A Deeper Dive into Empathy

I grew up with the old adage of “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” as my long standing definition of empathy. I was less than 10 years old, when my dad first shared that insight with me. He crafted a story of a beleaguered old man in well worn shoes shuffling down a long dirt road to make his point both meaningful and memorable to me. I remember gazing down at my own shiny black patent leather Mary Jane shoes, feeling both fortunate and humbled.

In my early teens, I began to understand that there was a big distinction between sympathy and empathy. Because of my father’s story, I could literally feel the difference between the two. Sympathy was listening to that story of the beleaguered old man and pitying him for his plight. Empathy was hearing that story and recalling how it felt to me when I was wearing hand me down shoes on a long walk to my first day in a brand new school.

Once I could really feel that distinction in my bones, it became the compass I would use when listening to someone sharing their stories with me. One thing I knew for sure from my own life experiences, was how it felt to be pitied vs. how it felt to be understood. Pity felt awful; it only made my situation feel even worse. Being understood felt comforting and reassured me that I was not alone. Big Big distinction.

Even though I knew how the distinction between empathy and sympathy felt, I had not yet cultivated enough awareness and knowledge to fully comprehend how my “empathetic” responses to others still had a long way to go. I was operating on these simple definitions of the two:

empathy the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

sympathyfeeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune

Furthermore, I was limited in my ability to be genuinely empathic with other people because of my lack of awareness. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The above image and quote was posted by Brene Brown on her Facebook page on October 31st, 2017. It symbolizes the lesson my dad instilled in me about empathy: Tap into our own experiences, recall the emotions and use both the somatic and intellectual memories to “plug in” to someone else’s current situation. Walk a mile in their shoes. Recollect how it felt when you were in a similar emotional state.

The compassion component almost always triggered me to want to offer exactly what I had hoped to get in that past painful experience. I’ve come to understand that offering what I wanted back then was NOT at all helpful to another. This is where we can fall into the pitfall of “fixing, rescuing and disempowering” others. We have to ask what support looks and feels like for another person.

So here’s the plot twist – too often when we “tap in” to our own experiences, we unconsciously get hijacked by our brain, which pulls our attention back onto ourselves and can even recreate bodily sensations from that old memory that feel very real in the present moment. Our own brains and bodies could automatically go on high alert. Understandably, it is really hard to turn our full attention to another person when we are doing our best not to get sidetracked by our own false alarms.

Last year when Brene Brown released her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, she confided that she’d gained new insights that caused her to update some of her prior findings, especially around empathy and being good stewards of others’ stories. This is exactly what ongoing research is supposed to do for us. It is also why it is of critical importance for us personally to be updating our former base of knowledge and beliefs.

It is now December 2022 and Brene Brown has unearthed more discoveries about empathy that breaks wide open our understanding of its profound potential –AND what gets in the way of cultivating it. This deeper dive into empathy reveals that it is not a singular skill; it is a collection of skill sets:

Let’s start with the first skill set of “perspective taking”.

As Brene details so clearly in Atlas of the Heart, many emotions show up in very similar fashion. This may lead us to”misdiagnose” what another person might be feeling. What we might take as anger could really be fear. What looks like confusion or flustered could be overwhelm. If we assume that a person is having the same emotion we would have in those circumstances, and what we witness seems to confirm our assumption, we are off to the races — and on the wrong track!

The biggest challenge of perspective taking is being aware of the lens we are using:

“The first step in real empathy is understanding that the lens I use, the lens through which I see the world, is soldered to my head. I can’t take it off and pick up your lens, ” Brene Brown, in her Dare to Lead Podcast (Building Brave Spaces — November 17, 2022)

For the record, this understanding about the lens we each possess (soldered to our heads and hearts) should make it very apparent that there is no way we could really “walk a mile in another’s shoes” and have a similar experience. All of our history, prior experiences, emotions and consequences are baked into our personal lens. We cannot transfer all that supporting data through a simple viewfinder.

