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.

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

Amorphous Blob

*This comic was unknowingly sent to me by a dear friend after I’d drafted this article, it was too perfect not to include.  Follow this talented artist, here. Thanks M, you add so much depth to my days.*

From a young age I believed that self worth is measured in personal sacrifice. In other words, you always put other people’s needs first. On the surface this seems like a beautiful and romantic idea, although in the long run taking a bullet might be less painful.

I realize what I’ve been doing isn’t actually all that selfless. I do think that I generally have good intentions, but I’m motivated by the thought that people would value my contributions and reciprocate. Although I acknowledge it is normal to want to be appreciated for your efforts, my self worth is woven up a little too tightly in these outcomes. Whether intentional or not, it puts me in a position of martyrdom. Operating with so many expectations for other people’s behaviour is often disappointing. It’s also manipulative, which is an ugly word I don’t want anywhere near my name.

This approach has also disconnected me from what I want and need. I have trouble answering questions like: what would make me feel better right now? Where would I like to go next? What would I like to do? My programming tells me that what I want and need is irrelevant and unimportant and it takes a lot of concentration and quiet to try and tap into those thoughts and feelings.  After a year of trying to develop this awareness, sometimes I still can’t.

Undervaluing myself has also impeded my ability to express love in a healthy and meaningful way. I’ve never had clear boundaries to enforce. Without them my relationships eventually become strange amorphous blobs of resentment and stagnation. I send the message that I’m unimportant by not asking for what I need or asking then immediately folding because I feel shame for imposing. I therefore don’t get what I need and eventually feel taken advantage of and again can’t express what the other person can do to fix it to salvage the relationship. A vicious cycle that comes with a fragrant bouquet of unpleasant feelings, my focus has always been anger.

I focus on anger because it’s easy and familiar for me. When I’m angry I can be productive and aggressive. Anger motivates action and makes me feel powerful. Alternatively, sitting with any of those other drippy feelings makes me feel helpless, weak, selfish, useless and unmasked. I have illusions that anger hides my weak spots and resolves things quickly when in reality it just weakens (or ends) my relationships and leads others to (rightfully) conclude I’m imbalanced and a jerk.

If there’s no one else to blame? Easy, I rage on myself. This is the worst kind of anger; it erodes self-worth in an even more destructive way. It’s a lifetime of picking yourself last in gym class and then tossing yourself in a locker with an atomic wedgie.

If you don’t love yourself, you have absolutely no protection from the impact of other peoples impressions and thoughts. You are only capable of getting validation from outside yourself: you’ve given away your power. There is a marked difference between taking responsibility for your choices and bullying yourself.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown distinguishes shame and guilt quite simply as:

Guilt = I did something bad.

Shame = I am bad.

In my world, failure of any kind results in shame and I pass that judgement on to others when they disappoint me. Nothing is ever a simple mistake or a bad choice, it is some kind of reflection of value. Everything is personal to the hundredth degree.

I think society romanticizes the ideas of vengeance, anger, and aggression. The media, politics, and literature are all filled with protagonists who shoot first and ask questions later. I realize how confusing this messaging has been with my experiences in developing my identity.

Anger has helped me avoid vulnerability for years. I carry a lot of grudges and burn a lot of bridges. I play the viking in an effort to avoid being the victim. I operate under the faulty logic that it is better to hurt someone before they get close enough to hurt me. After I drive them away I carry that rage and rejection with me everywhere keeping my wounds open and festering, reminding me that I am unworthy of the things I am so desperately seeking. It has made it easy to get hurt again because I am not able to heal.

Before this year, I thought that forgiveness was weak and designed to make people feel better who probably didn’t deserve it anyway. And frankly, if I wasn’t about to forgive myself why should I forgive you? After all, we are all bad shameful people.

I realize that forgiveness isn’t just for the other person; it’s a gift and a remedy to shame.  Not only can it empower others to overcome their own roadblocks (and regardless of any action they may or may not take) forgiveness means that you don’t have to carry it with you. You can move forward a few pounds lighter. I realize that making bad choices does not make a person bad or shameful if they are committed to improving.

Forgiveness works because the cure for shame is empathy, it is a social wound and it requires a social cure. Shame inspires me to withdraw and isolate and I’ve started to overcome it by talking to people who understand what it’s like and don’t judge me. They accept me for my flaws and encourage me while I take all the right and wrong turns I need to take in order to resolve it. They let me practice boundaries, share my ugly moments, and still reach out to see how I’m doing afterwards.

Since starting my recovery, I’m trying to act with more vulnerability, compassion, and forgiveness; both for myself and others. I’m trying to develop boundaries and be more mindful of my motivations and expectations for results beyond my control. I’m also trying to be more authentic and transparent in communicating my feelings and needs. Based on my experiences I think this is far better expression of strength and bravery. This approach requires honesty, awareness, vulnerability, responsibility, and maturity which are infinitely harder than manipulation and jumping for the throat. Acting this way opens you up to both rejection and acceptance based on your authentic self. This is terrifying to someone like me who struggles with confidence and worthiness in relationships but it is ultimately worth the risk for better quality connections.

