Overcome the two most common barriers to expressing empathy...
Okay….so you already know that being able to express empathy is a big deal. A Big Deal. (As in, whole seminars taught on the subject). Perhaps you’ve realized that when you receive empathy in its various forms, it feels pretty doggone good.
But it’s not so easy to learn how to give empathy. There are strange, hidden barriers on the inside of you, whole little mountain ranges you have to cross in order to get empathetic words out of your mouth.
I know this to be a fact because for years, I could see the opportunity to express empathy--I could feel the moment at hand--but I felt paralyzed. Like I could not get the words out of my mouth. I couldn’t even figure out what words to say. Something shut me down.
I was afraid I would look like a woman who was two shoes short of a clown suit. Or something very, very close.
So...a quick look at the two most common barriers to expressing empathy.
The fear of weakness.
You know, on some level, that your small words of “I understand...” or“I’m so sorry that’s happened to you” are chicken feed compared to what this person is going through. It is not enough.
Maybe you don’t feel this way, but personally, I don’t like being seen as inadequate. I mean, really, I hate feeling like a klutz.
Here’s what will get you over this little mountain range: when another human being is feeling grief or pain, the simplest words or gestures register as more than would appear. They go to deep places inside the other person. By some mysterious magic, they actually help. Occasionally, those words sound like Jesus in the flesh.
So your small words or gestures are more powerful than you think.
I remember once, when my father was in a steep decline and dealing with him was trying my soul mightily, I said something to that effect to a woman I didn’t know well. We just worked together for a couple of months. But she caught it. She leaned over and touched my arm slightly and said, “I know. I felt the same way. It’s hard to watch a father you love go downhill.”
I could have hugged her there on the spot. I can recall the moment in sharp detail to this day.
Like I say, if you get that--empathy expressed is stronger and more effective than you think--you will lose (some of) your fear of looking weak.
The mountain range will shrink to gentle rolling hills.
The temptation to withhold.
This barrier is much harder. Empathetic words are within your reach. You can sense your spouse or your child or your friend really, really needs a stroke of some sort. And you could give it.
You could give it, except that you are a bit more frustrated with said person than you want to think you are.
You walk out of the room or change the subject or look the other way. Your mouth stays shut.
Yes, this is awful. I”m sure I’m the only one who has ever done this.
In some basement room, our unconscious thinking goes like this: why, in heaven’s name, would I offer this (good stuff) to someone who has hurt the blue blazes out of me? To someone who has failed me? Maybe it’s their turn to twist in the wind.
Oh, the dark temptation to withhold. It rights the scales of justice (or so it seems). Indulged in over time, though, withholding is the most toxic poison there is in a close relationship. It’s the surest way to kill love.
But...if you can catch yourself in the dark grip of “withholding” you will find the trail to dealing with your anger. Perhaps in the mercy of God, then, you can let go.
I found myself there recently when I realized how excruciatingly hard it was for me to congratulate an old friend on her new baby. That’s petty, I know. Really small of me. It took for-e-ver to get those words out of my mouth and the raw fact of my overdue words forced me to deal with my anger.
The temptation to withhold the good we could give always comes from a tight, constricted place in our souls.
And when we realize that, it becomes exactly what we bring to Jesus and then the grace we receive gets translated into the grace we give.
I often think of the line in Proverbs 3....do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it.
It worth stopping in your tracks to note what God says so plainly: though he is high and holy, he will not withhold his love from you. (Psalm 116).
These, then, are two profoundly common barriers that each of us has to cross on the inside in order to offer the words and gestures of empathy that everyone around us is starving for.
That we are starving for.