As an example, my brother and I are only 4 years apart, yet our experiences and memories of our childhood are dramatically different. We’ve often laughed about our vastly different perspectives wondering aloud if we actually lived in the same family. If we zoomed out and began to look at our other family members, we become acutely aware of just how differently everyone was experiencing the world — even though from the outside looking in, we all seemed to be living the same kind of life.

The second skill set in the empathy collection is: “staying out of judgment”

This one builds on perspective taking. Having an awareness that someone else’s lens is different than our own should act as a signal to move from judgment to curiosity.

We judge based on our own experiences, circumstances, emotions and expectations. It is unfair and unhelpful to judge others through the lens of our life, our options, our support systems, our challenges. Unfortunately we unconsciously judge from the get go — and that gets in the way of us being able to listen with the intention of understanding someone else’s perspective and experience.

Brene offers that when we are staying out of judgment, we have to be able to hear someone’s story and believe them — even when their story does not reflect our experiences of the world, or our lived experiences. AND….We have to believe them even when believing them is painful and holds us accountable in some way for hurt.

That “painful and accountable” piece triggers our innate human nature to want to avoid hearing that we’ve hurt someone — and our struggle to deal with pain without causing more pain and hurt. Too often, we show up with a lot of emotional reactivity unaware that we are self-protecting, distancing or dismissing other’s emotional pain. It becomes a dizzying merry-go-round of hurting each other.

Some of the biggest chasms in relationships stem from the fact that judgment destroys trust and our ability to feel safe. If there is a long standing personal history of not being believed when we share our stories, we will not feel safe and valued. We stop sharing; the pain and the stories get buried alive. Nothing gets resolved. This is a major cause of estrangements in families and it is a prevailing factor in multi-generational patterns of dysfunctional behavior.

Just imagine the seismic shift that could occur if we could master the skill of staying out of judgment. Rather than eroding trust and safety, we would shift to opening up to learning; learning to understand and to believe another’s true story.

Staying out of judgment avoids the chasm; it builds a bridge.

Skill set number 3 in the empathy collection is: Emotional Granularity

The definition of emotional granularity is the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity and precision. This boils down to being able to accurately express a core emotion and add more context to it by describing other accompanying emotions. Instead of simply stating we are mad, we can add more context by acknowledging that we are also disappointed, frustrated and tired.

Emotional Granularity really drives home the point that “the difference is in the details.” Having all this extra information is so helpful when we are trying to really understand how someone else is feeling in the moment. Better yet, it more clearly illuminates the real problem. Mad is an umbrella emotion…. We need the context to get at what is causing anger. Anger is a warning signal, a cue to pay attention to something important to us.

A key discovery that Brene and her team made when doing research for Atlas of the Heart was that the majority of us identify just three main emotions: happy, sad or angry. Imagine how hard it is for us to cultivate emotional granularity if we have such a limited emotional vocabulary and are not even aware that we are experiencing several emotions at once.

The problem gets compounded when we learn that so many emotions present in the same way, but are quite different from each other. There is yet another caveat that can cause a lot of stumbling blocks — the messaging we received in childhood about emotions. Were we told to get over them, that some emotions were acceptable to show and others were not, or that some emotions would make us appear weak, or maybe too aggressive? Few of us were taught healthy and productive emotional skills in childhood. There are gender stereotypes baked into our perception of emotions, resulting in labels that shut down the opportunity to process and learn from our emotions. Let’s face it, most of us have a lot of emotional baggage that needs to be purged.

Is it any wonder that we get gridlocked when we are trying to understand our own emotional landscape let alone anyone else’s.

Here is why emotional granularity is so relevant:

Language is the portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning and self-awareness. If we lack the language to share what we are experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others becomes severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences that allows us to move them them productively, and our self awareness is diminished. Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it give us the power of understanding and meaning. –Atlas of the Heart, Introduction

In Atlas of the Heart, Brene offers us an incredible reference book that identifies and details 87 emotions and experiences. It is a phenomenal resource for cultivating emotional granularity.

