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The Power of Empathy

Therapist, MBA, MS, LMFT

My spouse and I have been together for almost fifteen years.  In that time, we have had many disagreements and have offered many apologies.  While most of those arguments are far from my immediate memory, there is one from about three or four years ago that holds a particular significance to me, not because of the content but because of my spouse’s incredible response. I do not remember what we were arguing about but I do remember that we were in the living room, our daughter was asleep, and that I was very, very angry. 

I was expressing that anger both in my tone and my words.  We were going back and forth, my spouse responding in his own frustration when suddenly he paused.  His eyes softened as he held my angry gaze, took a deep breath and carefully said to me, “Julie, I know that when you are angry, it is really because deep down you are scared.”

I was stunned.  It was if there had been ringing in my ears and suddenly there was silence.  I had been immediately disarmed.  He saw me in that moment.  He saw the vulnerable part of me that I had been protecting with my angry words.  Not only did he see that part of me but he encouraged that part of me to come out of hiding.  What seemed like some kind of Jedi mind trick was actually a softening agent, a way being made for me to drop into my pain.

We were able to slow down the experience and get curious about the hostility in the space between us. The meaning I made of his response was that he would not judge and criticize that underbelly but instead, he would have compassion for that part of me. The safety I needed to de-escalate and explore my own pain and fear was created once I knew that I would not have to go there alone.

I share this story because to me it illustrates the power of empathy within intimate relationships.  Brene Brown, acclaimed author, and speaker describes empathy like this: “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.”

When I work with couples and families, I witness an immediate shift as soon as empathy is activated by someone in the room, whether it be by me or someone in the relationship.  Without empathy, more often than not, we want to win.  We want to be right.  When we no longer have to fight to be heard, we have the safety to go further into our understanding of self and others.  We find that there is both pain and longing attached to those defensive places.

So how do we access empathy?  In the therapy room, it is my role to hold space for my clients as they navigate their experiences but in our day today, it is normative to be reactive in our interpersonal relationships.  Sometimes we are not sure how to respond effectively or we feel too overwhelmed in our own emotions to be able to respond to another person.  It is incredibly important for us to check in with ourselves as to whether we have the capacity for empathy at that moment.  If we are too overwhelmed then it is vital for us to prioritize our own self-soothing.  Our goal in navigating another person’s space is to be an emotional anchor but that is difficult to do when we do not feel grounded or safe.  Our first responsibility is to be connected to ourselves and from there we are in the best position to extend comfort and empathy in the space between.  In my own example, my spouse felt grounded enough in his own position to take my hand and gently hold up a proverbial mirror to my pain and fear.

Dr. Maya Angelou writes,

“I think we all have empathy.  We may not all have the courage to display it.”  I love this quote because it showcases what empathy requires of us.  A 2019 study published by the American Psychological Association found that people will often avoid feeling empathy because of the mental effort that it requires and the fear of not getting it right.   Empathy requires that we stay connected to and honor our own vulnerabilities so that we can be fully present to honor those of a loved one.  Our own experiences of pain uniquely allow us to connect with an experience that is being related to us.  It is not easy and we will not always get it right.  Like everything, empathy requires practice.  Brene Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, but we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to access those tender places within us.

For me, that moment of receiving empathy from my spouse was pivotal.  He saw through my place of dysregulation into the more vulnerable place of fear.  To be received by our loved ones with non-judgment and understanding is the space of true healing and safety.  To me, it is the presence of God.

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