Empathy

n. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Some of the great things about empathy is when it can lead to having compassion for others and to applying that in order to create a safe space for others. Empathy can help reduce arguments, create teachable moments for all ages, and build connections with others.

One of the downfalls of empathy is when there is a lack of boundaries. I suffer from that. It is very often that I will be so empathic towards others that I feel as if I have no course of action, or at least not a desirable one, because if I now choose what I would have wanted to do prior to having said empathy, there will be the additional feelings of guilt.

Very notably, I’ve seen this play out in my work with clients. They have helped me understand their symptoms – great! Then I notice myself wanting to support them in a way that I consider to be helpful, but in fact, really isn’t. A client who may have a drug addiction? I may not convey how serious their addiction is in fear of making them feel judged. A client who may be depressed and can’t attend sessions? I may let the lack of appointments slide.

As I continue to develop my clinical skills, which in turn help me develop my interpersonal skills, I know that there will be times when I will struggle with empathy and boundaries. I will need to decide when I can be empathic and how I can use that empathy for the benefit of my relationships and for clients’ progress.

It has been an interesting journey to uncover how much more complicated empathy can be. On the surface, it sounds as simple as just putting myself in others’ shoes. Below that, it’s so much more complex.

Head Space

Once in a while, or many whiles, our heads get into a funk. Mine gets into a funk. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish what’s a real funk and what’s a funk that I can push through. Are you close to the finish line and can muster up some strength to get you past it? Or are you lost somewhere on the trail and don’t know how much further away that line is?

Image from headspace.com

Image from headspace.com

It is a skill, a very important skill, to build some self-awareness and introspective skills to determine what the best course of action should or could be. There are days where I can see the finish line, but I’ve run out of the energy to run and push through. So I walk. It’s long, it’s slow, it’s not very comfortable, but I walk. I let myself feel all of those things until it changes at that finish line.

Image from headspace.com

Image from headspace.com

Some days, I just don’t know what to do. So I get scared. I get nervous. Then my head space gets really crowded. Everything starts to look murky and all of the doubts have started creeping in. They’ve busted through the doors and are having a party in my head. Those days are really hard to come out of. It takes a lot of energy and mental space to clean all of that mess up. What helps the most is when you have great resources in your life that can help you clean up and kick some of those doubts out of your head or make a plan to address them.

Sometimes I’ll think about what I can do differently the next time this happens. And sometimes, I just say that it’s part of the process of life and I keep on going to the next thing. The great thing about it is the ability to learn and grow from all the times my head space changes. Maybe the doubts will come back and maybe next time, I won’t need to panic when they do.

Waiting

Our anniversary is coming up and I was thinking of gifts to commemorate our time together. I thought about getting him a gift that would let him know that I would wait for him to be ready. Ready for what? For everything that social norms has been suggesting we do: settle down, get married, have kids, etc. Social norms (in a heteronormative world) also imply that women are much more likely to be “ready” for these next steps than men and more often than not, we women are “waiting” around for the men to “get their act together” to move into these next steps with us.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I hated the idea of waiting. It’s not that I don’t want to wait and think I should find someone who won’t make me wait – it’s that I hate the connotation that “waiting” implies. That somehow I have the upper hand in the relationship, that there is a timeline to be met and someone is not meeting that timeline. In other contexts, sure – waiting is appropriate. In a relationship? There shouldn’t be a “waiting” in the sense that you want someone to “catch up” to you.

People ask us the very common, “When are you getting married?” At first, I would joke: “Well, that’s up to him. *nudge nudge*” After a few of those, I hated it because that meant I would put him on the spot, that I was placing pressure on him to do something he may or may not be ready to do. That didn’t sit well with me and I shouldn’t be throwing him under the bus when those questions arise. If anybody is doing any kind of “waiting” around, it should be the both of us, together. Both of us need to be ready, together, to move into whatever steps we want to move into. It shouldn’t be that one of us gets there first – we aren’t hiking. He isn’t 20 steps ahead while I huff and puff my way up the incline. That isn’t a relationship. That’s playing a game of “Who will get there first with me that I can tolerate?”

So I’m back to square one for gifts. Maybe we don’t need gifts. I know I don’t need one. Just like all the times I make comments about coworkers getting flowers delivered to them at the office. Sure, it would be nice to have, but in no way, shape or form, does his sending flowers to me make, break, or change our relationship. It’s nice to have, but I don’t need it. I need him and I would trade a million roses in the world if that meant I could get him next to me instead. But gifts are another topic for another day.

 

Kudos to me!

Recently, I had a client tell me how ze (gender neutral pronoun) applied some of the coping skills learned in therapy. I had to pinch myself to stop myself from feeling emotional because I was so happy for this client! This is a client that struggled a lot with worrying and overthinking. In our previous meetings, we discussed some “in the moment” (e.g. heightened emotions) and “out of the moment” (e.g. idly sitting, spending time with friends) skills ze could apply.

Ze shared an incident in which ze felt really panicked, but applied a technique we discussed which significantly reduced the duration of ze’s panic. Ze also mentioned a time in which ze had so many racing thoughts but was able to use a cognitive skill to come back from those thoughts.

It was absolutely amazing to sit across from ze and to hear about all the changes that happened. Ze also reconnected with someone who hadn’t seen ze prior to counseling and commented on how much ze had changed. It was an affirmation not only to ze and the work that ze has put into counseling, but I’ll admit it, it was an affirmation for me too, to know that I helped to support ze’s change.

So, times like these are the ones that keep me going when the going gets tough. [I’m looking at you documentation!]