I’m also working on my shame resilience by talking to myself with the same compassion I would give to someone else who is flatted by shame: “I’m human. I made a mistake and it does not define me”. I feel my feels and when I’m ready, when shame is manageable, I dust myself off and step back in the ring a little more prepared.

I’m getting better.  Like everything else we’ve discussed, change takes time, patience, and effort. If it was easy, no one would be struggling.

I am hopeful that participating in my own emotional renaissance will help me do my part to contribute to a kinder future. But if no one else joins me, that’s ok too. I’m just happy to be moving forward with a little less shame and a little more confidence and resilience.

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I highly recommend checking out Brene Brown. Her research has changed the way I think in a lot of beautiful ways. This entry is inspired heavily by her research and writing. There’s no wrong way to experience her: audiobooks, print, or Ted Talks. But do yourself a favour and check her out: https://brenebrown.com/.

A little something to get you started:

 

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A little bonus soundtrack suggestion from one of my all-time favourite bands:

Melody Beattie (& Grief)

If you’ve done even a simple internet search on codependency or families of addiction you’ve probably run across the work of Melody Beattie. Beattie has survived addiction (both her own and in her relationships), abandonment, abuse, divorce, and the death of a child. Whatever you’re going through, there’s an excellent chance she can relate on a very personal level.

In the 1980’s she brought the term “codependency” into the mainstream as a description for caretaking and related behaviours that are commonly found in those of us who have been intimately involved with addiction. Often the development of these traits go back to childhood, and I am certainly no exception. I come by my challenges honestly, substance abuse is not unheard of in my family and neither is caretaking. Beattie helped me to see the parallels between my own behaviours in my relationships and those of the addicts I’ve been involved with and their substances of choice. I understand that on both sides these behaviours are a byproduct of unmet needs and desperation to find comfort outside of ourselves.

Her book Codependent No More is argued by some to be a handbook for recovery and I will say not a bad place to start; although I do recommend seeking out the New Codependency which is updated with more current trends, language, and cultural influences.

As part of my current routine, I attempt to start my day with journaling and reflection. This includes Beattie’s books: the Language of Letting go and More Language of Letting Go. Both are books of short daily meditations, the latter sometimes includes activities to supplement the reading. I find this routine is helpful in developing my awareness by giving the ideas context in my own life.

As I’ve come through the last year I’ve found one of my greatest challenges to be grief. Given what I’ve learned about addiction I feel there is a decent chance that if you are reading this, you’ve probably suffered from grief as well. It seems to be an unfortunate and inevitable byproduct of the ravages of addiction.

Grief is not something I would have generally allowed myself to feel in the past. Historically, my sole coping strategies for grief (and everything else, really) were to get busy and/or walk it off. I do indeed come by this honestly; there is a family legend about how my Great Grandmother avoided spending her son’s last day with him before he was shipped off to war because she had promised to bake pies for the church. When we’ve told this story as a family it was always as a joke of extremism but with an air of admiration for how bulletproof she was. It wasn’t until I started therapy that it was suggested to me that she may have been avoiding her grief at the potential loss of her son. It was strange to me that I never considered that might have been her true motivation, and also shocking developing awareness of how often I’ve “dealt” with things by pretending I’m bulletproof too.

Learning how to grieve has been a tough and ongoing process. There have been times where I’ve felt like it was over only to be slammed back into the depths of it like I had made no progress at all. I know this has been hard on my friends and family and their patience; but – grief is personal, it takes time and it’s an inside job. I wish I could tell you there was a shortcut.

I’m sorry that other people can only provide gentle support and no one can “save” you from grief. Understand that another person’s efforts will only band-aid the issue and it will rise to the surface again years later. The universe has a tricky way of continuing to present us with the same problem in a different wrapper until we solve it the right way. It’s your choice when you face that reality or not.

While I will not comment further on timing and process of healing from grief, I will say that being active, adaptable, and aware in your recovery are universally important. I doubt very strongly that true recovery exists without effort and much like improving physical fitness; sometimes (although our strategy has been working) we plateau and need to try something new or push a little harder. But, given the difficulty of this process, understand that it is done in our own time and does not benefit from impatience.

I wanted to share with you part of the entry for February 11 entitled “Grief” from Beattie’s book, More Language of Letting Go:

This much I will tell you about grief: if there was ever a second, a moment, when you suspected you knew you had been betrayed at the deepest level by someone you adored, and a splintering pain began to shred your heart, turning your world grimly unbearable to the point where you would consciously chose denial and ignorance about the betrayal rather than feel this way, this is one-millionth of what it feels like to grieve.

Grief is not an abnormal condition, nor is it something to be treated with words. It is a universe, a world, unto itself. If you are called to enter this world, there is no turning back. We are not allowed to refuse that call. Grief is like nothing else, with the possible exception of the pounding waves of the ocean. To the untrained, casual eye, each wave looks the same. It is not. No two are the same. And each one washes away the old, and washes in the new.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, whether we believe it or not, we are being transformed.

You can find more information about Melody Beattie on her website; including her blog, daily meditations, and information about her books.