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Empathy: learn it, live it

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20WrongsVs1 posted 12/30/2013 09:19 AM

Empathy is a popular topic on SI. I believe empathy can be cultivated, because I'm living proof. Not saying I'm a pro, au contraire, but I have begun to be capable of it. So I believe anyone can develop empathy, if they want to.

But how? Empathy should be a required class in middle and/or high school. If every kid learned to be empathetic (or empathic?) there would be no bullying, less peer pressure, and those kids would be so skilled in commuications, they'd land amazing jobs and have great relationships as adults!

If you've deliberately become more empathetic due to infidelity, or for any other did you do it? What helped you? Books? Counseling?

As I wrote in another thread, the two primary tools that put me on the path were:
1) Identifying my feelings. My therapist handed me a list of a couple hundred feelings, and told me to write down, several times a day, what I was feeling. At first it was embarrassing. I was writing "neutral" or "ambivalent," which (for the record) were not on the feelings list. When I learned in IC why I'd severed ties with my feelings (PTSD from CSA) I gave myself permission to regard my Vulcan-like approach to emotions as an illness or defect, instead of embracing it as a character trait.
2) Learning to employ active listening and "when you...I feel" dialog. Active listening is, "What I heard you say is XYZ, did I get that right?" which is awkward, but wow! It clearly illustrates how inaccurate our assumptions about the other person's intentions can be!" And taking a moment to say, "When you wiggle your leg on the couch, I feel a little annoyed because I'm being jiggled around. I like to sit next to you, so if you need to wiggle, could you find another seat?" (That'd be to DS-9, not BH.) Which is not only more effective than, "Will you sit still!" or even "Sweetie, your wiggling is kinda annoying" but it doesn't invalidate the other person's actions or feelings.

#2 I learned from the book Nonviolent Communication by Rosenberg, which I recommend for anyone who feels completely clueless about empathy. It'll get you started on listening for a person's feelings when she speaks, instead of only to her words. My IC encourages the "when you...I feel" construct too.

It was pretty funny, we watched Star Trek IV last night. The one with the whales, where at the beginning of the film Spock is recovering his memories. Spock's got three computers quizzing him on obscure facts and ridiculously complex math problems, and he's firing back flawless answers. The computer then says....

How do you feel?

Spock says he doesn't understand the question. The computer repeats,

How do you feel?

Spock says, it's irrelevant.

BH and I looked at each other and laughed, because that was so completely and totally me before June 2013 when I started IC and reading the NVC book. Now...I can answer.

DixieD posted 12/30/2013 10:01 AM

20, thanks for your encouraging post. I'm going to look at that book. Sounds interesting.

I know my husband has developed a lot of empathy (along with remorse) post dday, which he never really had before, and I'm happy for him. It was like watching the Grinch's heart grow 2 sizes bigger.

Unfortunately I'd say I went in the other direction and I've lost a lot of mine. Probably for the same reason you mentioned, PTSD.

I still struggle to identify feelings and I have to work at it. It takes practice. I hope to be able to cultivate empathy again. I know I was well stocked in it prior to dday, but I just don't feel it the same way now. My husband says it's still there. He can see it, so I guess that's positive.

painfulpast posted 12/30/2013 10:35 AM

I understand that you've learned empathy by rephrasing questions, but I believe that's just more of a listening skill, so there are no misunderstandings. Empathy is simply the ability to 'feel' what the other person is feeling. It is developed as a toddler, or not. Parents should be given the class, not middle schoolers, imo.

The lack of empathy stems from inadequate parenting (or day care, or some other prominent person in the child's life). I think if parents understood how their behaviors would affect their children, they would be far less critical and conditional.

Again, I think it's wonderful that you've increased your empathy levels, and you seem very happy, which is a wonderful thing. I'm not here to shoot down your comments, and I hope they aren't taken that way. From the sounds of it, really listening to your own feelings helped unlock the door to seeing other's feelings. When you bury your own feelings, seeing (or caring about) other's feelings is probably much more difficult.

I'm only adding to the discussion - not discounting your success or methods.

