Love Letters to Humans (no. 58) — on Empathy

Relational joy practice: Empathy

The decision to follow someone else as they lead you through *their* experience.

I want to talk about empathy as a skill and a practice—as something we choose, not something we have or don’t have—and that might not sound like what many of us have learned.

The practice of empathy does NOT require us to feel other people’s big feelings. If this is news to you, you’re not alone. And if you’re feeling surprise, disbelief, suspicion, or even a bit of relief, I’m right there with you… but that’s not empathy; it’s resonance.

Sometimes we truly cannot know what someone else is feeling, feel their same feelings, or grasp the magnitude of what their experience means for them. Sometimes we cannot put ourselves inside what someone else is going through, no matter how much we want to relate, no matter how important it is to us to connect. And that’s okay—we can still practice empathy.

The skill of empathy asks us to disentangle our own messy, uncomfortable feelings from someone else’s, and witness—literally, behold—another’s experience with care. What a relief to witness someone who wants to be witnessed without indulging our sweet & hopeless urges to help, advise, empower, fix, resolve, make better, or ease discomfort. We do not even have to allow (because we have no power to allow or prevent anyone else’s experience). We can simply choose to be with. Not be in… be with.

A little note on empathy and privilege: generally speaking, where we hold privilege, we are notoriously poor at practicing empathy and quick to try and fix other people’s feelings (I’m looking at you cis men and grown ups). When we experience the frustration that comes with trying to help (or pry) someone out of their anger, fear, or sadness by using logic, distraction, warmth, resources, advice, understanding, dismissal, platitudes, reason, or a really great strategy, we’re likely grasping at and insisting on our perceived right to comfort. Attempting to avoid or cover up our own uncomfortable feelings of helplessness is internalized patriarchy and white supremacy culture at work. Friend, that helpless feeling is vulnerability, and it is a necessary ingredient in relational joy.

At the heart of joyful connection is the trust that we can be angry, scared, and sad in one another’s presence, helpless to do anything about it except let it move through us, and still be deeply and unconditionally worthy of belonging.

I want this for us.

Practice: Notice the desire to fix, solve, or advise when someone wants to share their feelings and experience with you. What connection is possible when you set aside the desire to avoid or control discomfort in yourself or someone else?

Bonus consent practice: If you’re unsure of what someone wants as they share their experience with you, simply ask—Are you looking for advice, encouragement, do you want me to just listen and be with you right now… or something else?