I just finished reading The Aviator’s Wife, an historical novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the lyrical author and first female aviator whose marriage to Charles A. Lindbergh brought her both joy and huge tragedy. This story narrates Anne Lindbergh’s inner despair and pain in seeking her husband’s empathy throughout their marriage, especially following the kidnapping and murder of their first child. However, Charles Lindbergh, whose courageous solo flight across the Atlantic had made him a hero of mythic proportions and the most famous man in the world, abhorred emotional displays of connection and empathy in his wife and his children. It cost him his happiness and ‘his crew’ (She flew with him around the world and had trained to be his ‘crew’ in these ground-breaking flights). His lack of empathy and connection with her cost her depression, a life of seclusion for which she sought regular psychotherapy later in her life, and finally and bravely, stepping outside the marriage to get what she needed.
Recently, I was helping a client understand an emotional-relational pattern where she vacillated between hiding behind protective walls to block ‘getting hurt’ on one hand, and over-empathy on the other hand, which denied them the kindness toward self to say ‘no’ to situations and people who did not share their core values or may even have been deeply disrespectful or abusive. In over-empathizing with others, she put herself at risk of taking in and absorbing another’s emotional energies and attitudes for hours or days at at time, exhausting her inner reservoir for her own goals and heart-felt desires. She thought they were creating connection, but instead found herself sick and depressed.
And in a recent email a client shared some deep challenges she was experiencing with new information about her family’s history. As I was reading, I opened my heart to be present to her sense of betrayal and abandonment. I even caught a glimpse of my own memory of having felt abandoned and betrayed. It was a moment of acknowledging that she is experiencing abandonment ‘just like me once upon a time’. As I let that pass through my heart, I returned to the space of connecting with her true essence. I returned to the belief that she held the inner strength to heal and take the ‘right action’ and restore the love and belonging that was so deeply violated. I shared my love, and yet in kindness to myself, I trusted her to gather her self love and power to transform her sense of self regardless of her family’s history. This was her experience, not mine. I did not need to fix anything.
Three vignettes. Three different life stories that all reveal the power of empathy. The first one speaks to the power of empathy by its absence. The second speaks to its power by its over-empathy and the last one speaks to its power in healthy balance. So what is empathy really if we can be out of balance with it?
Brene Brown speaks of empathy as what fuels connection. Empathy fuels connection because we choose to take the perspective of the ‘other’, staying out judgement, recognizing another’s emotion and attending to it. We are feeling with (not for) someone. It is a vulnerable choice because in choosing to feel with someone, Brown says, we are also getting in touch with that same emotion in ourselves. You and I become deeply and authentically linked in the expression of empathy. It is the skill-set to bring compassion alive and respect the I-Thou in our perception and belonging in the circle of life.
To express empathy well we need boundaries – healthy and functional energy fields and truths and values that sustain our hearts, our energy, our relationships and even our sense of self over time and space. Boundaries communicate what we are okay with and not okay with in our lives. Boundaries take care of us and offer guidance in what to say ‘yes’ to, what to say ‘no’ to and what to say ‘not now’ to. They determine our display of respect both to ourselves and others. As Brown shares in an interview, “empathy without boundaries is not empathy. Compassion without boundaries is not genuine. Vulnerable without boundaries is not vulnerable. Generosity can’t exist without boundaries. ” Healthy boundaries keeps us from being a fool with our empathy.
A lack of empathy leads to the social ills and discord rampant in our world. In the movie The Nuremberg Trials, a Jewish psychiatrist interviewed Nazi generals being tried for war crimes. After his interviews with countless people on all sides, he concluded that the atrocities of WWII occurred because of apathy, the lack of empathy. This lack of empathy leads to the deep sense of hurt, disconnect and betrayal which can painfully destroy relationships, marriages and communities who gather around these relationships.
The flip side are those who express so much empathy or who over-identify themselves as empaths and open their hearts to the extreme where they become depleted, feeling used, depressed and over-identify with others stories and emotions. We now have this new social phenomena called ‘compassion fatigue’, or empath fatigue, where we have become so depleted we are burnt out. And this ‘burnout’ can turn into depression, anxiety attacks, apathy and more. What happens in these situations is that we get overly focused on the needs and emotions of others while under-attending to our own needs, values and true life purpose.
As a professional in a ‘helping role’, I had to learn to balance my needs for self care and self-nurturing with client’s needs for connection, empathy and compassion. I had to learn to reach out to appropriate resources to help me care for me and my own vital energy. I had to choose my responsibilities and focus my time wisely, so that both my needs and my clients needs could be met. Above all else, I had to sustain and balance my sense of I-Thou in our relationship. I had to reconnect with my core value of love and truth and my soul purpose of ‘being peace’ to hold my centre.
Empathy opens us to loving-kindness. It heals us and our relationships. It is a powerful path to restore peace. Empathy also requires healthy boundaries. And boundaries require our commitment and courage of the heart. So take heart. Practise empathy. It has the power to stop atrocities on both small and grand scales.
This fall, I will again be facilitating a two-day workshop called The Self Kindness Response: Boundaries for Healthy and Joyful Living on October 28-29th, 2016. It’s been a couple years since I have taught this transformative workshop so I am looking forward to it. It’s always amazing to me what happens when a group of people get together around a common theme. So don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to learn how to develop and strengthen your own healthy boundaries so you can embrace the practice of empathy.