Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

I’ve always avoided the self help section of the bookstore. This was due to a lack of self-awareness, unwillingness to admit my vulnerabilities, and my natural jaded inclination to think that if people are happy or spewing rosy life advice they are probably full of garbage.

How fortuitous that the opening of my mind to the possibility of self-improvement came at a time when there is a plethora of self-help books full of curse words to comfort me, cushion my landing, and introduce me to healthy thinking.

Thanks to these foul-mouthed authors I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection. This week I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about empathy.

In her book, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Andrea Owen identifies some of the common ways that we react to people’s stories. In this case, romantic relationship issues:

  • The One-Upper: “OMG, That’s nothing! I’m almost positive my husband is cheating on me with his office manager.”
  • The Pooh-pooh-er: “It’s probably not that bad. I just saw you two last week, you seemed fine”
  • The At Least-er: “Well, at least you’re married. I’ve been single for ten freakin’ years!”
  • The Fixer: “Have you gone to counseling? Or read that book on relationships? What about date nights?”
  • The Gasper: “WHAT?! I thought your marriage was perfect! You HAVE to make this work!” (bursts into tears)
  • I’m gonna make this about me: “Ah, bummer. Yeah, so me and my husband got in this huge argument this weekend. He got drunk at a BBQ our neighbours hosted and I…”

I can admit I’ve reacted at one point or another in each of these ways, and also had people react in these way to me. In my experience, all of these reactions cause me to feel isolated, hopeless, and no better than I was before I opened my mouth and shared. The reason being that none of these are true empathy.

Empathy is about sitting in that mess. It’s about looking within, finding that feeling and sinking into it… with someone else! It’s really incredibly uncomfortable but boils down to being no more or less than a compassionate witness.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those of us who have trouble bearing compassionate witness to our own feelings are really ineffective at doing it for others. However, like most skills, practice and persistence pay off.

It may not surprise you that I’ve been very selective in sharing this blog with people I know. I’m fearful of people’s reactions having not a lot of experience with giving or receiving empathy.

However, recently I did take a chance on a new friend. Having gone through a different, but not dissimilar life event, and after sharing some of that experience with me I decided to go against my normal instinct and gave her the URL. She surprised me, read all the entries and responded with the sincere and perfectly empathic response of thanking me for sharing with her and validating that I was justified in feeling pain.

Such a little thing, but so significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not always “safe” to be vulnerable. Like me, many people have a misguided idea of what being there for someone really means. Not all problems have solutions that others can help you find, sometimes the best gift you can get is someone that’s willing to sit there in the ditch with you and remind you that you can trust yourself to get out again.

* * *

If you would like to learn more about Andrea Owen’s coaching, books, blog, podcast, or general awesome swing by her website, here.

10 thoughts on “Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

  1. I am really impressed with your woke perspectives (and I’ve never been able to use “woke” unironically before) on life. “I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection” is honestly what everyone needs and I’m going to follow in your footsteps because I really appreciate where your mind is at.
    To be selflessly empathetic is difficult and taxing but brings about huge personal growth, I agree. And kudos on putting yourself out there, glad you were met with positive feedback!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jonicaggiano

    I find you to be a refreshingly honest human. Empathy is, I believe loving and listening. I can actually feel other people’s pain. I try and just listen and my response is that I will pray about it. Sometimes we pray right then. I believe empathy can be hard for many people. It is hard not to want to give advice or share a similar experience. When I am really hurting my husband can put his arms around me, tell me he loves me and that everything will be all right and in a little while I feel so much better and most important I feel loved and safe. Who knows one day you may be writing a self help book and I bet it would be amazing. Hugs my fellow brother.

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    1. Hi Joni, you are too kind. I’m grateful for your feedback and that you’ve found my little corner of the internet! I also know how it is to absorb someone else’s pain. In my case, I’m sure in part a result of poor boundaries – we will see in time! And I agree, I think most of the time our intentions are good but most of us have not been socialized to lean into feelings. Codependency or not, it seems societal expectations (in North America at least) is that strength is unfeeling.. when sadly it is the opposite! Perhaps the likes of Brene Brown will change our minds at large, I certainly hope so. Incidentally, if you have not tried her work, you may enjoy it! Again, appreciate your support and kind words more than I can express.

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      1. jonicaggiano

        I will have to check out Brene Brown. Thanks my brother. I love your honesty. I can tell you are special. Call it women’s intuition, I can just feel it. Keep writing.

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      2. Thanks Joni. I hope it doesn’t disappoint you I am a woman writing under a pen name. 🙂 Happy to have your company on this journey. Have a spectacular day.

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      3. jonicaggiano

        How could that disappoint. I grew up in a house with two alcoholic parents. My mother and father sexually abused my little sister. We were beat and my father even got his shotgun out one afternoon while we played and shot towards us. I do think your honesty is refreshing. Although I have never been an alcoholic we have still experienced much of the same traumas. A heart is a heart and it doesn’t matter what physical body in which it resides. It is our spirit that matters and you have a shiny spirit. Hugs

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      4. I appreciate you sharing this. My heart breaks for you and your family that you had to survive at a time when you should have been able to just be learning and growing. Addiction takes so much and makes monsters out of good people. It is still jarring to me that so many of us have similar wounds. I told a friend recently that it is both comforting and jarring — on some level it was easier when I thought what was happening in my head was my own personal hell and not a shared experience. But I am glad we can help each other make it to the other side.

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      5. jonicaggiano

        Amen. Sounds like that is what you are doing which is a blessing. Both of my parents were dead by suicide before I was thirty. I love my parents and know they had a horrible disease. They grew up in hideous conditions themselves. I appreciate your very empathetic comments and know you mean them. I am sorry for your hardships as a child too. My mom taught me about Jesus and my faith has been my guiding light for as long as I remember. When we were little my mother put us all in the car and headed towards a light pole going about eighty miles per hour. I closed my eyes and waited to see the eyes of my Lord, instead we were in the driveway of our only safe childhood relatives house. God wasn’t ready for me to die. I miss my mom and know that they will be in heaven minus their alcoholism. I do appreciate your posts so much. I am grateful to read them. Hugs and you have a blessed day.

        Liked by 1 person

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