I am Director of Education and partner with Dr Firas Nakshabandi, MD, [see below] to deliver empathy lessons at Empathic-Resonance.
When people do not get the empathy to which they feel entitled, they start to suffocate emotionally. They thrash about emotionally. Then they get enraged. The response? De-escalate rage by acknowledging the break down—“It seems you really have not been treated well.” Clean up the misunderstanding, and restore the empathic relatedness. Empathy does many things well. One of the best is that empathy deescalates anger and rage.
Without empathy, people lose the feeling being alive. They tend to “act out”—misbehave—in an attempt to regain the feeling of vitality that they have lost. Absent an empathic environment, people lose the feeling that life has meaning. When people lose the feelings of meaning, vitality, aliveness, dignity, their emotions become unbalanced. When the emotions become unbalanced, their behavior does so too and goes “off the rails.” Sometime pain and suffering seem better than emptiness and meaninglessness—but not by much. People then can behave in self-defeating ways in a misguided attempt to awaken a sense of aliveness and regain emotional balance.
“Empathy is oxygen for the soul” is a metaphor. But a telling one. When people do not get empathy—and a short list of related things such as dignity, common courtesy, respect, fairness, humanity—they feel that they are suffocating—emotionally. People act out in self-defeating ways in order to get back a sense of emotional stability, wholeness and well-being—and, of course, acting out in self-defeating ways is self-defeating. Things get even worse. One requires expanded empathy. Pause for breath, take a deep one, hold it in briefly while counting to four, exhale, listen, speak from possibility.
Empathy is all about boundaries. Empathy is all about moving across the boundary between self and other. The boundary is not a wall, but a semi-permeable membrane that allows communication of feelings, thoughts, intentions, and so on. As noted above (p. 93), the poet Robert Frost asserts that good fences make good neighbors. But fences are not walls. Fences have gates in them. Over the gate is inscribed the word “empathy,” which invites visits across the boundary.
Some of the most empathic people that I know are also the strongest and most assertive regarding respect for boundaries. Being empathic does not mean being a push over. You wouldn’t want to mess with them. Where such people show up, empathy lives; and shame, cynicism, and bullying have no place.
In what is one of the defining parables of community, empathy is what enables the Good Samaritan to be open to a vicarious experience of what the survivor of the assault is experiencing; and then it is the Samaritan’s compassion and ethics that tell him what to do about it. The two are distinct. Yet empathy expands the boundary of who is one’s neighbor to be more-and-more inclusive, extending especially to those whose humanity has been put at risk by misfortune. Be inclusive.
The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Here empathy is both the end and the means. Reducing stress expands empathy; and expanding empathy reduces stress. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being. Empathy belongs on a short list of stress reduction practices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathy in the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul. But do not settle for metaphors. Evidence-based research demonstrates the correlation between health care providers who deliver empathy to their patients and favorable healthcare outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically exclude psychiatric disorders and include mainline medical outcomes such as reduced cholesterol, improved type 2 diabetes, and improvement in related “life style” disorders. For more details or a confidential, personal conversation, contact Lou or Firas.
See Dr Firas Nakshabandi, MD, board certified in psychiatry c/o empathic-resonance.org [Link: empathic-resonance.org].
Just in case you are wondering what Dr Nakshabandi looks like: