Hurrah for the end of January: Empathy, Labyrinth, Rules of Civility

First of all, congratulations to everyone on making it to the end of January. All my close friends seem to have had a terrible January for one reason or another. If it wasn’t total job upheaval, or anxiety spinning out of control, it was relationship struggles, or having to move house. In some cases, it was a jolly mix and match of all of the above.

When you are having a difficult time at the same time as those around you, it can get very difficult for you all to really help each other. I recently read Brené Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t) and one of the focuses of this book is empathy. Some of us may think we’re pretty good at being empathetic – I thought I was – but after reading some of the points she made I realised that it’s more complicated than it sounds. There is a big difference between sympathy (from over here, I can see that this looks bad and I’m sorry for you) and empathy (I am seeing this through your eyes, and I want to understand). When we are all struggling with things, and someone starts to talk about their own problems, it’s easy to get frustrated and respond in a way which shuts down what they’re feeling.

Some of the barriers to empathy that Brown talks about are the ‘stacking the deck’ response: I see your break-up, and raise you a father with an illness. “Oh, you think you’ve got it bad? Wait ‘til you hear about my day.” Sometimes of course it isn’t that black and white. People can think they’re ticking the empathy box by saying “Oh, poor you.” But then cut off the other person’s problems by expanding at length on their own, without giving the other person a chance to expand. Or someone might talk to you about something, and you can’t immediately relate to what they’re saying. Someone might say: “I have been thinking about self-harming lately.” And you think “Wow, this is heavy. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never considered doing that. I don’t know what to say. So I don’t risk saying the wrong thing, I’ll say nothing at all.”

When somebody shares an emotional pain with you, it’s often easier to step back than step forward. Especially if you are having a hard time yourself, and don’t feel like you have a lot of energy or time to give the other person. But empathy is a two-way street. Showing empathy to somebody else helps you with your own issues. Maybe you haven’t experienced the exact same thing as that other person, but you might have felt something similar. Maybe you’ve never thought about cutting yourself when you’re feeling frustrated or unhappy, but you can probably connect to the idea of release that people can experience when they do that, even if you experience that release in less self-abusive ways. And if you listen to them, and respond to them, they will probably be happy to hear you, and will be in a better place to listen from a position of giving and thoughtful response. Empathy really is the practice of truly listening to and hearing others. It’s so common to try and explain a problem to somebody, but they will only half-listen and fill in the rest of the gaps for themselves. In the end the person reaching out is left feeling diminished and small because they haven’t been heard, and the person who hasn’t been able to fully hear them is feeling frustrated and bored. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to stop and fully listen to people.

Another point about empathy, which is part of this notion of giving empathy being as useful to the giver as the receiver, is that empathetic conversations are two-way streets. I speak to several friends every day, and we are all very good at talking about ourselves for a while, but making sure we also respond to the other person and ask questions and make them feel heard. I’m sure you all know how quickly a conversation dies when only one person is asking the questions, especially over text or email. The person doing all the asking will often eventually give up and respond without any questions either, and the conversation dies without having anything new put into it. It’s often very difficult to fully show empathy over electronic communications, particularly as we’re often replying quickly and may not have read every word of the message. It’s a good idea to slow down for those few seconds, and think about what you’re writing. If the other person has said they’re struggling with something, respond to that in the first half of the message. Then talk about yourself in the second half. Of course there are exceptions to this, but I think it’s a nice rule of thumb for making people feel appreciated.

There are many more aspects to empathy that Brown talks about in her book, but this is the one that really stuck with me and that I found most useful, this concept of truly hearing and listening to other people, and having the courage to reach out to others when we are feeling down. Reaching out in this way can be very scary, so it’s important that you know how to respond if someone does it to you: if you cut them off or make them feel unheard, they probably won’t reach out to you again. It is less painful to not reach out and to keep painful emotions to ourselves than it is to reach out and get knocked back.

I know this is a pretty heavy topic and many of us have had a pretty heavy January, so here are some other things from this month that are more cheerful:

After the terribly sad death of David Bowie, I finally got around to watching Labyrinth for the first time. What a bizarre movie. Apparently they’re making some kind of sequel, which got me to wondering how on earth they’re going to do the Goblin King without Bowie. How on earth he still manages to be sexy while sporting the worst wig I’ve ever seen, flowing blouses and those tights I don’t know. I was saying to a friend that it was bizarrely attractive but I don’t think anybody else could pull it off. Do you think anyone has ever asked their partner to dress up like that as a fun sexual fantasy type thing? “Yes, so a blonde wig with a kind of mullet, and a lot of silvery eye make-up, a low-cut blouse, and tights that are VERY tight in some places and strangely baggy in others… I don’t know why this isn’t working…”

I was ill in bed for a week this month, and discovered that I’ve finally overplayed Friends. It just isn’t so much fun when you realise that you’re older than the characters are, especially if you’ve been watching it since you were 12. I felt very old. My new mindless TV is now Sex and the City, which I was actually too young for when it was first around. They’re all a few years older than me so I have some time. This may be a sign that I should investigate getting Netflix or something, but the internet signal in my room seems to have been on strike for January so maybe it would be a waste of money.

I read The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat a few weeks ago. It’s incredibly gripping and interesting, and makes you feel supremely lucky for being able to do simple things like recognise faces, or for having proprioception – an awareness of the your own body. One of the women in the book lost proprioception through a freak incident with some antibiotics. She cannot feel her own body. She has had to relearn how to move and walk visually, because she doesn’t know where, say, her arm is unless she is looking at it. Extremely odd but many of the stories were surprisingly life-affirming and optimistic. Highly recommended.

I also tried to read The Knife of Never Letting Go this week. Not recommended if you are having any kind of struggles with anxiety or depression. It is BLEAK. I have sought solace in Rules of Civility, one of my absolute favourite novels, set in 1930’s New York. The writing is delicious, with such lines as: ‘The game had changed; or rather, it wasn’t a game at all anymore. It was a matter of making it through the night, which is often harder than it sounds, and always a very individual business.’ In honour of the characters in Rules of Civility, let’s raise a martini (or martini glass containing your beverage of choice if you think martinis taste like toilet cleaner) to a good February.

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