I have read Atlas of the Heart twice. The first time I read it, I could barely put it down. I scribbled in the margins, had brightly color coded post it notes on nearly every page and lengthy conversations with my book club about each chapter. The second time, I journaled my way through it. It was cathartic to be able to go back and revisit past experiences with an expanded emotional vocabulary — and yes, emotional granularity. I gained a lot of clarity and revelations about situations that I’d struggled to fully process previously. It became crystal clear to me that accurate emotional language is healing; it helps us get to know ourselves better than ever; and in turn, we become better attuned to other’s complex, nuanced emotions.

It is teasing apart all the accompanying emotions that help us get “granular. The details are chock full of valuable information about needs, values, vulnerabilities. It helps us make discoveries we would have never unearthed without the nuance. We can articulate more clearly what we need – and we can listen more attentively to others’ needs.

Cultivating emotional granularity for our own experiences becomes the gateway to a deeper understanding of what other’s might be feeling – even if they themselves do not yet possess this skill. We can help each other by role modeling this skill set — adding context to our own emotions when we are sharing with our feelings.

Skill set number 4 – Emotional Literacy

Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize our own feelings, understand how they are informing us, and to be able to manage our responses to them.

This skill is cultivated through self-awareness; paying attention to how our emotions feel in our body, what our normal reactions are to those emotions and how we then respond.

So often we go through this process quickly, unconsciously and very reactively when big emotions hit us.

Becoming more self-aware helps us recognize our unconscious patterns of behavior. Armed with this information, we can develop more skillful responses to our own emotions. We can also become more attuned to and supportive of others’ emotional reactions.

Meditation is a great tool for developing more self-awareness and to recognize how easily we get attached to thoughts and emotions in predictable ways.

The better we know ourselves and the more expanded our emotional vocabulary is, the greater success we will have in untangling ourselves from emotional triggers and old reactive patterns of behavior. This in turn will lead us naturally to be able to handle our emotions more maturely, with less drama and cloud cover.

As we get more skillful at responding in clear and healthy ways, we also gain the ability to not get so attached to strong emotions that others emit. This is a game-changer because we co-regulate each other. And emotions are very contagious and sticky. Just recall how your body reacts when you hear an angry conversation. Even if you aren’t actively engaged in that conversation, chemicals are released in your brain and can set off a chain reaction in both body and brain. This is how we get “hooked”, “triggered” and “on board”. We can go from calm to frenzied in a split second.

I like the term that Brene uses here; emotional literacy invites us to be graceful and self compassionate as we hone this skill of recognizing, understanding and responding to our own emotions. It is not some innate “intelligence” that gets us to this place of being able to process our emotions in a meaningful way and respond more skillfully, it is a practice.

The springboard for this practice is self-awareness. The more self aware we are, the better we are able to discover the unconscious ways we operate on auto-pilot. Imagine a self driving car with an operating system that was programmed by a child. Now you have a good image of what all our unconscious patterning is doing for us as adults.

Begin a committed practice to emotional literacy. I can personally attest that it will dramatically improve your life and your relationships.

Skill set number 5 – Mindfulness

Mindfulness magazine launched its first issue in the spring of 2013. Here we are ten years later and now mindfulness has become “mainstream”. We see it everywhere — on magazines at the grocery store, popular books, podcast, social media, mental health resources and counseling. What was once perceived as sitting on a cushion with legs crossed and “zenning out” without a thought in our heads has been completely dispelled.

Mindfulness is being aware that we have both internal and external distractions bombarding us at all times. The skill we develop through mindfulness is proactively choosing where to focus our attention.

Sounds simple, right? We all know it is not.

The reality is that our attention has become a marketable commodity. Click bait. Every time you realize that you have been mindlessly scrolling through social media for 20 minutes, that is a moment of awareness. A chance to practice being mindful.

