When Ray and I first got married, I was working full-time as a psychotherapist. I prided myself on being a first-rate “trained” listener and often employed my therapy techniques in our conversations. Nothing made Ray angrier than when he’d snap at me over something that was irritating him and my response was, “Sounds like you’re upset.” Those words moved him from mild irritation to red-faced anger in seconds. “I am not your client,” he’d yell, then stalk out of the room, slamming the door.
Fast forward about twenty years. (Yes, I may be a slow learner.)
We had another major blow-up over some insignificant annoyance when Ray looked at me and said, “I don’t need any big fixes from you or options on ways I could go about changing a situation. What I would like instead is for you to say, “I understand why you’re feeling the way you are.” Daughter Rachael has a shorthand response for this. When I tell her something I’m upset about, she looks at me and says very simply: “I get you. I would feel the same way.”
I believe that most of the time all of us know deep down what we need to do or not do to improve the problems in our lives. When we throw out a statement about feeling bad or sad or mad, we don’t need someone rushing in to list all the options for change. Of course, there are moments when having someone problem-solve can be very helpful, but before that phase of the process, there is one that sets the tone for really hashing out possibilities. That phase is the “Oh, honey, I understand why you feel that way. I would be right there too if that had happened to me.” That is the empathy stage, the “I’m standing in your shoes for a second and imagining how that insult, slight, hurt of whatever magnitude might feel for you.” That is the stage when you need someone to reassure you that you are not out of touch with reality. All you really need is a knowing nod and a “Yep!” and then it’s possible to start to breathe normally again.
Of course, there are other times when all of us do get a bit out of touch. I have these “come to Jesus” moments routinely with those I love, mainly as the recipient (not that I don’t give as good as I get when I feel the need). That’s when someone close has the nerve to say out loud the unvarnished truth about how I’ve screwed up, intentionally or unintentionally. What I’m beginning to understand is these beloved folks are offering a gift that only real intimacy offers – honesty. When those times come, I am slowly learning to redirect my natural “go to hell” righteous indignation and instead do my best to listen. I’m not always able to corral my defensiveness, but when I do, I can feel myself growing and stretching into a better human being. You might say in those times I offer myself the same empathy I try to offer others. I sometimes literally stroke my own cheek and say out loud. “It’s okay. You’re doing the best you can.”
I have decided that empathy is to an injured spirit as chicken soup is to the flu, simple and curative. And who doesn’t need a little kindness and a nice bowl of chicken soup on a regular basis? I know I do.