by Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D.
Every person has limits and thresholds for experiencing empathy towards another person. It becomes fruitless and useless to expect someone to feel empathy for you or someone else when they have reached the limits of their capacity for feeling empathy. You, yourself, have your own empathy limits, where someone else's actions, words, behavior seem so crazy and distressing to you that you feel your empathy limits being strained to the breaking point. There is no use being angry and disappointed with yourself when your empathy limits have been surpassed.
When this point has been breached by someone else's seemingly insensitive behavior, actions and words, you'll probably feel like a failure. On the surface, you are experiencing a failure like feeling for not being able to respond to the situation with empathy. Your empathic boundaries have been stretched, strained and broken. What can you do about this dilemma? You certainly would like to have enough powers of persuasion to convince the offending parties to stop their offensive words and actions. But, alas! That may not be the case and you are left with a dilemma.
I suggest a prayerful, feeling expressive meditative exercise that could increase your capacity for empathy in the future. Yes! You can pray, meditate and cry out your feelings about your empathy limitations. First, enter your meditative state by securing a quiet, dimly lit comfortable sitting, reclining or lying down position. Background meditative music will help facilitate migration into deeper brain centers. Eyes can be open or shut. Breathe comfortably and slowly through your nose, into your belly and then into your chest. Slowly let the air exhale through your mouth. You could chant the mantra, "OMMMMMMM!" Visualize a situation where you failed to empathize with someone else's inability to empathize. Guess what? The limits of your ability to empathize were triggered by the other person's limited capacity for empathy feeling.
Focus on this scene and let your feelings and pain be expressed. If it is within your spiritual orientation, you may pray to receive the divine gift of expanded and increased capacity for experiencing empathy in those situations where someone else is speaking and behaving in a crazy making fashion. Wait a few minutes and the heavenly gift for expanded empathy will enter into your very being. Give thanks! At this point, you'll experience a greater sense of confidence in your ability to withstand other people's unintentional attempts to drive you crazy. You may also pray for the expansion of the other person's capacity for feeling empathy. Let's face it! We can all use more empathy.
Call a friend and practice you're listening skills. Are you listening with true empathy? Do you paraphrase and reflect back the notion that you are truly listening and understanding what the other person is telling you? Do you give positive, supportive and encouraging feedback?
Create a mental or written list of situations and people who have stretched your empathy limits to the straining/breaking point. Let yourself ponder and be aware of when, where and with whom your empathy limits get stretched. Example: when being criticized, judged, evaluated, provoked and attacked etc. etc. Your empathy limits may crash and burn when someone makes a powerful paralyzing influence bid.
Assignment: Take such a past situation and mentally rehearse your non-paralyzed response. Acknowledge the other person's attempt to influence you and how your conformity to that influence bid would render you unacceptable to yourself. You might say, "It sounds like there is something in my style or a way of presenting myself that offends you. It is not my intention to offend you. You are picking up something in me that is unpleasant to you; but it is not unpleasant to me. Therefore, I cannot change that and be true to myself." Another phrase you could use is, "Is there something that I said or did that offended you? Can you tell me exactly what it is and I will see if it is something that I wish to change?" You could try, "I can see your point. But, you may have confused me with someone or something else."
Perhaps someone has requested that you change something in yourself. If your internal desire to change that particular thing matches the other person's influence bid, you will be in empathic agreement. If their attempt to influence you to change or do something, does not match up with something desirable and syntonic within you, you will appear resistant, argumentative and defensive. At that point, your fight/flight responses will be tested to the limit. You may get a very powerful surge of fear/anger hormones flooding your amygdala/limbic system. It will take everything that you have to control yourself and allow your pre frontal lobes/neocortex neurotransmitters to take over and handle the situation with patience, calmness and empathy.
In the realm of Primal emotional intelligence, there's a deep emotional reservoir of Primal, empathic emotional feelings. This area of the limbic system is deeply connected to various parts of the gut viscera and the heart. When these Primal, empathic emotional feelings are triggered and tapped into, a surge of primordial scenes, images and feelings stream into conscious awareness. These powerful experiences create profound emotional intelligence changes. Empathy becomes a powerful conscious force in a person's life. Thus, we see the birth and activation of deep limbic, empathic intelligence. This limbic, neocortical empathic capability separates us from lower evolutionary life forms. It makes us different from fish and lower reptiles. It allowed us mammals to evolve from our reptilian ancestors into social creatures more adaptable to a wider universe. This empathic creation of the limbic system and its connection to the neocortex, will eventually assist us in reaching out to the stars and our interstellar neighbors. It will also propel us to the messianic age, where love, compassion and understanding rules.
Part of training yourself to improve, expand and deepen your empathy skills, will be tests in real life situations. Your self-awareness is your greatest ally in being able to detect when someone else needs your empathy. If someone approaches in a certain way that irritates you, then you are probably in an empathy testing situation. Remember, your response to the other person is about you and how you intend to use your empathy skills to help and understand this other person.
Empathy tests may occur at inconvenient and undesirable times. You will have to catch yourself when someone comes at you unexpectedly. Of course, it is always desirable for you to prepare yourself for unexpected surprises. Expect the unexpected and you'll not be caught off guard, where you might launch a dissonant response. First and foremost, practice with loved ones and family members. They will usually be the ones who will present you with the most challenging tests of empathy. Use your family as an empathy training ground that can be transferred to the larger world.