Just use the term “click bait” to label all the times you become “aware” that your mind is racing, or you’ve driven your child to school and don’t remember stopping for traffic lights, or you’ve burnt the bacon, had to rewind the podcast because you missed something, were staring at your phone while out to lunch with friends. Catch yourself when you are listening to a friend, but have time-traveled to a similar experience you had and are watching that replay in your mind instead of hearing her story.

Brene Brown has included mindfulness in the empathy collection for valid reason. Mindfulness is paying attention to where we are paying attention. In every single one of the prior 4 skill sets you will need “mindfulness” as the underpinning.

Being mindful that perspective taking requires us to not view another’s situation through our own lens that is soldered to our heads.

Being mindful, and fully present, in order to stay in non-judgment. Be open to accepting another’s truth, even when it is so different from our own.

Being mindful and in touch with emotional granularity. Recognizing that there will be more than one umbrella emotion in play when we are listening to understand.

Being mindful and keenly self aware of our own emotional landscape so that we stay grounded and respond from our values.

Mindfulness requires training and practice. While it seems too hard and we prefer to dismiss it as unnecessary, it really is irrefutable. Do you want a distracted surgeon performing your life-saving operation? Do you want a distracted bus driver at the wheel of your children’s school bus? Do you see distracted parents at the playground who miss their child’s joy or scary fall? Do you witness people on the street staring at their phones and nearly getting hit by a car? We have a growing epidemic of attention deficit. Mindfulness is the anecdote.

Simply put, mindfulness is paying attention to where we are paying attention. It is a simple concept that requires a disciplined practice. It is more than worth the effort. And here’s a word of encouragement: the more we hone this skill through committed daily practice, the more it easily shows up in our day to day life.

Wrap Up:

For several years, empathy has been top of mind for me. I was deeply moved by both the impact and the consequences of empathy after reading Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry, published in 2010. At the time, Dr. Perry was sounding the alarm about our collective empathy poverty. His research and his advocacy is deeply rooted in what happens in our bodies and brains in infancy and early childhood. He was witnessing firsthand in his patients and research how a lack of empathy was the root cause of dysfunctional emotional development issues in the early stages of life, and how lack of empathy was predisposing us to only compound emotional and mental health issues. It became very evident to me that we needed a comprehensive overhaul of the way we meet our children’s emotional needs with compassionate consistency — and that we need to learn and teach healthy emotional skill sets. Our collective mental health is at stake.

Brene Brown recently described empathy as being in the zeitgeist right now — in the moment, year end 2022. Twelve years after Dr. Bruce Perry sounded the alarm and we all hit the snooze button. Everything he predicted in his book has become our reality on steroids.

What is a zeitgeist? The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

Brene says that the need for empathy is showing up everywhere in our collective landscape from family to community to workplace and politics. I too have witnessed the subject of empathy showing up in all of the resources that I steep myself in — from personal growth to mental health, neuroscience and education, coaching and counseling, internal family systems, activism, self compassion and meditation. All modalities for improving our overall quality of life have been incorporating empathy into their teachings.

Empathy is now in the zeitgeist of this moment in our collective history. How exciting is that? Empathy can become the pivot point for a fresh start in the right direction and will have a dramatic positive impact for future generations.

It is my fervent hope that the insights I’m sharing in these blog posts will be helpful for those who want to participate in meaningful change for themselves, their families and for the greater good.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Who had a set of encyclopedias in their home as a kid? Who remembers getting the annual update each year and excitedly paged through it looking for all the new things we’d learn that made an old section obsolete?

Welcome to a reference book for emotions and experiences — 87 of them! Atlas of the Heart is a beautiful coffee table style book that will be used for conversations with spouses, with kids, with friends and family.

And I am confident, Brene will continue to update us as her research evolves.

Check out this recent episode on Dare to Lead: Building Brave Spaces

https://brenebrown.com/podcast/building-brave-spaces/

Sometimes it is just easier to relate to the power of a skill set like empathy when you hear the stories….