[This message edited by painfulpast at 11:01 AM, December 30th (Monday)]

Neznayou posted 12/30/2013 10:41 AM

Thank you so much for sharing this information with us. For myself, identifying my emotions is something I continue to work on. I'll definitely look into the book you've recommended. Here's a recent moment in which I felt empathy with my Husband:

Saturday night my sister was at our family Christmas party back home. (We moved to another country about 7 months ago.) She Skyped me on her phone and passed me around the room to say a few words to various family members. In the living room, little children were walking around and playing; little children who had barely been crawling when last I saw them. My great aunt was there; they buried her husband of 60-some years just a few weeks ago. When we hung up, I burst into tears. It was not just my homesickness and a realization of all that I was missing. I also, suddenly, painfully empathized with my Husband who missed many, many family functions while he was deployed. It was truly a light-bulb moment for me.

Although the affair didn't happen while either of us was on active duty, my behaviour during the deployments was part of our pre-A marriage, the one in which I hid behind a wall. When he heard me crying, he came immediately to comfort me and listen to me. I apologized for the horrible way I had treated him while he was gone. I apologized for not really grasping how emotionally isolated he felt during all those years I shut him out. He hugged me tight, let me cry, and told me that the homesickness was about me missing my family. There are times when one moment has many layers.

Neznayou posted 12/30/2013 10:46 AM

20WrongsVs1, can you please give us more information about the book? I checked and found several by Marshall Rosenberg. I see A Language of Life, A Language of Compassion, Practical Tools, ...


20WrongsVs1 posted 12/30/2013 11:42 AM

I understand that you've learned empathy by rephrasing questions

If that was your take-away, you may have misunderstood me. I wrote that active listening is a tool that helps me understand what the other person is contrast to my previous, dysfunctional tendency to make negative assumptions.

I believe that's just more of a listening skill

You and I are in agreement on this. If you thought I was defining empathy as a "listening skill," then thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify that active listening was (as I said) merely a tool that put me on the path to becoming more empathetic.

The lack of empathy stems from inadequate parenting. It is developed as a toddler, or not.

A person may be capable of empathy, but not skilled in employing it. That's what I mean, by saying a person can deliberately become more empathetic if he wants to. My assumption is that a person with NPD wouldn't want to, because they're *perfect* just the way they are! But I'm a software architect, not a shrink, what do I know?

Parents should be given the class, not middle schoolers, imo

Parents, middle schoolers, empathy training for everyone, early and often! One can have empathy but not "be empathetic," and that's why I'd love to see it taught in schools.

20WrongsVs1 posted 12/30/2013 11:49 AM


The full title is
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

by Rosenberg, Marshall B. and Arun Gandhi

I apologized for not really grasping how emotionally isolated he felt during all those years I shut him out. He hugged me tight, let me cry, and told me that the homesickness was about me missing my family. There are times when one moment has many layers.

What a wonderful moment! When I first broke down and cried (and I mean, it had rarely happened in my adult life) several months after DDay, I was simultaneously sad and overjoyed. I was like, "OMG, I'm crying! This sucks but it's awesome!" So, I think I get what you mean by the layers.

painfulpast posted 12/30/2013 11:49 AM

Thanks for clarifying! I do agree with your statements, btw, if I wasn't 100% clear. I was just adding to them about parents being involved in learning how their behaviors can affect a child. I agree, learning for everyone, continually.

My assumption is that a person with NPD wouldn't want to, because they're *perfect* just the way they are!

Actually, deep down they know they are anything but perfect. They don't like themselves, so they 'hide' the real them, and instead wear a mask designed to charm others and make them like the NPD, which is the only way they can feel any kind of joy, is attention from others. It's believed that this stems from conditional parenting - if a child is happy and giggling, or being quite, or being cute and entertaining the adults, the parent is happy and praises the child. If the child cries or expresses sorrow, or needs, the parent is dissatisfied and criticizes or ignores the child. The child learns to 'act' to get its needs met, and in the process the real self is buried.

Way to much info. Kinda sad though, in a 'don't pet the bear in the cage' kind of way.

