Over the past few years I’ve found myself drawn to this concept of empathy.
This Notion That We Are Actually Able To Feel What Another Person Is Feeling, Not Just Cognitively Understand.
This idea that we can climb into the world of the person in front of us, and sit there with them. That we can share in their experience of life for a moment, as we’re present with what they’re feeling.
My curiosity with empathy isn’t because the neuroscience around empathy is quite fascinating, although it is. It isn’t because empathy could protect the vulnerable in our communities, although I wonder if it could. It isn’t because I need to have empathy to be a good therapist, although I do.
It’s actually because a few years ago I experienced empathy for what felt like the first time, and it challenged so much of what I understood being human to mean.
You see, I still remember the moment that I felt empathy, like really truly felt it for the first time. It’s like a tableau in my mind. I remember it so profoundly not just because it coloured my world in a new way, but also because it was admittedly so recent. It wasn’t until I felt this embodied experience of empathy that I realized what I’d known before had only been a glimpse of true empathy.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a close friend of mine who was leaving a workplace that had felt like family for years. I remember it so vividly, because I felt it so viscerally. I listened as she spoke, and it sounded like a normal friendship conversation over two cups of coffee that were slowly getting colder. I listened the same as normal, but I felt profoundly different. As she spoke, I felt this unfamiliar feeling in my chest, the rest of me felt calm and slow, but there was this pressure behind my eyes. It felt unfamiliar, but almost sacred, like I was holding something that wasn’t mine. I considered the transition she had ahead, the sense of loss of what was known, and the hesitation of stepping toward something unfamiliar and uncertain. And the unfamiliar physical feeling began to make sense, I was present with her fears and I was feeling her sadness. Together in that moment, I had a glimpse into her lived experience because I got to share her sadness. I was immersed, feeling what she was feeling, so aware of her felt need.
Empathy Is A Wild Thing. It Isn’t Something That We Hit On And Off When We Want To; Instead It Seems To Be That Empathy Only Comes Online When Our Whole Selves Feel Safe.
The thing is before this moment where I felt empathy so intensely and so beautifully, I hadn’t been present with myself. I hadn’t paused with my experience, I hadn’t listened to my heartspace or tapped into my own needs. How could I feel the sadness, excitement, anger, or fear of my friends if I hadn’t really held it for myself? How could I have the capacity to hold space for someone else’s experience when so much of my body's system was constantly on guard and in overdrive, working so hard to take care of the emotions I had that felt so big, huge, and overwhelming.
When We Lean Into Our Needs, When We Take Care Of Our Central Nervous System, When We Find A Rhythm Of Pausing With Ourselves, That Seems To Be When Empathy Comes Into View. That Seems To Be When Empathy Becomes A Felt And Embodied Sense.
It’s completely opposite to how so many of us have been taught to live our lives. I used to think I had to take care of others first in order to live a life of meaning and reciprocity. But I’ve learned that the good ol’ airplane safety message about putting our own oxygen masks on first might hold a fair amount of wisdom. I wonder if taking care of others first sometimes leads to taking care of others less eventually. I wonder if it sometimes leads our central nervous systems to go haywire and empathy to move offline. I wonder if this might be where burnout and compassion fatigue move in.
Instead I’ve learned for myself and the human beings I work with, that when we slow down and become aware of our needs, we build a neuroception of safety.
And it’s when we have that neuroception of safety that our capacity for empathy comes online. It’s from this space that our other-centred awareness comes into view more naturally. Instead of trying so hard to care for others more than ourselves, the care and concern for others becomes our felt sense and experience. It’s trying less and pausing more. It’s doing less and being more.
Empathy is hardwired into being human for so many of us and I am in constant awe of the neuroscience around it, the way it draws humans into connection, and the way in which it calls people to action in their lives. But right now, more than the rest, I am in awe of how connected this self-attunement and other-attunement is. That it’s almost as if we can’t take care of others unless we also take care of ourselves. I just think that’s a wild and beautiful thing.