And the dark side of empathy which can end up hurting us
‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ — Anais Nin
Though been aware of this quote for a long time, never before has it held so much relevance to me or my life.
When dealing with our emotions and our capacity to self-reflect, empathize and adult in 21st Centruy chaos, our reactions truly do come down to the matter of personal experience. And the past few months have taught me that what we think will happen and what actually happens are two entirely different animals.
Or, rather, two wild beasts with which our subconscious mind will grapple, constantly looking to reason and understand, only to find our personal experience and perception skewing the view. Quite frankly, you can never hedge your bets on how you think people will behave.
Human communication is complex
Words are spoken, absorbed and digested but what is made of them after this process depends entirely on what you have felt and experienced before. Your expectations, anticipation, and anxiety all revolve around the past, and when our trauma and pain bodies are triggered, our cognizant experience of a conversation evaporates into a visceral, physical response which — in a moment at least — can take over.
We say things out of anger.
We say things we don’t mean.
We shut down, open our mouths and our parents or a voice from our past-pain is unleashed— fangs, venom and all. And when we finally catch up with ourselves and regain our composure, the words have already been spoken. The beast is out.
And whilst in the past this may have been limited to a select number of people, social media gives us free-rein to launch our unbridled emotion without restraint into the cosmos. And that shit leaves a mark.
This act has become a moment of release, an instant discharge of negative emotion which, like a hit of something, a rush of endorphins, an orgasm, somehow makes us feel better. Until it doesn’t anymore.
We are now primed to react, instantaneously, in a hypersonic world where information and misinformation fly as fast and as prolifically as the truth. Our ability to discern whether or not our next actions are appropriate or beneficial are overridden by our desire for that ‘quick-fix’ and the lift that our emotional reaction will bring.
We feel a sense of purpose — of effectiveness and having taken action — holding tight to our convictions, relishing the onslaught and the chance to defend our position from the naysayers and disapprovers; we are fighting battles, ruling from our hurt and reacting so fast, and yet we have forgotten that truly:
Effectively communicating with others is an art
One which requires tact, diplomacy, and most critically, empathy.
All successful interpersonal relationships require understanding and a willingness to bridge the difference between our experiences to find common ground.
Our ability to self-reflect is the key to our empathy, and that is the heart and soul of meeting others where they are, rather than where we are. For, just like the quote above, if a person has not lived through our experience, we cannot expect them to experience what we have lived in the same way, or react to the same experience in the same way, for all of the minor details of our lives which colour our reactions and understanding; they are what make us unique.
Our reactions are a reflection of our pain; our unheard, unhealed and unexplored parts of self which both demand and deserve our attention. If we can begin to observe and accept ourselves, without slipping into the shame/blame/denial trap then these reactions — especially the wild ones — become an inner spotlight, highlighting the areas with potential to heal and to grow.
From this solid foundation we can begin to discern that a person’s action toward us is never personal, but indeed their own inner reflection, and that is incredibly cathartic.
But even this beautiful capacity, born of our dedicated self-care and reflection has its downside.
The dark side of empathy
Like all of existence, there is a balance to be struck between reactivity and our expression of empathy.
Our ability to understand and heal our own pain means sometimes we empathetically begin to try and decipher the pain of others, their reactions and most importantly their behaviour towards us. This understanding over time can erode our boundaries, as we accept more than is acceptable by any means because cognitively, we ‘see’ people as we are. We project our empathy on to them, even people who are hurting us because we know the value and the growth that come from it.
But if they’re not ready or willing to reflect on themselves, your empathy and energy can be drained. Fast.
A secondary negative by-product of our empathy is when it forces us to silence, especially when it causes us to silence our truth or conversely accept a truth which is not ours, by proxy. And whilst we may not be aware of how this affects us in the short term, often we reach a point of realisation that we have insidiously accepted far too much shit which we find disagreeable for far too long.
And then we find ourselves in the grey area betwixt the polarisation of these two great emotions.
There is no superiority here, simply:
There is a balance to be struck…
Always returning to centre in order to rebalance, reflect and restore but caringly acknowledging that there is no perfect middle-ground because of the ever-changing nature or everyone and everything around us.
For me, it’s being as conscious as you can at the moment given the circumstances both within and out, and then acting from there. It’s about taking the moments where I react or trigger and growing from them, and accepting when it works and when it doesn’t.
Because I repeat, there is no perfect.
It’s knowing and honouring my personal truth, and respecting that others may see things very differently, without feeling the need to retaliate or attack them whilst also knowing that there is a time when I’ll have to stand my ground and defend that truth and boundaries from the attack of others.
It is all change, ever rebalancing, in any given moment.
Quite simply it is respect, I suppose and acknowledging that we as people can view things completely differently, and that is absolutely okay.