As a mental health professional, I have had the privilege and honor to work with all types of people. Some of these people have been extremely disturbed, attacking and provocative. Sometimes, it has taken everything that I have in order to remain calm, empathic and understanding. People will not always communicate with you in a way that is easy for you to understand. But, if you remember that underneath all garbled and confused messages, there is a meaning and clarity waiting to be discovered. If you convey your willingness to understand what another person is trying to say, you will be empathically successful.
A person with schizophrenia may have trouble communicating in a direct and organized fashion. Fragmented sentences, incoherent thought patterns, slow and disconnected phrases intermixed with hallucinations, delusions and telepathic voices can cause a listener to become frustrated and non empathic. You can imagine how frustrating and embarrassing it is for the brain disturbed person who desperately wants to be understood. If you are faced with such a challenge, you could say, "I want to hear and understand exactly what it is that you want me to understand. Now, what exactly is it that you wish for me to know and understand? Take your time and try to get it out!" This is where sincere reflective listening and paraphrasing pays off. When the person feels non-judgementally received, understood and accepted, mental confusion usually clears up. Empathy cures!
Empathic listening also requires the use of proper assessment and prescription skills. You can't solve a problem until you fully hear and understand it. Some problems are quite simple and require easy assessments and simple prescriptions. Other problems are quite complex and require multiple strategies and prescriptions. For example, with the person who has a mental disturbance, I would want to know if they have had a lapse in taking medication. I have been very involved in the study and implementation of megavitamin therapy. One person may have had a reoccurrence of mental disorder symptoms, because of forgetting to take medications and/or megavitamins. One young man started to show the confusing signs of a schizophrenic relapse. Empathic listening discovered that he had only taken half of his recommended dosage of niacin therapy. Empathic discussion of his experience of telepathic voices helped him to discern the differences between higher and lower order of voices, and real vs. regressive telepathic episodes. Restoration of full megavitamin therapy and enhanced understanding of his symptoms restored his functioning.
I have seen the same results obtained with bipolar disorder, severe depressions, anxieties and distressing personality disorders. I have also heard many of my psychiatric colleagues express an inability to treat certain disorder classifications. My guess is that my esteemed colleagues may have been pushed to the limits of their empathic capabilities. Perhaps, what they needed was direct training in the powerful emotional skill of empathy. One young man that I successfully treated, claimed that he had been to 10 different psychiatrists and that they all wanted to medicate him before they would start any kind of therapy. Can you imagine that 10 psychiatrists empathically failed to tune in to this young man's desire to be listened to and understood? Not one of them thought of inquiring about how he felt concerning the taking of medication. I listened and understood that if I had insisted autocratically that he'd take medication, before he felt received, understood and accepted, he would have bolted from therapy. His progress was rapid and his cooperation was secured through patience and his feeling that I was truly there to listen and understand. By winning his trust, I was able to emotionally reeducate and reorient him towards utilizing his latent strengths, while supporting his much-needed self-examination.
Part of becoming more empathically capable is your willingness and ability to be open and receptive to someone else's feedback. Most of us like to think of ourselves as being honest and open. But upon closer examination, you may notice that the willingness to receive feedback from someone else is usually a decision that you choose to make or reject. Feedback, when received, has the power of changing you and your behavior. Granted, that some feedback is not helpful at all and may even be destructive in the communication process. But, let's try a simple experiment. Make the decision, that the next time a relative or a person close to you, decides to give you feedback, that you will listen and be open and vulnerable to the effects of that feedback.
Forget for a minute your justifications and rationalizations for not accepting that person's feedback. Let the information get inside of you and empathically reflect back to that person your understanding of the feedback. First and maybe foremost, the feedback may affect you in a positive way and secondly, it might give the sender the feeling of being influential with you. When you allow another person to feel effective at influencing you, you make them feel successful and perhaps more loving towards you. It also gives them the sense that you are an open and receptive person and that their influence bids are helpful and effective. By being open to the other person's feedback, you encourage more two-way communication and creative contributions through the process of feedback.
When feedback is non-critical, non-judgemental, non-evaluative and respectful, it becomes a powerful tool for personal, relationship and business growth. All relationships depend upon effective feedback for change and growth. It pays to realize that the power of receiving feedback will enhance your empathic capabilities. The most successful relationships and partnerships are the ones that fully practice and understand the power of feedback that is non-critical, non-judgemental and respectful. Unfortunately, in highly charged emotional situations, people will usually resort to negatively evaluative, disrespectful judgments. This usually reflects the presence of hostile and defensive emotions. It is difficult to give and receive effective respectful feedback when you are engaged in fight/flight/freeze enmeshments. It is also very difficult to be in a fully open, receptive feedback mode when you detect any form of judgment or evaluation. Generally speaking, people are sensitive to negative criticism and will defensively tense up at the slightest hint that there is something wrong with them.
We all like to think of ourselves as competent and well-meaning and when someone hurls or implies a negative judgment of us, it almost automatically triggers a defensive response. Once you recognize this natural defensive tendency in yourself, you can make conscious revisions on how you react to such feedback. It is probably much easier to process someone else's feedback when you personally solicit or seek it out. But when feedback comes at you by surprise, you do not know what to expect and your natural tendency will be to protect yourself. Any situation where you involuntarily find yourself receiving feedback can be nerve racking and uncomfortable. You probably feel much more comfortable when someone else asks you how you feel about a certain situation. If you are allowed to give feedback to yourself first, you might be able to soften the impact of the other people's feedback giving weaknesses. Remember that the goal of receiving and/or giving feedback is to help you or another person to change, grow, solve a problem or achieve a goal.