the heavy weight of empathy

That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Empathy being a burden, or a heavy weight. Of course it isn’t – the world needs more of it. We as humans need more of it – for our fellow humans, for our animals, for our planet. It’s what separates us from our lower level animals. So how on earth could it be a burden?

For me, it isn’t usually. It’s one of the things I seem to have in abundance. And I am so very grateful for it, believe me. Having it means I’m not a narcissist. Good thing. It also means I can help others, I have a clearer window into the world of someone else’s pain or hurt; it means I can feel other people’s pain and excitement and unlimited emotions. 

Having it – I hope – means I am a better leader, auntie, partner, friend…all the endless things that I am. Having it makes me self-aware. It makes me laugh and cry and feel sad and reflect and learn and grow. 

So why is it a burden? As a Highly Sensitive Person I feel. A lot. Not just my own feelings, but I take on the feelings of others. In my case though, I’m not talking about anxiety. I am not anxious about things – I just feel them more intensely.

Recently I got some good news health results. Yippee for me – thank you Universe for all you moved around and schemed there for the lucky number to have my name on it. The professional person who shared my news with me seemed delighted to be the bearer of wonderful news. And then he also told me that I was the ONLY person that he had given good news to. That day was results day, he said and that means every other person who had gone before my allocated 15 minute slot had been told bad news. 

I felt the weight of that statement like a tonne of bricks. I felt the energy in the room that had all day held people and their loved ones hearing bad news about their health. I could feel them all floating quickly around me, darting left and right and over my head. In a panic and a frantic haze. I walked out after shaking his hand feeling overwhelmed. It’s a common thing feeling overwhelmed for me. I felt the pain of his job, I felt the heavy hearts of all the people who had left before me. I had to steady myself in the hallway as the tears very quickly sprung to my eyes. I took a moment. Then I walked into the waiting room – to a sea of faces that I immediately realised may not be as lucky as me. And I felt all of their fear and hurt and anger and sadness.

I stopped again on the way to the car, just to assess my own emotions. I had been given good news right? – So why was I feeling this confusion? This sadness, this tidal wave of emotion?

The feelings I could identify were relief, obviously. Then sadness, then guilt. I think there were dozens more that never made it to the surface.

I was still processing it all, hours later. Was I relieved? Of course I was. Was I worried about it? Not really. I have an incredibly positive disposition and I firmly believe the Universe looks after me. We had words earlier, she is on my side. I felt sucker punched. I felt the weight of the words that were spoken to me “You are the only patient I have seen today who I have given good news to”. This is the NHS. They have 15 minute slots. It was 3.15pm. That’s a lot of bad news.

So, when I talk about empathy and it’s weight and burden, this is what I mean. I am a sensitive person. Sometimes more than others. Sensitive people feel a lot more. We used to be told it was a bad thing to be so sensitive – and I used to believe it. I don’t any longer, that’s not my story and it’s not my voice. I feel more than a lot of people. I feel it like it happens to me. I pick it up, I carry it and it takes me a long while to sit with it, to soothe myself, to reassure myself and to say silent prayers for those who did get the bad news.

I live a life based on gratitude and today there are many millions of things I am grateful for. My health being the primary one. I’m also grateful that I am an empath. I live with an empath too – so you can imagine that car journey home, because he was in there with me and felt that whole wave of emotion, the same way I did. It can be fun in our house – we just pick our moments!

I would rather be an empath than not. I want to feel all the feels and I want to make sure that mine are spoken about, registered, spilled out of me and recognised. I am blessed with this gift. It can be a burden, but one I am happy to carry.

Conflict….it’s just a difference of opinion. Really.

I grew up with a family who love a great debate. There was always some kind of debate going on in our house that we were encouraged to stick our oar into. My Dad would drop little one liners about things to see what our reaction was. He almost always got a rise out of me!

I have never been one to shy away from conflict. In fact growing up in my family it was expected. I have very direct extroverted parents who were always making it clear, usually loudly, how they felt about a certain …..anything. I am sure the phrase argument for arguments sake was invented by my parents, although their own personal arguments were few, they never hid them from us believing that we would learn to deal with that as we would any other experience.

In our house, conflict was one of those things we just did really well. We still do.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother making a very pointed comment to a friend of my father’s. Dad came in late one night after work, a little drunk and with this friend in tow. The poor guy in question happened to have a pencil thin moustache. My mother was not a fan. So, she told him in a very pointed way that “she hates men with moustaches”. True story.

