Tag Archives: empathy

Listen to Your Soul

 

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So much about our world today is making our souls shudder.

I’m referring to things like unleashed hatred, brazen condemnation of differences, unbridled exploitation, an emerging epidemic of violence, rudeness and disrespect in all forms.

Increasingly, we’re seeing that a cold-hearted mentality is valued—even admired—over a kind and warm heart.

These disturbing elements have been around for eons—though only faintly visible, so they’ve been easily ignored and denied. That convenience has evaporated. We’re forced to own some harsh truths about “us” and the evolving character of our world. Daily examples are displayed on every screen we own. They’re rampant in the entertainment industry, on social media, in the news and in the political arena.

Outrage, revulsion and anguish are natural responses, but we can’t bear to experience such emotions for sustained periods of time. So we have coping mechanisms that make reality seem a little more palatable. Here are a few:

  • Resort to anger and then blame or attack. Anger is a numbing agent. It gives us the illusion of power and control.
  • Discount the truth or seriousness of certain circumstances. We downplay or deny their existence.
  • Rationalize. We humans have a tendency to reflexively justify and side with the status quo . . . even when it’s wrong.
  • Adapt. That is, we get used to or oblivious to disturbing and unpleasant occurrences or conditions.

I have a recent example of adaptation in action:

Not long ago, while making a purchase in a department store, the background music was . . . well . . . let’s just say hard to take. The longer I stood there, the stronger my empathy grew for the employees, including the one waiting on me. “That music has got to get annoying after awhile,” I said. “Not really,” she said flippantly. “I’ve learned how to tune it out.”

We humans are wired with an ability to adapt to almost any annoying situation. It saves us from unending and sometimes unbearable torment. That can work to our advantage, as in the case of the sales clerk. But adapting has a downside. Consider what happens when we ignore the weeds in our garden. Not good.

Closing our eyes to troublesome realities doesn’t serve us very well. Things go wrong. In essence, the weeds get out of control.

We see this happening when we put Band-Aids on problems at home, when we ignore wrongs at work, and when we turn a blind eye to what our soul finds repugnant on the national or world stage.

Robert Bly, acclaimed poet and author, has garnered attention for his thoughts on the collective human condition—how we behave as a society and how that impacts the human psyche.  There are people, he says in Men and the Life of Desire, whose souls shudder when exposed to “the cruel things people can do to each other.” He also points out that “when you learn to shudder, you can’t take part in it any longer.” To illustrate, Bly used the movie Casualties of War. The character played by Michael J. Fox couldn’t bring himself to participate in a gang rape despite the fact that he was harshly ridiculed by the other men for refusing. Such men, according to Bly, are “not men, but bully boys.”

Fox’s character went against the gravitational pull of conformity and listened to his soul instead. I label that courage.

Bly goes on to say that our culture discourages shuddering. Let’s face it, we’re paying a stiff price for that—personally and socially.

In one of my posts from a few years ago, Be Brave and Speak UpI wrote:

Every time we ignore or neglect to speak out against unkind acts, we allow one more piece of debris to contaminate the collective spirit of humankind.

In other words, weeds multiply.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

 

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The Truth about Tears

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“Only strong people allow themselves to feel pain.”

–Heather, 16

If you haven’t watched the movie Inside Out, drop everything and head for a theater immediately! The story takes place inside the head of 11-year-old Riley, where five key characters reside—all representing her main emotions: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness.

The story carries a powerful message about the important role each emotion plays in our life, including those less desirable emotions such as sadness.

In the movie, Sadness starts out as a bother but ends up the hero. That’s because she knows how to handle Riley’s problems. Unlike the other emotions, she knows where to take things so they can change for the better.

She’s also the only character who demonstrates  empathy. When Riley’s imaginary friend—Bing Bong—from early childhood, becomes sad and discouraged, Joy is powerless, but that isn’t true of Sadness. She listens in the only way that counts—at the heart level. Bing Bong got better.

And when Riley’s parents got in touch with their sadness over Riley’s sadness, they were capable of listening. The result? Things got better. Prior to that, Riley believed that the only allowable emotion was joy. And in the movie we learn that joy has its limitations.

