I do not love to cook.
When my mom died, I all but stopped making the effort.
A dear friend let neighbors know food would be welcome, and the meals poured in. Relatively easy. A loving effort from so many people. Empathy Stew.
The challenge these days is who should be cooking for whom?
In the summer we were the easily identifiable family in need — we’d waved goodbye on a two-week beach vacation, and returned home a month later with slight sunburns, a significant case of PTSD, minus a family member.
Lately, I’ve been managing my global pandemic self, by watching and listening, trying to get a sense of what/how other people are doing. I’m curious in all this distance on demand, how people are staying sane and/or connected.
Social media started off a little shaky — first, we had the maximize your potential quarantine — a push-up challenge, bread making, don’t waste a minute of all this delicious free time. Then the message morphed into don’t worry, no one is showering, we are all eating chocolate chips by the fistful and homeschooling is akin to climbing Everest. Stand down, sister.
These days there is a new message about how we can get through this impossible time. It goes something like this:
Empathy. We need to give everyone empathy. Empathy for all. Empathy will get us through.
Look, I get it. Empathy is generally such a good thing. At its heart, empathy is the calling on my deep down emotional experience to connect with yours. It’s the base of human connection. How could that be bad?
Okay, I’ll tell you.
Connecting from a place of empathy is energetically expensive and can leave you wrung out, depleted, and emotionally distant from yourself and everyone else.
When my mother died, I had very little empathy for anyone else. I carried my own grief in my hands everywhere I went. I had zero capacity to show up for someone else’s experience because I was all up in my OWN feelings, and I needed to STAY there until I was done with myself.
That is the truth we grievers don’t tell you.
Earlier than any griever is ready, we begin to act like we are able to hold your feelings about how your son’s teacher doesn’t understand him, or your husband starting drinking again. We do it because you have been so generous, so kind and understanding, and you are waiting for us to get back to normal…some part of us wants to test if normal is even still an option.
Listen, it’s not that we don’t care. That’s the problem. We do. Of course, we want to show up for you the way we did in the past — you deserve that. You deserve our genuine connection and empathy.
But if our arms are full of our own feelings, we just can’t hold yours.
I experience my grief as incredibly self-centered. Hard to see past my own hands. I don’t love it. In trauma work, there is a reason we remind people not to compare their hard stuff. Comparing is just a way of silencing and shaming feelings so they aren’t felt.
If I’m having a hard time homeschooling I can easily silence my frustration and fear by thinking of my friend’s husband who is about to put his health at risk during the day, while quarantining from his wife and five kids at night.
See how I did that there?
I pulled myself out of my own feelings by bringing in someone else’s pain. Comparing actually helps me abandon myself — an attractive, though rarely advisable approach.
It’s clever because I still get to have bad feelings — only it’s guilt and shame at what a terrible person I am, rather than sitting in my hard feelings of helplessness, frustration, loneliness, fear, ineptitude (the list is long) connected to homeschooling.
Neat trick, right?
Except later, when my friend calls because she is worried about her mom all alone and far away, I won’t don’t have any room for her feelings. Mine are still there needing attention and care.
The way I experience it is almost like I’m driving around with a little girl version of myself in the back seat of my car. She’s crying in fear, and frustration, and wants me to pull over and help her. Instead, she watches me drive over to someone else’s emotional house.
And she’s pissed.
She’s the one who says things like, “at least you still have a mom.”
We all know nothing good comes from “at least…”
The empathy gurus seem to agree we need to offer empathy to ourselves first before giving it to others. The equivalent of pulling the car over. We need to care about our feelings and be brave enough to feel them. The little one needs to know she can trust us to help her with her hard feelings and we need to know if we make an emotional pit stop, she’s not going to try and hijack the car.
Empathy is complicated. When I hold my tangle of feelings connected to homeschooling, I’m pulling through my lonely childhood playing “teacher” (an appropriately feminine role), my adult history as an undervalued teacher, my lifelong fear of never being good enough, and my present-day fear of not being a good enough mom.
It’s a mess.
But it makes sense to me. I can pull each thread, feel it, and drop it. Empty hands ready to call on empathy and share the emotional experience of holding feelings with people I love.
Have you heard that we need to be PRACTICING empathy? That moment when you get all jacked up because your friend is worried about her mom and your mom is dead…there is a message out there lightly dusted with shame, that says you shouldn’t fret that you are deficient of genuine empathy because you can make up for it by practicing empathy to connect.
What does that even mean?
Apparently, practicing empathy means noticing you are jacked up, pausing (probably taking a deep breath because, duh) calling on your past emotional experience and finding a way to connect.
I have to be honest. That sounds exhausting and a little inauthentic to me.
I’m a hugely empathetic person. There are many of us for whom empathy is too available. Before I became a therapist and learned ways to conserve and protect my emotional stability, a conversation with an upset friend could knock me to my knees. Their feelings were mine. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t going to my ex-boyfriend’s wedding this weekend, my emotions were there.
But look, if I am listening to a friend’s story of pain and fear and my first response is judgment or anger, I need to take a beat.
Because that reaction is about me.
My emotional arms might be full and I didn’t notice. Or maybe I did, but I wanted to show up anyway. But if I can’t put my own stuff down, I simply can’t carry it anymore. It’s not a matter of practice.
The biggest gift we can give ourselves and our loved one in that moment is to notice our own judgment reaction and pledge to give it some attention. Maybe not that very second but we can let the little girl in the back seat know that we see and hear her, and we will talk in a bit. If she trusts we will listen, sometimes she can agree to wait.
And in the meantime, we can validate.
I went back to work the week after my father’s funeral. His death had been a slow year of decline and the idea of sitting with clients seemed energizing and appealing.
That’s not how it felt.
I was exhausted, and irritable and my sessions didn’t feel great, frankly. I called my supervisor.
“Stop showing up with empathy. You already have so much of your own feeling in the room. Just validate. It will be enough.”
Good advice that I didn’t follow. Instead, I kept trying to be the empathetic therapist I had always been and threw out my back. I was off work for almost three weeks.
Seven months into my mother’s death, three weeks into shelter at home, I’m a validation ninja. My feelings are still all over the place. Sometimes empathy is right on the surface, other times it’s judgmental pain.
Luckily, validation is the spork of emotional tools. You can use it for almost anything and it’s language is completely simple.
“That makes sense to me. This is hard. There is no easy answer. I get it. This is so complicated. You are in pain right now. You wish things were different.”
Validation is essentially taking something you hear, repeating it and agreeing. It doesn’t require your deep feeling state. You can connect in a genuine way, without going down to your emotional basement.
Right now we all need to conserve our emotional energy because the lack of clarity around our health and safety means we are cycling through so many feelings. We are afraid, angry, sad, hopeless, helpless, grateful, caring, hysterical…
And the grief. God the grief. We are all losing. Losing lives, incomes, houses, sense of purpose, privacy, connection, sanity. It is all so much.
Let’s assume our empathy is there, wrung out, and exhausted. It doesn’t need any more practice.
Let’s be careful and let’s take care. Let’s care for and about each other. Don’t worry if it doesn’t feel like it used to. Nothing does. But we can do it. Start by validating.
Doesn’t that make sense?
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).