Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D.

Empathy When It Really Counts 

Put Down That Baggage

Two tips for personal reflection that will help you be a better friend

Posted May 03, 2017

Illustration by Emily McDowell
Source: Illustration by Emily McDowell

We’re human. Most of us carry grudges. They can be useful: Grudges are helpful in shielding us from the people in our lives who’ve treated us badly or taken advantage of our vulnerability. But as much as that coping strategy might work to protect us in the short term, too many grudges are like excess scar tissue, blocking our ability to make rewarding emotional connections. That’s when our smart self-preservation strategies turn into harmful forms of self-sabotage. If we want to develop relationships that weather life’s imperfect times, we have to be capable of weathering people’s imperfections, too. One way to let go of resentments that no longer serve us is to first consider what was given to us that we may have failed to notice at the time.

In the depths of our suffering, “valuing what we receive” can be a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes, the vastness and intensity of emotions of despair or fear can crowd everything else out and keep us from seeing the beautiful things being offered to us. The irony, of course, is that this is the time when we need these beautiful things the most.

My own family experience taught me the value of being able to receive care, however I found it. But this lesson didn’t come easy. My younger life narrative — in which I believed no adult had stepped up when I lost my mother to mental illness — experienced a much needed shift when I happened upon some contradictory evidence. The evidence was in the form of a letter, which came while I was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Africa. I’d written to my mother’s only friend about being scared to return to the United States with no place to go home to. In her response, my mother’s friend didn’t offer me a place to stay, and that had hurt. Fifteen years later, I read the letter again and found something important that I had failed to see earlier, which represented a completely different story from the one I’d told myself. She'd actually written: “Sometimes we all need a mom. I want to be your mom when you need one.” Somehow, in the depths of my longing, I missed what I had probably most needed to hear. And it’s probably true that I was disappointed with many of the people in my life, which, upon reflection, was a lot about failing to notice what I was being given.

Illustration by Emily McDowell
Source: Illustration by Emily McDowell

This is difficult advice to follow, but when you think about your own experience of pain, and how others were or were not there for you, it’s useful to pay close attention to, and learn to recognize, who is there for you now. Notice each gesture from a friend, family member, stranger, colleague, or neighbor who comes your way to give you comfort — a hug, a listening ear, a ride, an offer to see a movie. Cherish it. No need to write a thank-you note or express anything outwardly — just the act of noticing the gesture will reflect your gratitude and make you an easier person to give things to.

This act of noticing and being grateful is not about becoming someone who sees the bright side of everything; that person is really annoying. Instead, it’s about opening ourselves up to notice the generosity that is actually there, and that often comes in forms we never expected.

If people are afraid of failing us, they will more likely shy away. Not because they are bad or evil. Like all of us, they’re just scared humans who hate the feeling of failure. There are people who let us down, over and over again, and learning to expect less of them is a great practice in self-care. But the kind of people we want attract in our lives are sincere and well-meaning—and the more likely we are to notice what we do receive, the less likely we are to notice what we failed to get.  

This is a useful outlook that helps us not only to experience more bounty, but also to give with more joy. Because when we feel that others have failed us with their “deficient” efforts, we’ll often judge our own efforts to comfort by the same (impossible) standards. Such high standards for ourselves can make us feel inadequate, prompting us to shy away and do nothing for fear that our efforts will fall short. Or, they can cause us to give too much, or with excessive worry, which are tendencies that make our gifts harder to receive.

There’s Medicine in Empathy

  • Think about someone who let you down, either a big or small way, but in a way that really matters to you — it could be a close friend, a family member, a neighbor, anybody. (Don’t think about somebody who always lets you down; that person should just be an ex-friend.)
  • Write a small fictional note to that person starting with: “I felt let down when you _______.”
  • Before you start writing, ask yourself these questions. (The answers could be yes to any or all of them, and you are still allowed to feel disappointed. Or the answer could be no to all of them, and you are still allowed to feel disappointed.)
    • Did I fully admit to my needs at this time?
    • Was I able to fully appreciate the person’s authentic gift (that didn’t look like what I thought should be offered)?
    • Did I ask for more than this person could handle at this time, or over a series of times?
    • Is this individual a different person now?
  • Then, if you feel prepared, you can consider forgiving this person. The point of forgiveness is not for the other person’s benefit; it’s purely for yours. Because once you recognize your grudge or anger and see its source, it will help bring compassion and empathy to the situation and help you discard the resentment that can get in the way of helping others who need you: “I forgive the person for shying away from me because _______.”

Empathy Tip

Forgiveness doesn’t mean burying our feelings and hoping that they’ll just go away. To successfully forgive, we need to take a look at the source of our anger or hurt with the help of listening friends and, occasionally, a professional. Often, such feelings are rooted in our own sense of unworthiness. Forgiveness comes when we’re able to recognize that the other person’s actions were more about them — their own motivations and context — than about us. (That insight may or may not justify their behavior.) It’s not so much that we forgive to forget, but that we forgive in order to learn about others, to learn about ourselves, and to let go of the resentments that hold us down.

From There Is No Good Card For This: What to Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love. Copyright © 2017 by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.

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