This book will introduce you to the incredible value of paying attention….in a relatable way that will captivate you. Dr Jha offers a 12 minute daily meditation practice at the end of the book to jumpstart your new habit.

Psychology Today Magazine:

Master Your Feelings with New Tools Inspired by Neuroscience (article published online 2019)

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201906/master-your-feelings-new-tools-inspired-neuroscience

Check out this timely episode of the Being Well Podcast with Dr. Rick Hanson and Forrest Hanson –Responding to Criticism & Accepting the Way Things Are

This episode of the Being Well Podcast has very relatable stories that are prime examples of real life situations where we can learn to be more empathetic — with ourselves and others. Such a great conversation.

Nuggets of Wisdom — Lessons Learned from Children

One of my most rewarding facets of the personal growth journey is learning how we can best support our children. So many of us go into parenthood with the list of things we will do differently than our parents, but only from the perspective of how their actions and behaviors felt to us as a child. Dig a little deeper into what was going on with our parents to cause them to behave as they did and add a healthy dose of what society deemed acceptable at that time — and you will come away with a better understanding of how invaluable doing personal growth and healing work can be for generations of families.

I’m a huge fan of the dynamic work of Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Seigel. Both these distinguished researchers offer us insights into how a child’s brain develops, the effects of trauma and neglect in the first few months of life, and the importance of relationship scaffolding for children and their caregivers. As Maya Angelou so wisely tells us “When we know better, we do better.” Understanding that a young child does not have the top down emotional and intellectual capacity to self regulate gives us a whole new insight into our expectations of a child’s behavior and what is possible in reality. The onus goes directly back to us as adults to utilize our own self-regulation, effective distraction and empathy to respond to a child in emotional distress. Imagine how the power struggle shifts, and possibly even evaporates, with this knowledge. Recognizing that some of the fidgeting can be a child’s organic way of self-soothing and calming would stop us in our tracks before we tell them one more time to stop.

When I was a young mother, I relied on Dr. Spock for parenting advice. Today I would encourage parents to read the books that Dr. Perry and Dr. Siegel have written. A companion tool for parents is the enneagram. Even if you don’t want to go to deep with the enneagram personally, a quick review of the core motivations and fears for each of the nine types provides a primer to many of the reasons we choose to armor up, dial back and bully our way through life. A little knowledge can go a long way in preventing your own child from needing to make these adjustments to feel safe, loved and to feel like they fit in.

Too often, we are so caught up in our “to do” list, personal agendas or lack of awareness, that we dismiss our child’s feelings. We don’t really mean to do this of course, but it happens. With the best of intentions, we might say “Oh honey, you shouldn’t feel that way. Look at all these things you’ve got going for you.” Wrong. Trust me, they feel exactly as they feel. And those old familiar words intended to bring comfort only bring shame and guilt to a young person already struggling with big emotions.

Get curious when you child is displaying big emotions. You can probably sense the hurricane-like storm that is swirling around in them. Sitting down together – calmly – and inviting your child to open up about their honest feelings is incredibly powerful. Responding with words like “that must be really hard” or “that must feel so painful” is so empathic and respectful. You don’t have to solve the problem or soothe the discomfort away. Just being present, listening to learn and understand, offering compassion and a hug are incredible gifts to receive when emotions are strong (whether you are a young child, a teenager or an adult). Rather than inserting our will, leaning in and holding space for young people who simply do not possess the capacity to understand, yet alone process, their emotions is a better path for parent and child.

There is no doubt that we live in a world where there are many demands on our time and attention. Technology has managed to eat up snippets of our day that accumulate into hours without us even recognizing it.

Take a look around when you are out to lunch, in a coffee shop, at the local park or grocery store. Adults everywhere are staring at their screens instead of each other, and this includes their rambunctious, adventurous toddlers.

