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.

Unconditional

How does love become unconditional? Or is love always unconditional? If you love with conditions, then is it really love?

For me, I know that I will love my family unconditionally. Despite how much I dislike mother and her … everything, I know that at the end of the day, I will still love her. If I could choose differently, I would, but I can’t. From the moment my niece was born, I loved her. Anybody who is tied to me by blood, I will love. Perhaps that’s based on the values of family that have been instilled in me since birth and as demonstrated by my family.

Then there comes the love that you have to create with others – with your friends, with your significant other. Can those be unconditional? Are they ever unconditional? Will I always love my friends no matter how we change throughout the years? Or do I get to pick and choose which ones to love? If I pick and choose, is it therefore now based on condition? What helps me define which friends I shall love unconditionally?

With a partner – I admit, I’ve said those “I love you”s to a few folks throughout my years. If I had to think about my feelings for the former beaus, I could probably tell you that I loved them once upon a time. But the conditions changed and I no longer could continue loving them.

As I am now older, I know I can change my definition of love. I would like to think that I love my current beau unconditionally. I’d like to think that unless this man were to begin to intentionally hurt me, I would still love him no matter what would transpire.

But how does this happen? Does this happen with time? Is there a marker during which you can finally say, “Yes, I love you unconditionally.” Or do you just wake up one day and realize that this is it? “That no matter what may happen, whether we are together or apart, I will always love you.”

This is also not to say that an unconditional love is always peachy. But it’s to imply that when big, rocky things happen, the love motivates for change, reconciliation, forgiveness, etc. That the love encourages us to stay together instead of apart. That when you love unconditionally, that you accept all – warts, farts, snores, bad habits, etc included.

So… how do you know? If there are deal breakers – do those count as conditions? Or are they just conditions for the relationship and not conditions for the love?

Just some thoughts on which to ponder…

Quality Over Quantity

I am learning – slowly – not to hoard. These were tendencies I picked up from mother who had lost everything in my family’s journey to the US after the Vietnam War and did what she could to be as resourceful as she could – just in case we would need it some day.

That’s what happened to me. I “collected” things because I’d need them some day and most importantly, were on sale, free, and/or gifts. I tried to part with many things as I tidied up my living spaces, but sometimes it was hard for me to get rid of things. The hardest were gifts from others. Not necessarily because I’d need them some day, but because I valued that they were gifts to me from another person. That someone else had taken the time to think of me and to select something that would be fitting of me. If I were to throw them out/donate/sell, I would feel as if I am disrespecting or dismissing their efforts and their time to build a relationship with me.

Then I had a “collection” of nostalgic items – items that held no other purpose except to remind me of how nice that person had been to me once upon a time. I had clothing, stuffed animals, trinkets, jewelry, etc that I hadn’t worn, read, or touched in a long time, if ever. But I kept them just for that nostalgic piece. How do I choose which nostalgic item to keep or not keep? What will be important to me? I don’t have a rubric to fall back on. Do I keep the gifted origami $20 bill or unfold it and spend it?

That collection grows. It grows to where I have so many pieces, I don’t know what to do with them all. Soon, I have the very unfortunate task of trimming, of deciding which I keep and which I don’t. What stays – what goes? How do I determine the quality of this item? How can I measure how much this item means to me? When can I look at it, cherish it, and say, “It is okay. You served me a great purpose once upon a time, but I have changed now and I don’t need you in the same way I once did and I know you can’t change with me. You are free to go.”

While I know that I must trim, must not hoard, it doesn’t hurt nonetheless to say goodbye to these items. But I can’t keep them. We’re too different now and that’s okay. It’s not about making room for other nostalgic items, mind you. I don’t remove things just to add more things – or I try not to – but it’s about determining the quality of my life. I need to evaluate if what’s in it at the moment is a right fit for me and if it is not, do what I must to make it so we can fit.

So thank you, birthday gift of 1999. You served me well and now you must find a new home.

Two to Tango

It takes two to make a relationship.

