I Feel for You

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According to Webster’s dictionary, Empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ; also : the capacity for this. The capacity for empathy is the sine qua non of the psychotherapist; in order to be present with someone, and respond to them non-judgmentally, the therapist has to step into her patient’s shoes. When we empathize, we exhibit concern and compassion, but more than that, we actually feel another’s pain, fear, and worry. In so doing, we connect with and relate in a way that helps another feel understood, cared for, and validated. It’s clear how soothed and comforted a person feels when another is able to share his or her emotional burden through the gift of empathy. What isn’t always as clear is how empathy can soothe and comfort the emotions of the _ empathizer_, as well as the party being empathized with. My patient, Carolyn _(name and identifying features have been changed for anonimity)_was furious with her aging, widowed father, who, as Carolyn put it “wasn’t dealing with anything.” Carolyn had been in steady phone contact with her Dad, who lived alone in Florida, but she hadn’t seen him in nearly a year. In their chats, Carolyn’s father assured her that he was doing fine on his own since her mom had passed, and she took him at his word. When Carolyn flew out to surprise her dad for his 75th birthday, she was appalled at what she found. The house was in disrepair. The carpets and windows were filthy., and the house smelled of dog urine and other unidentifiable odors. The lawn was overrun with weeds and hadn’t been mowed in what seemed like months. Dad’s cabinets were full of stale crackers and outdated cans of soup, and the milk in the fridge was 2 weeks old. He was having trouble with his vision for months, but had put off making an appointment with the eye doctor. When Carolyn finally made the appointment for her father for the day after she flew home, he missed it, claiming he just forgot the time. Carolyn was livid. How could her father have lied to her about his condition? Why was he so defiant when she insisted that he couldn’t live on his own? Why did he argue that he could continue to keep the house, that he didn’t need help? At first, Carolyn concluded that Dad was being stubborn and obstinate. She believed that he was purposely being belligerent, and that his failure to care for himself was just a ploy to guilt Carolyn, his only child, into moving out of New Jersey to be closer to him. When I helped Carolyn cultivate empathy for her father, she was able to see that perhaps her dad’s reluctance to admit to his overwhelm was based in his own fear of aging, and a denial of how deeply he was affected by the death of Carolyn’s mother. She recognized that his desire to cling to her childhood home was his effort to hold fast to the memories of Carolyn’s mom, who had passed away last year. She was even able to see that perhaps even the stale crackers and old soup were vestiges of the life her father shared with his wife, maybe even the last things her mother had purchased before she died suddenly of heart failure. With these realizations, Carolyn’s anger readily softened and gave way to a deep compassion for her dad. Then, with great sensitivity, she was able to gently convince her father to admit to his difficulties. He no longer felt the need to defend his competence and pride against his angry daughter. When Dad felt safe and understood, he was able to confess his loneliness and fears to Carolyn, and together they could begin to plan for a more suitable living arrangement for him. This is just one example of how cultivating empathy for others in our lives, even those who frustrate and anger us, is a way to heal ourselves as well as help others. If you should find yourself feeling angry, frustrated, or hurt by someone in your life, I invite you to step into the other’s shoes. Try to see and feel things from the other person’s perspective, and experience the relief and connection that empathy can bring to both of you.

By Dr. Marla Cohen 01/31/2007 03:59 PM

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