A couple of years ago I had a girlfriend approach me and give me some feedback that was painful and hard to hear. She said she felt that I was always trying to fix her when she expressed negative emotions and she was starting to feel unsafe to share all of herself with me.
I took this hard as I have always thought of myself as a compassionate person and didn’t want anything but for her to feel safe with me. When I looked at the situation I knew there was a lot to learn from it.
First, I saw that it was harder to hear her struggles because she felt like family to me. Isn’t it the hardest to hold the pain of a close, close, friend or family member? We hate to see them apparently suffering. I wasn’t able to hold as much empathy for her perhaps because she felt like a sister. And because I was getting triggered into my own pain.
But second, I realized that I was on the other side of that dynamic in my own relationship. For years, my husband found it extremely challenging to be married to an emotional, responsive, very sensitive woman. After reading a book on communication and relationship, about six months ago he actually approached me and apologized for having asked me to “get my emotional needs met elsewhere” at the start of our marriage.
For many years I did not receive the empathy I secretly longed for from my life partner. Most of us did not have it modelled to us as children. And I wasn’t able to give it to those close in my life, even if I was able to do it perhaps more in my work.
Now my husband and I are both consciously practicing and learning the skill of empathy. It is about really getting into the shoes of the other person, imagining what it is like to be in their body, imagining what it is like to see through their eyes and from that perspective, whether right or wrong, seeing how their feelings make sense.
Sometimes we all need just to be seen to be able to move on. It is in fully landing in an emotion, with a witness, that allows us to then make a new choice. Until then, we may go around for years wanting to be heard.
These days when an emotion arises for my husband or me there is more of a feeling of “anger is present,” “fear is present,” than “you are angry,” or “you are feeling afraid.”
Anger is arising. Fear is arising. Sadness is arising. It is okay for both of us to feel it momentarily in our bodies. Then it can pass through.
My husband and I are feeling more connected than we have in years with honing our attention and skill in empathy. And my girlfriend and I are also forging a new, loving friendship.
Empathy can be learned. Get in touch and let me know if you would like support in refining this skill in your relationship!
Love is Your Nature,