I thought about that today. In order to have a relationship, there must be at least two parties at all times and when something changes in said relationship, both parties are considered to be responsible for said change. While I believe that to still be true, I’ve come to learn that it does not take two people in order to make one person act.

In a more specific scenario… In previous relationships and even in the beginning of this one, I always thought it was my fault that the other person didn’t want to do XYZ. That the other person wouldn’t love me enough because I could do this or that. That if the other person wanted to leave, cheat, lie, etc, it was because I was inadequate, that I had somehow caused him to do or act in a certain way.

But those are not true. Those thoughts are not true. While my behavior may affect another person, while my behavior may encourage someone to act a certain way, I am not making that person act. I am not making the decision for him to react, to behave, to do anything. If he cheats, lies, whatever, that is not on me. He chose to cheat. He chose to lie. He chose to act in a way that was detrimental to our growth.

So in the end, while it takes two to make a relationship, it doesn’t take two for someone to be an asshole. Or leave. Or do whatever else.

If there’s anything that I am learning in the course of my work, it’s that we must take control of our actions and our behaviors. We cannot expect someone else or the environment to change for us if we are unwilling to take a look within ourselves to make our own changes. There is always going to be an asshole out there and how we respond to that makes a difference.

TL;DR – You are not the cause of someone else’s bad behavior. They are.

Change

People say one of the only constants (outside mathematics) in life is change. People will continue to change and be changed. The boy asked me the other day, after contemplating on the many years we had been together, “Have we changed?”

I would like to think that our experiences with one another and in our lives outside of one another have changed us, made us either better or worse than before. Sometimes it’s an experience we have that forever marks who we transform into. Sometimes it’s a relationship with another person that molds us into another being. Sometimes, it’s just the fact that you’ve eaten pizza rolls with a lack of exercise that forces you to change your life or change your clothes.

But when you have a relationship with someone, who changes? Is there a compromise? Can there be a compromise in which no one person “changes” who they are? I tell people that I’m quirky, I’m loud, I’m crass, and a lot of the things I do would probably be socially inappropriate. I know these things and I defend them because I have internalized these traits to be a part of who I am. If someone were to challenge me to do things differently, I’d have to think about what the purpose would be and really decide if I am modifying my actions and behavior for this person, or for the person I want to become. It’s not an easy task to distinguish between the two.

As I was typing this post, the entire stages of change went through my head. Also one of those social worker jokes.

“How many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Only if the light bulb wants to be changed.”

And in those cases, when the light bulb refuses to be changed, or isn’t ready to change, we back off. In the cases with whom I have relationships, I am realizing that I cannot do much if the other is not ready for change. However, I cannot be the only one that modifies myself if another is unwilling. Perhaps I am missing that value, perhaps there’s something that’s unclear and yet to be seen in the midst of this emotional fog. At the end of the day, this will still change me. For better or worse.

Intention

Earlier, as I was driving, I thought to myself: Maybe I should ask if A and B are finally dating. But I also asked myself – why would I bother to ask that question? Would A give me the answer? What is the end game?

Then I realized that asking that question wasn’t going to further my relationship with A and the gains in asking said question were trivial. I started to think more about the relationships that I do keep in my life. While they might not be many, but the ones that I would consider close are meaningful to me.

I’m really terrible with small talk. I can forget things and often times, forget people I’ve only met once or twice. (I’ve even forgotten people who were my Facebook friend!) It’s not to say that I don’t value them as people, but in addition to my poor memory skills, I also wonder if the people I meet are worth furthering a relationship. Will I be a benefit to this person? Will this person be a benefit to me? I don’t mean to say that I judge and place value on each person, but I would much rather have a smaller number of people in my life that I can keep in touch with than trying to juggle a hundred different people. It’s partially for me, but also for the people on the receiving end of this relationship – I want to make our relationship valuable and in order to do so, I need more quality than quantity in my life.

I might not be the best person to keep in touch with and even more so now with my ever-busy schedule, but I hope that to those who are reading, that you all understand that you all have value in my circles.

(This might also explain why I’m holding off on getting another cat – no time to devote!)