She felt it was important for him to know as the cause of my father’s overt “friendliness” just how she felt. After she made her point, he offered to leave, but in my true family style, he was welcomed, warmly, with laughter, food and made feel like a member of the family. One of the best lessons I ever learned from my mother was to say your piece and move on! She always moved on quite quickly, something we couldn’t understand as kids, because we never got to hold a grudge!

I was probably about seven at the time and remember it vividly. Not least because my mortified father liked to drag that story out every opportunity he got! In the later years of course it was a great joke, but I am more than sure he felt the sting of it then. Of course my mother still doesn’t think she did anything wrong, he deserved it!

Maybe she didn’t, and maybe he did. Maybe he was just one of those poor souls who is too sensitive (as my family like to think!). I am sure it is about sensitivity and as I get older, I also know that we need to apply some filters. As I tell my nieces and nephews, just because it is in your head doesn’t mean it has to come out of your mouth. Mum was a bit of a slow learner at times.

As they say, it is all in the delivery.

I am brutally aware that my way of dealing with conflict is unique, which has tended to make communication difficult at times. I am also aware that when I am not on my game, it is the one thing that deserts me. When I am not confident, or I am tired from too much struggle, I have chosen not to challenge when I should have. I know then I am not being my authentic self.

I think that poor old conflict gets a bit of a rough deal. Conflict doesn’t always have to be bad and I am quite serious when I say that I truly believe it is just a difference of opinion.

The conflict part comes from emotion, judgement, defensiveness and self-righteousness.

Thankfully life is all about growing and learning. I used to think there was something wrong with someone else if they didn’t like what I said, I truly didn’t think it reflected on me at all. Sounds pretty horrid – and I would agree. I was not always the evolved soul who writes now (she says smirking into her wine…).

So why am I revealing all this horrid stuff about myself, and why would you care (other than to use me as an example in your psychotherapy classes!)? Because the way we deal with conflict is one of those lessons we inherit from our family. It shapes who we are, what we believe, the way we form relationships and even the way we do business. I wrote recently about the importance of relationships in business. The way we deal with conflict affects honesty and trust in all of our relationships.

One of the best lessons we can teach our children is that conflict doesn’t have to be difficult. It also doesn’t have to be avoided. If we can make it clear that listening to a difference of opinion creates an open mind and greater respect for people and their differences, we can encourage them to debunk the myth too.

What happens to you when you disagree with your boss – what do you do? More poignantly, what do you say? Are you encouraged to say anything? Saying nothing implies that you agree, or even worse, support their ideas. Some of the most important coaching and mentoring I have done is on how to handle this kind of conflict – or this difference of opinion. It is called managing up. It is important certainly to not respond in anger, but to collect your thoughts calmly and then have a conversation.

We all know people who have different beliefs to us on important issues. My particular favourites are things like racism, sexism and homophobia. It is always far easier to agree with them isn’t it? I mean who wants to be the one who publicly disapproves rather than going along with the joke, or the thought or the intent. Some would argue that we could stop racism, sexism and homophobia right there, if we only all just learned to say: “Oh, really, how interesting, I don’t necessarily see it like that”. Then just engage in conversation without being self righteous, without emotion, without judgement and without being defensive. (Thanks go to the wonderful Susan De Campo who taught me this insight and saved my sanity just recently!)

I do believe if we start to de-mystify this whole topic and treat conflict like a difference of opinion, problems would be resolved, issues would cease to be and we would all feel stronger and more confident rather than walking away disheartened wishing we had the courage to say what we thought.

I have had many friends and family on Facebook vehemently disagree with the comments I have put up there, or pictures I have taken – and I welcome it, openly! I want to know what people think, I want to incite discussion and debate. In a world where it sometimes feels like we are free to write what we like, that isn’t always the case. I recently read two very different blogs on the value of SEO and it appeared that there were more comments on the blog in support of the argument than not. One particular blog was almost nasty in content and was a little vitriolic. I would have thought that would create some fairly sharp responses. There were a few on there, but not many. Very few people actually wrote that they disagreed with the content. Are we continuing this move away from conflict in these forums too? All this user generated content surely will incite some great debate and discussion, but I am not really seeing it, I wonder why?

I so often hear “I like to keep the peace” and my all time favourite, “I don’t want to rock the boat”. Well, as the un-husband says: Real boats rock.

The key to learning how to deal with conflict is practice. Practice using the phrase, “I don’t necessarily see it like that”. Practice it without emotion, without judgement, without being defensive and without being self-righteous. It is quite amazing what happens when you re-frame it.

After all, it is only a matter of opinion.