Rethinking the Path to Empathy
When it's hard to connect, step into your own shoes first.
Posted Jul 08, 2019
As an anxiety therapist for many years, my vantage point for exploring the world of empathy comes from listening to the paralyzing fears and worries of my patients— from the young children’s dread of the dark, and its concomitant scary monsters scuttling under the bed, to the adults’ terror of job interviews, public speaking, highway driving, and the immobilizing pings and zings of existential angst that come from simply living each day.
Tasked with facing their fears, these brave souls also bring their tribe: parents, partners, teachers, friends, all who want to support them through the invisible struggles they must face. Just one problem: That very well-meaning tribe often doesn’t understand why those things are a struggle in the first place.
Though, in theory, everyone knows what fear feels like, that doesn't guarantee that we understand a particular fear; this is one obstacle to accessing our empathy. Another obstacle is that a potentially compassionate response may be pre-empted when our wired-in discomfort with someone else's discomfort (especially that of someone we care a lot about) budges first in line, and much to everyone's detriment, smoother-edged words elude us, and we just want that person's distress (and ours) to stop. Put all this together, and it may not surprise you that often in my office, before I can intervene, I witness at warp speed the snapping of emotional connection wires as the tribe's reaction to a sufferer's poignant disclosure of their fears (whether they are 5 or 55) bursts forth, the first word escaping their mouth: “Why?”
Why does that sweet puppy terrify you? Why does the sound of my chewing send shivers down your spine? Why is it hard to drive on a highway? Why is it hard to drive across a bridge or order grilled cheese at the cafeteria? Why would fear of throwing up stop a child from going to a Disney theme park when they aren’t even sick? Why would fear of fainting prevent an executive from giving a keynote when they’re in perfect health? It can be baffling. Even the most caring people in our tribes don’t “get” us, or not at first anyway. What seems an ordinary, uneventful day to us may feel like mission impossible to the fear-struck. And while all those whys usually come from a good place—of feeling helpless that we can’t just make someone’s suffering go away—that “not getting” someone can come across as judgment or disapproval, multiplying their suffering when we’re trying to reduce it.
But wait, who is the us? Who is the they? Who are we in these scenarios?
That’s the thing. It depends on the moment. Today it might be someone else’s invisible battles or demons, tomorrow it could be yours, or mine.
We might think to ourselves, if that were me, I’d just… react totally differently, calmly, reasonably, and have no problem with that situation. But just switch out the scenery or props, the elevator for the spider, the cold call for the MRI machine, and really it is you, and it is me, and it is all of us. The child who—much to the parent’s dismay—is terrified of getting on the plane to go on a vacation, may be the one equally dismayed when that same parent is too afraid to accompany them on the roller coaster or jet ski. It’s all about mutuality. We all come with an inner alarm system; everyone’s is just programmed to go off at different times.
This is why we don’t have to do the far reach to someone else’s shoes to empathize with their struggle. We can do the much shorter commute, the very local one, to our own. When we remember our own experiences of vulnerability and fear, step into our shoes, run through our own inventory of the times when something felt impossible, distressing, or terrifying to us, we’ll be able to connect with the person trembling in front of us. We’ve got a generous supply of insider information, and we need to use it. From our own well-traveled footwear, we know what things feel like, and we know what helps and what likely doesn’t help, namely: pointing out that irrationality of our fears. Likely we are already well aware. Which is why the “why” questions are best left unsaid. Though they are meant to reassure, they may land on our already vulnerable state as an attack. Why are we afraid of this? The simple answer will always be: because we are human.
There are millions and billions of shoes that make up the mosaic of humankind. We all have our reasons why fear catches us. We mustn’t presume what’s fear-worthy for anyone else. The fact is that human beings are wired for fear, and have been since the dawn of our time. It is that very wiring that has kept us here.
Fear can land anywhere. It can catch us out of the corner of our eye, or front and center. It’s universal, and it’s idiosyncratic. Skydivers may think nothing of jumping out of a plane at 12,000 feet, but ask them whether they would ever get married, and they break out in a cold sweat. Thunder, spiders, tests, cooking for the in-laws, it’s all fair game. Everyone has their kryptonite, even Superman. No matter how tough, or how apparently fearless we may be, we all have those things that leave us shaking in our superhero boots.
Anxiety feels like an attack from within, and when someone in the tribe empathizes with our struggles—magnificently—it’s as if we can give up the fight, or begin to. Wanting to understand cuts a worried person’s work in half: We aren’t being challenged from the outside about the thing that’s challenging us from the inside. And the great thing is, we don’t have to understand each other’s invisible battles; we just have to want to be a friend, not foe. What powers the beating heart of empathy is found in the wanting to understand, as much as it is in the understanding itself.
We needn’t defend the things we dread; rather, it’s that dread that may owe us an explanation. Absent those few and far between, true this-is-not-a-drill fight-or-flight moments, when let’s say a bear, breathing heavily, is staring us down, the other occasions when our fear surges with the thought of making a phone call or speaking up to our boss, these are warnings we must test, not trust. These wired-in reactions are trying to help by warning us that the math test or blind date is a threat, and we should cut and run, but it’s just confusing us by equating emotional discomfort with actual peril. Presented with that information, we get to decide whether or not we agree. Maybe we just need to bravely take a closer look at that fearful situation, do our own risk assessment rather than let the first word of our survival brain also be the last. Because it’s not those things themselves that are the problem—the dogs or tests or first dates—it’s what our ancient wiring warns us about them. We can do the pivot to more accurate interpretations of our experiences. Our worry is trainable. We are the trainers. We are not afraid by choice, but we can choose to do the hard work to wrestle free. Showing our fears doesn’t make us more fearful, it makes us safer.
Stepping into your own shoes means that next time someone is distressed or afraid of something that you aren’t, lean in and tell them you don’t understand yet, but you trust them, and you want to know what is it’s like for them, feeling what they are feeling. Just that one statement may help turn that moment, and who knows, may even their life, around. Ask them to tell you what is happening on the inside for them, then go to your archive of vulnerable feelings and dig out the experience that is the closest match.
When we don’t presume what things should mean to someone else, they are free to find their own better angels and discover helpful truths for themselves. Maybe they’ll want your help, maybe not. Maybe you can offer to be their editor or fact-checker. Though often just “empathy, period,” as I’ve described elsewhere, is best, because when we begin to “solve” someone else’s problems by handing them a to-do list of how to think and feel differently, the empathic link breaks down. By being given the space to say aloud those fears bouncing off the four walls of their mind, they may hear the exaggerations and distortions for what they are, do their own editing, and be ready to reset their course toward the thing that feels like too much, too scary, too hard. Finding their starting point at the shallow end of the pool—whether literally or metaphorically—they will find that they can adjust a little bit at a time.
When we step into our own shoes molded to our unique life travels, we cut across the myriad particulars of any one life—our lives to our shared vulnerability enabling us to do the distinctly human work of valiantly persevering in the face of our struggles. Are we the one in need of support, or are we the tribe? This is a fluid moment-to-moment prospect as persevering in the face of obstacles is our deeply human creed; it’s happening all around us in big ways and small ways every moment of the day. Empathy plays powerfully out into the larger world. It ripples. It shifts. It multiplies the good. It creates safe spaces that enable us to achieve far more together than we could apart. The more we support each other, collectively, we expand that tribe we are for each other. Here’s to more empathy and less worry all around.
©2019 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. A version of this post was previously posted on Your Tango.