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Monday, April 9, 2012

Even More, On Empathy

Empathy is the one gift we all have to give

 For sometime now, I have been noticing an absence of empathy in the couples I see for counseling, in my practice.  I also see it in  some individual sessions, when the patient is reporting on some other person in their life or, on an interaction.  It is a relatively new phenomenon to notice.  I attribute this to three things:
  • It's a sign of the times
  • I reached a level of experience as a therapist where I was able to discern this
  • It's not being taught to people as they grow up
 I realize that the large swath of Americans who would identify as belonging to the middle-class are really struggling right now.  I think that this could be a big part of the reason for the withholding of empathy ; people are saving their energy for catastrophe. 
I have been through a foreclosure on his home with one of my patients---after a successful family life and a career, his kids fortunately were grown when this happened,young adults---he lost his job.  Next was the painful process of losing his house.  Now, in his early 50's, he is living with his elderly parents, in their house.  
I have another person in my practice who is trying to find a job as her husband's health is failing and tells me that she cannot even get her resume looked at by potential employers because they are so flooded with applicants.  
So as people see this all around them, they are on alert, trying to protect what they have, feeling like the rug may be pulled out from under them at any time.
When their partner expresses distress of any kind, they don't want to hear it.  They want their partner to just be okay ("Please, don't add another burden to my shoulders."). 
 Sometimes, if the worry is a shared one, they don't want their own, barely-under-wraps anxiety to emerge, so they don't want their spouse to talk to them about those anxieties.  If the partner's trouble is individual, they just can't tolerate listening to much about it as they begin to feel overwhelmed very quickly.
Also, parents are feeling pressed and sometimes alarmed by the changes in the world economy and can barely do the minimum for their children, much less even think to teach them about empathy.  (this is something that was taught to children when I was growing up)
Of course, this is one of those things that can be reversed into a positive feedback loop.
I f you think how disappointed you feel when you go to your mate for comfort and get the cold shoulder,                                                                                   
 you will not want to do that yourself.  We all need sanctuaries and sometimes our mate can provide that, emotionally.
I think that when I see couples  complaining about their partners feelings, moods, worries, that they are telling us that they, themselves, are very stressed.  However, we can't all, always mend our own wounds.  Sometime we need help and sometimes we need to assist others.  Human beings are 'social animals'.  We do not thrive in isolation.
Empathy is different from sympathy.  It means, as the saying goes, walking a mile in someone else's shoes.  ("You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, 'till you climb into his skin and walk around in him awhile."  from To Kill A Mockingbird)  Think how relieving it is when somebody 'gets' you.  Or, even, if they don't exactly get it right, they at least, try.  Think how lonely it is to believe that you always have to solve all of your own problems by yourself.  Maybe spending a few minutes thinking about this will inspire you to offer some empathy when the opportunity next presents itself.
You can make the world a better place.
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