I can’t speak for Sarah, but I can say for myself that I used to think I was a cold-hearted badass.
I can totally relate to that. I definitely used to be a lot more guarded, both with myself and others, when it came to my emotions. There are a lot of reasons I could talk about that caused this, but it was rooted in both insecurity and a feeling of needing to be in control of myself so I didn’t burden others.
Anything life threw at me was met with unfazed apathy (totally a control freak habit), and I rarely expressed any emotions other than annoyance and sarcasm. To my surprise, after some therapy, hard talks with friends, and a lot of prayer, I realized I am actually this girl:
My friends still sometimes joke about beating me up so they can see me cry for once, but let me assure you, the feels are so real.
There are major benefits to having feelings. For example, I’ve been able to see when people aren’t doing well. I can call out behaviors and speech that are red flags for poor emotional health. While I’ve always been able to sympathize, I can finally empathize and share in those feelings. The past few weeks, I’ve been pressing into those skills and stumbling through emotional intelligence, which is part of what led us to this topic.
I am all about people being open about their feelings, though I still definitely struggle with it myself. Like K.G. is saying, I’m good about meeting people where they’re at and recognizing emotions. But because I’m still learning to be open myself, I’m sure I’m not doing this as deeply and sincerely as I could.
One of the most powerful relational enigmas I have ever experienced is empathy. To have someone enter into my emotional space and understand and feel with me is beautifully raw and human; in some ways, I find it addicting. There’s a depth that is so real in such vulnerability, and I went so long without feeling much of anything that it’s as refreshing as it is exhausting. Empathy also reminds me of where I’ve been, and although there’s pain there, it’s pain worth remembering.
And this is where K.G. and I differ a bit because a part of me is still reticent. I am definitely more honest about my emotions with myself, but I still have a really hard time allowing other people into that because I feel like if I’m too vulnerable, I’ll open myself up to something painful and people will think differently of me or I’ll somehow lose something I’ve so carefully worked for in those relationships.
Wow, just writing that sounds so twisted. I thought about erasing it and writing something different for a long time, but I guess there it is.
The truth is that the few times I’ve released whatever it is that’s holding me back 90% of the time, it has felt very freeing like K.G. is talking about. To have someone really understand what you’re experiencing on an emotional level is amazing. Likewise, being able to empathize with someone else – being invited into their story – is wonderful too.
Like Sarah, I’m not always as vulnerable as I could be. I tend to be open, but not vulnerable until I build a ton of trust. I think everyone is afraid of hurt, even when we know the risk is often worth it. However, I think it’s important we worry less about our self-protection and more about how we interact with others when they’re vulnerable. We wanted to address how practicing empathy can become a toxic behavior in the wrong context. Empathy is being able to understand and feel someone else’s emotions– not imposing how you would feel on someone else. The second you are participating in feelings that you have misunderstood from another person, you are not empathizing. If you ever feel you are wasting emotional energy being empathic, you probably aren’t being empathetic at all. You’re being narcissistic.
I think we need to be careful about our heart behind caring for others. Sometimes, what we think is empathy isn’t so much empathy as it is a need to be caring for someone to feel important, if that makes sense. Is the reason we’re wanting to help people and join them in their emotions because we really care about them, or is it because we want to know the details of their situation or we just can’t stand to not get involved?
On the other hand, sometimes I find myself getting so wrapped up in another’s struggles that I’m avoiding telling them some hard truths. In order to avoid conflict with a close friend, I’ll feel for/with them and try to understand where they’re coming from but shy away from giving input. And at that point, is my ability to show empathy doing any good? Because unless we can join someone in the trenches of their emotions and help draw them toward truth, we might just be allowing them to sit in their pain (which may be needed for a time, don’t get me wrong) without offering a loving hand up.
So how do we avoid ulterior motives when it comes to practicing empathy? It comes down to our heart. This is both an easy thing to check and a hard thing to remember. If we feel we’re wasting emotional energy, or we’re doing it just to get involved, or if we’re not addressing real issues, then maybe the answer in those moments is to step away and let someone better equipped step in.
I completely agree. For those of you who are more visual learners, we’ve provided a graphical presentation:
All that being said, I’m blessed to have very, very gracious friends who have loved me through the blunt “truth”-sharing they’ve received from me in the past. The lens through which we experience the world is completely individual, and empathy is the ability to see through the same lens for just a moment. I’m guilty of making the mistake of considering what I’ve seen through my own lens– my own “truth”– and imposing that onto others. It also isn’t my place to decide if I’m an empathetic person. I can actively try to empathize and claim that, but the only people who can label me as empathetic are those who’ve talked with me and said, “You get it. Thank you.”
One of my favorite things about writing this with Sarah is that we interact and struggle with empathy so differently, yet we can come to some similar conclusions. Whether you are still convinced you’re a cold-hearted badass, you choose to sit in the trenches silently, or you are far quicker to speak “truth” than you should be, we all fail to empathize.
Here’s a list of ways in which we’ve failed that we hope you can learn from.
Experiencing feelings for others that they aren’t experiencing. Listen, and if they aren’t expressing the emotions that you are “sharing” with them, you aren’t sharing. You’re imposing, and making it about your own emotions.
Carrying the emotional burdens of another person as your own. Empathy means sharing the burden, and an empathetic person isn’t a victim. If you are thinking about another person’s suffering in terms of yourself and how it hurts you, you’re playing the victim.
Feeling entitled to being emotional support for someone else. No one owes you for wanting to be there. If someone doesn’t want/need/ask for your emotional support, it is not your place to give the unwanted gift of your need to be validated.
Judging yourself on your ability to understand the emotions of other people. You can’t possibly judge your ability to empathize with someone else because you can never be a recipient. If you want to know whether or not you have empathized with someone, ask them.
Not being vulnerable enough, and therefore not allowing others to empathize with you. If we’re not open about our own feelings and stay too guarded, then I think our ability to genuinely empathize with others is diminished. We miss out on deeper relationships because we aren’t opening up a mutual opportunity to share each other’s hurts and triumphs.
If you’re like us, and you’ve done anywhere from one to all of these things, don’t give up. Keep practicing. We don’t want you to leave thinking, “I suck at empathy, so I should stop trying.” We’ve both been changed and challenged by empathy, and as someone who has definitely been more narcissistic in my friend’s suffering at times (and is so thankful for their grace), I can say true empathy breaks down pride rather than building it up.