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:

Why am I writing this?

I’m probably not alone in the fact that there have been a few events in my life that so drastically altered the course that there is no denying their significance. These stand out head and shoulders above other moments in that I can say with no insincerity that nothing was the same again.

Although I do not want to sensationalize the anniversary of the end of the relationship that I thought would be my last, I am aware that this date is approaching. I am determined to view it not as an ending but a new beginning thus exercising my choice to frame the present in the way that best suits and empowers me.

But still, I can’t help but reflect.

The night he left was one of the longest of my life. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to feel. I was in shock. We’d spent almost every day of 8 years together and I didn’t know what to do. We were really truly codependent and I was already feeling withdrawal.

I stayed up all night researching addiction, reading blogs and watching YouTube and Ted Talk videos about people, their addictions and their relationships with addicts. Until I stumbled on this video:

That night I must have watched this video a half a dozen times in a row. I didn’t want to believe that there would be no reconciliation in my case but something about Stacey’s story made me feel better. She is intelligent, poised, and insightful. She isn’t stupid or pathetic (like I felt) and she has a similar story. I liked that she offered her experience in a way that was honest, open, and vulnerable. She owned it in a way I couldn’t imagine after so many years hiding.

In my loneliness, shame, and self-loathing Stacey gave me hope.

I didn’t do anything with what she shared immediately but I kept revisiting this video over the weeks that followed and eventually, when I was ready, I did get help. Stacey gave me a lifeline. She opened an empathic space and presented me the opportunity to find my own way. If you ever read this: thank you, Stacey! You da bomb.

Truthfully, I don’t believe there is a perfect formula to fix this kind of pain. I think we all create our own recovery programs and I’m not going to judge you if your process is different from mine. One author recommended (I can’t recall which, sorry) that we treat recovery like a buffet and sample all the available strategies and information but only go back for more of what “tastes” good. We will all get there in our own time with patience, acceptance, and understanding.

It is my hope that my story can help hold an empathic space open for someone else who feels as low and hopeless as I did. I also hope that through owning my story and writing about it I will be able to own the ending and make a better one than I would have ever considered for myself in the past.

I don’t know you but I sincerely hope that you don’t give up. You didn’t deserve what happened to you and we both know you are doing the absolute best you can to make it better. Wherever you are right now is exactly where you need to be to get where you are going. You are worthy and deserving of love, peace and happiness.

Don’t Look Back in Anger

I have a natural inclination to flagellate myself with what I perceive are my failures. I dwell on things far too long, carry them around with me like overstuffed luggage, and obsess about them long after the point where it is constructive.

I’m not sure exactly where this comes from but I process things intensely.  This is probably what makes me excellent at jobs that require attention to detail and drives my perfectionism. It also makes me vulnerable to the narcissistic tendencies of people. I’m all too willing to look at things from another person’s perspective and take ownership for their actions, even when it doesn’t make sense for the blame to rest with me.

I remember an occasion fairly soon after we moved in together where I stumbled across my ex’s credit card statement. The card was maxed and he hadn’t made a payment the previous month. This was a surprise to me because at the time he was contributing to our bills and I didn’t realize that this was at the cost of paying his own. I didn’t know that as a result of his illness he was unable to multitask and he was in a constant state of trying to juggle his commitments while only ever getting one ball in the air at a time.

When I confronted him about the statement and implications thereof, he accused me of invading his privacy and being controlling. I’m not proud to admit that I folded like a house of cards. I accepted that I was a bad partner and that he had a reason for hiding things from me: he was justified and I sucked.

For the record, I was controlling. Not at first. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would try to change someone else (and also for the record I am not interested in ever repeating that experiment), but my controlling seemed to intensify over time as I invested in our relationship and there continued to be crises that he seemed incapable of handling. Among other things, I desperately tried to take over his finances. I told myself that it was for us, his credit needed to improve. We needed to be in better financial standing in order to buy a house, start a family, travel, and hopefully someday retire. Now I recognize these were things I wanted, not things we wanted and I didn’t stop to really examine why it might be that he couldn’t handle basic problems.

Truthfully, I acted in fear. I know I was desperately clinging to the idea that we had a future and it looked something like what I thought everyone else around me had. I treated him like a child and tried to manipulate him into being the person I thought he could be.  It didn’t matter how good I thought my intentions were, it was wrong.

I felt a lot of shame.  Shame that I couldn’t make our relationship work. Shame about how I acted. Shame that I was somehow not good enough for him. Shame about the things I was hiding from my friends and family. Shame that all my efforts did nothing but make both of our lives worse… Shame is debilitating.  It holds you in the past and prevents you from moving forward.  It keeps you afraid and hiding.  Shame keeps you from being vulnerable in a good way, a way that allows you to build healthy connections.

For most of my life I have been consumed by shame. I have memories from childhood where I thought I was a disappointment to people I loved and to myself. It didn’t matter what I achieved, I focused on the negatives.  Shame made me a prisoner and a victim. Today, as much as I don’t love aspects of my past, I understand that if I hadn’t made the choices that I did, lived through those tragedies, made those mistakes, I wouldn’t be me. And that would be tragic too.

It is important to realize that there has never been a single other person like you. You are amazingly unique and you see the world in a way that no one has been able to before. You are loved. You are special. And you wouldn’t be half of those things without your messy past and collection of scars.  Don’t be ashamed, be proud. You survived and you are better for it. You have the gift of being able to choose how you frame your memories and your perspective of the world around you.

The past isn’t something to regret.  It is something to be revered.  It makes us interesting. It builds us up and forces growth if we are open to accept the lessons it presents us.

There are days when I am impatient for the things in my life that I know are coming. Those good things that I’m working to be ready to receive. I know that receiving opportunities in the present or in the future means accepting the past and not letting it dictate actions and reactions. Just because I made those mistakes doesn’t mean that will always be the case. The past does not need to be an excuse to limit the future and the range of choices available.

Try to cut yourself some slack! Don’t compare yourself to others or let their criticism get to you; I guarantee what they are showing you is not the whole story of their life and (even if it is) it does not mean that you are superior or inferior to them in any meaningful way. Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this rock hurtling through space together and most of us are totally making it up as we go. Understand that failure is not the opposite of success, they are part of the same process. If you are taking chances and trying to lead a full life you will encounter both and neither should be discounted as they both have valuable things to offer.

While you may not be a fan of Noel Gallagher or Oasis, the lyrics of the song of the same title of this blog (no coincidence) seem to resonate here. It may not have been his intent, but I choose to take from Noel a message of empowerment.

Although no longer the object of his affection, I am Sally who is finally recognizing that I need to get out of my head, loosen up, and let it go.

At least today.