathy to yourself or someone else, and then let me know how it goes. And then if someone offers you empathy that also goes in that empathy journal, so to speak, I want you to write out who showed you empathy, how do they show you empathy? And what did that do for you? What was the impact to you? And then let's check back in and see how it goes. share this podcast with somebody that you want to do this 30 Day Challenge with maybe, and that's a beautiful way for you guys to talk about your most empathic experiences, how is it going? How have you been offering yourself with empathy or somebody else? And share in the journey and how has that impacted you. So share this, maybe have a partner to do it with or just somebody that you want to build a deeper connection with. Maybe they help you and you help them and you build more of a vulnerable connection with somebody. What a better way to do it. I just want to say I'm grateful for you and love you. I'm cheering you on on your healing journey. Don't give up. I know it's hard. I know you want to be like, Ah, this is so hard and I'm with you in the hard. Thanks for listening today. And go out there and cultivate more empathy and compassion for yourself and others. Big hugs and lots of love.
Thank you so much for listening to the close the chapter podcast. My hope is that you took home some actionable steps, along with motivation, inspiration and hope for making sustainable change in your life. If you enjoyed this episode, click the subscribe button, too. Be sure to get the updated episodes every week and share it with a friend or family member. For more information about how to get connected visit kristendboice.com. Thanks and have a great day.
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