It was apparent that Riley was sheltered from negative emotions from the start. Therefore, she was poorly equipped to deal with the stresses and heartbreak of moving to another state at the age of eleven.

As I lost myself in this movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Heather, whom I quoted above, a teenager I counseled who was grappling with overwhelming sadness. Her parents were oblivious to that fact until they found her suicide note. Read her story here.

Both Riley and Heather needed the freedom to feel, and the freedom to express it. They needed to be understood, and that was best accomplished when their parents felt with them.

When I asked Heather: “When you’re hurting, what do you need most from your mom? Do you need for her to be strong?” Without any hesitation, she replied:

“No! I need to see her feelings. Showing feelings isn’t being weak—it’s being close.”

That says it all.  Thanks, Heather.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) 2015 Salee Reese

 

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Love is the Force

dad and daughter

“I want her to know she can come to me.”

Ben was referring to his twelve-year-old daughter, Madison. He sought my advice because 1) he’s concerned about her grades and 2) he realizes his approach is alienating her.

When Ben talks to Madison about her grades, he doesn’t talk. He yells and puts her down.

“Suppose your boss wanted you to do better at something, ” I asked, “would he get very far by getting upset and criticizing you?”

Ben sighed and said: “I get what you’re saying. I think I take after my dad. He was never physically abusive but he would be up my a** with his tone.”

A closed heart . . . an angry, critical approach only creates resistance and defensiveness.

What’s more, it creates separation and bad feelings—our relationships suffer.

I suggested he try approaching his daughter differently: “I’m noticing that your grades are slipping. What’s going on, hon? How can I help?'” The attitude of kindness that accompanies those words will give Ben his best shot at making something positive happen.

An open heart spawns trust and a close bond. Parent and child become partners instead of adversaries. It says: “Hey, I like you, and we’re together in this.”

Another client, Kim, was equally frustrated with her teenage daughter, Nicole’s, tepid response to a family outing. Kim was pushing, and Nicole was tuning her out. To break this deadlock, each would need to go beneath the surface and see the other’s true feelings—the pain. Such is the pathway to compassion—the only avenue for resolving differences. Interestingly, Kim’s true feelings centered around grief. Click here to read about our session.

By far, the single most important task of any parent is to build a strong bond with their child. Without that foundation, parents are handicapped in their ability to guide and discipline effectively. They may get obedience—which is usually no more than a mere superficial display—but they won’t get the respect and cooperation necessary for influencing a child’s life for the better.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

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Life’s Hidden Agenda

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The soul wants growth and that doesn’t translate into a smooth ride.

I think life is akin to climbing into a canoe and paddling down a stream that’s rife with challenges and uncertainties. Yes, it’s risky and stress-provoking—to say the least. But if we hang in there, we get really good at navigating obstacles. Call it “personal evolution.”

Frederick Douglass, the slave who became a highly admired writer, said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

One of the first obstacles we encounter in life entails our physical body—it’s limitations. As babies, we stretch to reach a brightly colored toy but our body won’t budge. We haven’t mastered crawling yet.  And when we do, we move on to tackle walking.

But what if someone rescued us from that particular struggle and just carried us everywhere? Would that person be doing us a favor? Not at all. Our muscles would remain soft and our potentials would come to an abrupt halt. Not only that, life would become rather beige.

It’s unlikely that someone would actually rescue us in such an extreme way, but rescuing in the form of overindulgence happens everyday. Click here to read a column I wrote on the subject and how it impacts us no matter what age we are.

Here’s an excerpt:

Overindulgence stifles personal courage. Consequently, adults who were overindulged as children tend to avoid taking personal risks. Even if their current life circumstances are miserable, they’re too mortified and paralyzed by fearfulness, and they feel too incapable of trying out different possibilities or options.

So despite our irritations with life’s bothersome problems, they benefit us. I like comparing it to garbage and manure. Both are nasty but they do fertilize our gardens and make things grow.

We need to be asking ourselves: Who are the people who possess wisdom, courage, stamina, flexibility and an understanding heart? We all know the answer. It’s those who have encountered and tackled countless obstacles. They’ve suffered losses and disappointments, endured mistreatment, experienced frustration, abandonment and betrayal.

Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth, expressed it well: “The challenges of our life situations draw out that which is deeper in us.”

So let’s grab our paddles and go out a bit deeper, shall we? 🙂

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Life’s the Teacher

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“Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the hardest things to endure is watching a loved one suffer and being unable to teach them the life lessons we’ve learned.

We’ve all been there, and we all end up pulling our hair out in utter frustration when our best efforts fall flat. If only that exasperating spouse, friend, child or whomever would just cooperate. In Brandt’s case, the loved one is his sister.

“Her list of bad choices keeps growing,” he said. “She’s adrift—led by her whims and desires. She dropped out of college but assured us all that she’ll try again later. I wish I could believe her.”  Click here to read Brandt’s full story.

Situations like Brandt’s—that are beyond our control—humble us. Not only are we faced with the truth of our powerlessness, but with the understanding that life itself is the teacher. Knowing that fact, however, doesn’t make it any easier to endure. We’re left with a form of grief that we resist absorbing.

It takes courage to let go, and it takes courage to feel the grief that follows. It’s far easier to fight, push or get angry.

It also takes courage to keep our heart intact and resist pulling away in judgment. Though, in some cases we have to pull away because remaining connected would prove detrimental psychologically or physically.

But that’s not true of Brandt and his sister. He can and should continue to be closely connected as a caring and supportive presence in her life. And it’s from that space, ironically, that he can influence the most. I remember asking him: “Just where do you think Kylie would be without you as her foundation and anchor?”

Yes, we can advise, and even shout warnings when it seems appropriate, but the other person is ultimately the one in charge of the path they choose.

Only through our own mistakes and heartache do we develop the muscle and the insight to direct our lives wisely. Another person cannot give that to us.

However, they can stand beside us with understanding acceptance. That’s powerful!

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Trained By a Dog

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Let’s face it, if we’re vague about what we want,

we won’t get it.

Like Karen, a former client, we’ll only cultivate inner frustration.

“Never—ever!—did I anticipate the day I’d be jealous of a dog,” she said, “but I am . . . If the dog wants to play, Sam drops everything and plays with him.”

“Dropping everything,” meant abruptly turning his attention away from Karen. Despite her obvious advantages—the fact that she’s human, intelligent and married to her husband—she felt reduced to second-class citizenship.

Clearly, the dog had the edge in their relationship. All it took was a certain whimper or a wet nose placed strategically on Sam’s lap and Karen was out.

My advice was strange but it worked: “Take your cues from the dog. I guess that means you gotta get more dog-like.”  Click here to get the full scoop.

 

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The Latest Wow: “Get over it!” Really?

chasm

According to the late theologian Paul Tillich, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

I rank listening right up there at the top of requirements for a well-running relationship. This includes love partnerships, parent-child relationships, friendships … you name it.

Listening is a lot bigger than the mere act of hearing with our ears. It entails reining in our straying thoughts, our knee jerk assumptions, judgments and impatience. It entails listening from a heart-space, not solely from an intellectual space.

It’s hard to master. I find that true both personally and professionally. One couple comes to mind—Ross and Sara. Ross expressed … no, he wowed me with a complaint common among many of my female clients:

“Just because someone says, ‘Get over it,’ doesn’t mean it stops hurting.”

He directed that comment to Sara after she discounted his feelings in our counseling session. He was sharing a painful incident, and instead of taking his pain seriously, she trivialized it.

Another client, Mindy, feels exactly like Ross. Her husband, Sam, not only discounts her feelings, he’s frequently sarcastic and has an explosive temper. In one of their marital sessions he said, “She cries over anything. I’m convinced she’s incapable of controlling her feelings.” I challenged him: “You accuse Mindy of being too emotional and incapable of controlling her feelings. Isn’t anger an emotion?”   Read their stories here.

Whether the one we love is our partner, our child, a friend, relative or acquaintance, statements like “Get over it,” “Why let that bother you?” and “You’re too sensitive” fail to relieve the hurting heart. Not only that, they can create a chasm between two people—a chasm that, if allowed to continue, may not be bridged.

I welcome your thoughts!

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