It’s easy to see how we can miss the little “bids for connection” that children make all day — with their moms and dads, grandparents, teachers and caregivers. We may not be able to catch every one of those bids but my guess is that there is big room for improvement. Challenge yourself to pay attention to the excited little voices calling to you repeatedly, the tug on your pant leg, or the crashing of toys being dumped in the middle of the floor. It only takes a few seconds to answer that bid for connection, and the reward is huge — for both adult and child. Eye contact, a smile, an encouraging word, a hug or tap on the head are all meaningful responses to these tiny bids for connection that our children seek every single day. If we can jump to respond to the ding of a text or email, we can re-program ourselves to do the same for those who look up to us.

True confession — I came up with this one big question when my sons were teenagers. I’m not sure how it came to be, except that I do remember pondering how to make the lessons stick. Having them be part of the conversation about consequences, accountability and responsibility seemed worth a try. When my sons would balk thought-provoking question and beg for a grounding or daunting chore, I knew that I was on to something.

Now my daughter has been using this question consistently for her young children, ages 4 and 6. The other day I was delighted to discover that this poignant question is entering the third generation. My six year old granddaughter, Charlotte, was knee deep in a silent assessment of the results of a choice she had just made. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mom patiently watching for her next move. She turned to her mom and said boldly “Well, that was a learning experience!” Then she sighed and added, “I don’t care for learning experiences.”

My daughter looked at me and winked, both of us hiding smiles that tugged at the corners of our mouth. That’s when my daughter knelt down and made eye contact with her sweet girl and reminded her that learning experiences help us make better choices the next time. “I get it, mom”, Charlotte responded.

The reason I have come to like this question as an invaluable parenting tool, is that it not only gives a child information to draw on in the future, it plants the seeds of agency. It also opens up lots of meaningful conversation about trial and error, using good judgment, asking for help, being resourceful. My daughter is not waiting til her kids are teenagers to employ this skill, she is using it now when her children are young — when it sticks like velcro.

The other morning, Charlotte was sitting in the kitchen with her young brother as he was assembling legos. It was clear that he was struggling a bit with his design by the sounds he was making. Charlotte turned to him and sweetly asked, “How can I help you?”

I was in the laundry room and chuckled with delight to myself. She sounds just like me. I confess I loved it.

Skillfully learning how to approach others when it appears they might need help was a hard lesson for me and one that I truly only got after a few years of personal growth work. Thank you to the enneagram and Brene Brown for helping me discover that we can help too much, steamroller people, and even take away growth opportunities when we insert ourselves too much. Who taught me this lesson in the most remarkable way? None other than spunky, strong willed Charlotte. When she hit that age of “I can do it myself”, I got many chances to practice skillful approaches. Charlotte wanted –and deserved — the chance to do things for herself. Whether it was learning to ride a bike, bake cupcakes, or follow instructions for a science project, she wanted autonomy and agency. I remember telling her “I respect you Charlotte and I promise not to help.” She beamed.

What we are all learning together is that when you ask before just inserting yourself, it is a show of self-restraint and respect. Asking “how can I help you” opens up the space for someone to speak their truth — “I don’t want help. I don’t need help, I’m just frustrated. Could you hold this end for me? That would be great.”

I used to help too much. I have done this since I was a child. Always believing I needed to keep the peace, pick up the pieces, resolve the issue. These childhood patterns can lead to enabling and co-dependency in adulthood. It can also be dismissive to others, making them feel incapable or instilling a sense of neediness.

Brene Brown offers this great question for our adult relationships – “What does support look like to you right now?” Wow — isn’t that an awesome, clarifying and supportive question to ask your friend, your partner or your colleague. Rather than assuming we know what they might need or want, invite them to share honestly with you. The other caveat to this question is that it invites someone to ask us for the help they legitimately need or want – without having to feel guilty or ashamed of asking for help.

I’m including this “reframing” of what we often call triggers, because of a touching note I received from a follower recently. Her 11 year old son struggles with PTSD and she read this “reframing” to him because it felt relatable and comforting. My heart melted as I read her note to me. This is how we can help our children heal, by being aware of the hurts and traumas they have experienced and conscious of how they might show up from time to time. Our children are deeply impacted by divorce, by the loss of loved ones, by the pandemic and virtual school, by incidents at school…..the list goes on. How we show up for them when they have bad dreams or bad days, is crucial. We don’t have to be perfect, we simply have to care enough to put ourselves in their smaller shoes.

Sending love and encouragement out to all parents, grandparents,caregivers, teachers, mentors and coaches who lead with their hearts and their ears….showing our precious children that they matter.

Recommended Resources:

My prior blog posts:

Profoundly Helping The Next Generation https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/09/21/profoundly-helping-the-next-generation/

Older and Wiser Parenthood https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/07/09/older-and-wiser-parenthood/

Empathy- Essential and Endangered https://inspirednewhorizons.com/2021/06/19/empathy-essential-and-endangered/

Go to YouTube and search for conversations with Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Dan Siegel to listen and learn from two of the best resources on childhood development and how we as adults can make an incredible difference to the quality of their future lives by showing up in meaningful, helpful, responsive and respectful ways.

Empathy – Essential and Endangered

One of the big discoveries on my personal growth journey has been that the more I get to really know myself, the more I have expanded my awareness of others. I often find myself wondering what others have experienced in their lives that impacts how they show up for themselves and their relationships. My deep dive into the enneagram has given me a greater perspective into the diversity of core needs we all have and the many ways we go about getting those needs met. Replacing frustrations or judgments about others with curiosity and an intention to truly understand them has enriched my relationships and fostered a deeper compassion for others.

Recently I’ve been reading Dr. Bruce Perry’s book, Born for Love, which he published in 2010. He was sounding the alarm for the “empathy poverty” that has become pervasive in our society. He and Maia Szalavitz co-authered the book, sharing detailed stories of children and adolescents whose childhood experiences impacted their quality of life, and contributed to dysfunctional emotional and mental health issues. Over and over in each of these insightful and heartwrenching stories, we learn the incredible value of empathy as the foundational glue for healthy, happy and meaningful relationships.

What struck me was that our collective empathy poverty has only gotten much worse over the last decade. What gives me hope is the growing number of people recognizing a need for change — in their own lives and also in the lives of others. The global pandemic, political divisiveness, racial and gender inequalities, climate changes– they’ve all served as wake up calls. This book — Born for Love — should be a primer for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge on the root causes of so many of the issues facing humanity today.

Transgenerational patterns keep us tethered to the past and often resistant to embracing necessary changes. Lack of knowledge about infant brain development, especially in the first few months, prevent us from educating new parents about the importance of a calm, loving and nurturing environment. Programs, education and tools are needed for infants and their families who are in high risk situations for abuse and neglect to protect and ensure healthy brain development. This is vital to developing resilience and healthy emotional and behavioral regulation in the future.

We chastise young children for misbehaving without the base knowledge of their inability to do so because their cortex isn’t fully developed – and won’t be til their late 20’s. We expect kids to sit still and pay attention without an awareness that the tapping of their foot or the juggling of their pencil is a stress regulator — and a parachute to keep their little brains engaged and open to learning. We send juveniles to jail and wonder why they don’t learn their lesson. No time is spent on understanding their personal life history, providing them with stability and relational support for meaningful rehabilitation. Instead, we often put them with hardened criminals where they learn to double down on already problematic behaviors.

We have the power to change long-standing systematic and transgenerational problems. But first we must understand the root causes and then develop programs and tools to break the cycle. Each and everyone of us can contribute to this process. Empathy is the driver for long overdue changes.

Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathize is a key part of most social problems—crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few.” 
― Bruce D. Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered

As I mentioned earlier, my self discovery and personal reflection work has made me keenly aware of how my own past experiences pre-disposed me to behave in certain ways when I was feeling misunderstood, disrespected or ignored. This self awareness work actually opened up a deeper compassion in me. In mindfulness practices, this is often referred to as “other” centered. While I’d like to believe that I was usually an empathic person by nature, there is no doubt that facing my own childhood experiences had a transformational influence on how I viewed others. Instead of focusing on their behaviors, patterns and projections, I found myself wanting to know what happened to them. What was the root cause that eroded trust, self-worth, self-confidence and resilience?

