When teaching about empathy, author, speaker, and self-help phenom Brene’ Brown tells us that our brains are wired to run from pain - including emotional pain - whether it is ours or someone else’s. One of the opportunities we have in serving others through listening is empathetically sitting with them, allowing grace and space for the person to not be “fixed” but to feel whatever it is they need to feel. In her short video The Power of Empathy, Brown uses a sympathetic goat and an empathetic bear to illustrate how empathy - sitting alongside someone in his or her pain - allows the other person to feel accepted, validated, and cared for while being heard. (Pause, watch the video if you’d like.)
The challenge for me, though, is that sometimes it’s uncomfortable to allow someone I care about to be in pain. As a connector, counselor, mother, daughter, and friend, I know listening is a healing balm that can touch people’s souls… but what if the person in pain doesn’t want me to listen to them? What if they just want to sit in their pain and be quiet, be alone?
This happened the other day within my world. My extrovert ears heard him say, “I’m in pain and I want to be surrounded by people and connection so I don’t feel alone in this.” As an introvert, the message he actually intended to send was, “I’m in pain and I’d really like to be left alone so I can process and ponder this in silence.” Oh my - serious disconnect and communication breakdown. For about 80 seconds my head was spinning, wondering how I could climb into a cave and sit with him in his pain because I was determined that if given the chance to live out Brene Brown’s empathy video, I was going to be the bear. In that moment he must’ve thought, “seriously, Rebecca. Geesh. Just leave me alone.”
You see, the problem was, in this moment of his hurt my first reaction was to look at his pain through my own lens. Heeeellllooo, Rebecca. Look at your business card, Darlin’. This isn’t about you; instead, World Caring is about the other person. You insisting on listening (“Dude, I work for an organization built on listening - you’ve got to let me do this.”) wasn’t in service to him at all but instead an attempt to make yourself feel better about him hurting.
Part of sitting with people in pain must be the willingness to stop, put aside our own ideas, be nonjudgmental, understand the other person’s feelings (yes, Ms. Extrovert, even the need to be alone), and respond empathetically, meeting the other person’s need instead of considering my own. Graciously, Brown teaches that this is a skill that strengthens with practice, which tells me that it is something I can continuously develop so that maybe I can come closer to looking first through the other person’s lens next time I have the opportunity to sit with someone in pain. And yes, sometimes sitting with the person means giving them the needed space to be alone.
This process of listening, of World Caring, of living with empathy, it is a skill like any other that must be honed, developed, and refined. We will mess it up sometimes, but we will keep trying. I’m there with you, reader. I am still day-by-day learning to be the bear.
Listening, learning, leading beside you--