In some cases, I had a good working knowledge of the hardships, adversities or abandonment that had happened to people I love. My blind spots were just how these difficulties played out in their own behavioral patterns and armor to protect themselves from having a repeat experience. This is where the enneagram became such an invaluable resource. It was a big aha moment for me to realize that often it was fear or insecurity driving another’s anger, blaming or denial. It shifted everything about how I wanted to respond.

And how I wanted to respond was with patience, attentive listening, non-judgment and calmness.

My own “improved” self-awareness enabled me to see that others were simply operating on autopilot too — and using old behaviors to survive, navigate or soothe. My compassion for what they were truly feeling began to grow. My empathy deepened, knowing what it feels like to often make things worse by throwing up a smoke screen rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

This change in “responding differently” to others diffused all that emotional investment that often happens in relationships and especially in conflict. We are prone to take things too personally. If we just take a moment to pause and center ourselves, we can turn our full attention to the the other person and really listen. Being calm, giving eye contact, and holding space are incredible tools for letting someone know that we are paying attention and we care. When we are able to refrain from getting caught up in all that super-charged energy, waiting to pounce with a defensive response, the dynamic shifts. There is room for empathy to join in. Empathy can bring clarity to a situation.

I think we have all had the experience of passing judgment on someone and then quickly observing details that paint an entirely different picture than our initial reaction. We feel embarrassed for jumping to a snarky conclusion and we feel a warm wash of empathy come over us as we take in the new information, and change our perspective.

This is the power of empathy — it opens us up to receive new information, and invites us to change our minds. In fact, if we want to proactively cultivate empathy, we need to stretch out of our comfort zones, examine our biases, and move beyond our own worldview. Trade judgment for curiosity — ask good, meaningful open-ended questions and keep asking to gain even more clarity and perspective. Have difficult, respectful conversations. Read books – both fiction and non-fiction will expand creativity and spark greater curiosity. (I do hope I have inspired you to read Born For Love. )

We get opportunities each and every day to practice cultivating empathy. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. We can all contribute to helping empathy get off the “endangered” list. We are born for love and connection. Our children are counting on us and what we do today will shape their tomorrows.

“Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course not. But few of them can be solved without it.”  — Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Please take the less than 3 minutes to listen to Dr. Perry succinctly summarize the importance of undoing our relational and empathy impoverishment. Dr. Bruce Perry – Born for Love: Why empathy is essential and endangered: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmn8uvSyJSo

Check out this recent Typology Podcast with Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam. His insights dovetail with the content of this blog post in a meaningful way.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLxl8gJqCto&t=2347s

This week, Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam returns to the show. This time we talk about his new book, The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square, turning his attention inward to matters of the soul since his term ended, and what he’s learning about himself as an Enneagram 3. Bill Haslam is the former two-term mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and former two-term governor of Tennessee, reelected in 2014 with the largest victory margin of any gubernatorial election in Tennessee history. During his tenure, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the country in K-12 education and the first state to provide free community college or technical school for all of its citizens, in addition to adding 475,000 net new jobs. Haslam serves on the boards of Teach for America and Young Life. In the fall of 2019, Haslam became a visiting professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He and his wife of thirty-eight years, Crissy, have three children and nine grandchildren.

GREATER GOOD SCIENCE CENTER For a More Empathetic World, People Have to Choose Empathy https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/for_a_more_empathic_world_people_have_to_choose_empathy

Roots of Empathy Organization – Building Caring, Peaceful and Civil Societies. https://us.rootsofempathy.org

Roots of Empathy develops empathy in children today so that they can build the world that they deserve. This organization has reached over one million children globally with school based programs, and they have research to prove impact. Roots of Empathy reduces aggression, increases sharing, caring and inclusion and promotes resilience, well-being and positive mental health.