Kelany posted 12/30/2013 12:32 PM

My FWH used to say he had no emotions, that he couldn't feel. He can, he was just so detached he didn't know how. Therapy has done wonders for him. When I talk now he HEARS me and actively listens. It's astounding. It's changed him completely. Last night, he told me I was his best friend. I almost cried.

Manningup26 posted 1/1/2014 15:59 PM

I did a quick search on this and found the above youtube deal. About to give it a listen to gain a sense of Empathy. Interestingly, I wasn't thinking about my need to improve in this area - but I've heard this complaint for a VERY long time - 2014 is already looking up. Will let you know what I think. Thanks!

Manningup26 posted 1/1/2014 16:56 PM

OK, Part One seems to suggest in gathering an understanding of ones needs - sadly we have an inability to state our needs (according to Rosenberg). Then we must be able to see the 'humanness' in someone. Hmmm, will listen to part 2 soon.

I may need to read the book - unsure what I learned from the above summary

Manningup26 posted 1/1/2014 17:19 PM

OK, never mind. He has a whole workshop. May take a bit longer to digest it all. I'm dedicated to being an overall better person in ALL that I am - Spiritually, Professionally, Husband and any other personal pursuits.

Prayingforhope posted 1/2/2014 18:05 PM

Some great comments here...empathy for me is a hot button because I was completely void of it during the A. It was all ME ME ME and my complete lack of empathy allowed it to go on way too long. Total disassociation from my real life with my BS and kids, etc.

Then D-Day hits and guilt and shame landed like a bomb on top of me, but the REAL PAIN was seeing and FEELING what I did to my wife. And it motivated me to change, to try and figure out why all this happened and how to avoid it moving forward.

That got me to IC and THIS has been the key to starting to develop empathy. I've had so much trauma in my life that I was choosing to turn my emotions off. Shoving everything down inside and hiding it with booze, work, and most of all the A. Never facing the demons of my past...

And now it's all coming out and it scares the hell out of me. I cry now at the drop of a hat - a phrase in a movie, a question from my son, the words I hear in church - you name it, it hits a nerve in me and I start crying. I keep asking myself what my therapist has uncorked!

And however painful it is, the process is WORKING because every day I understand more and more and MORE the feeling of my BS. I'm even having days where all I think about are HER needs, her feelings, her healing process. This is a first.

Speaking as someone who knows me, I would have never thought empathy was something you could develop or discover or uncap inside yourself, but IT IS.

And now I find myself wanting more IC sessions, as painful as they are, because somehow, in a way I don't understand at all, they are helping.

Manningup26 posted 1/2/2014 18:33 PM


That got me to IC and THIS has been the key to starting to develop empathy. I've had so much trauma in my life that I was choosing to turn my emotions off. Shoving everything down inside and hiding it with booze, work, and most of all the A. Never facing the demons of my past...

What type of demons are you dealing with? I'm more sensitive (well I think I've always been sensitive) - but have lacked empathy! Sadly, my wife has become a bit 'hard core' - I'm sure it has something resulting from the A. Maybe it's God giving me a 2nd chance - I 'feel' like I'm back in the same place right before I had an affair. Perhaps being emphatic is what I need to display!

Prayingforhope posted 1/3/2014 04:46 AM

Manningup26, regarding demons I'm carrying a bag FULL of childhood trauma with me. Alcoholic and abusive mother, non-existent father, sprinkled in with all sort of insane family issues from premature deaths, to bi-polar grandparents, all hidden and secret under the protective haze of the church.

Through IC and an amazing book called "I don't want to talk about it" I'm realizing in a BIG WAY that my A was not about the A. It was about me hiding from my past and not wanting to confront the real problem - my depression, my trauma, my pain.

So much easier to shove it all inside and have sex instead...until it all blows up...

Hope that helps.

Manningup26 posted 1/3/2014 10:47 AM


Yes, this gives me additional insight - sounds like a mess. On top of the fact you are still dealing with being found out a few months ago! You have a LOT on your plate. I will check out the book you mentioned. I get the sense they acted one way in church and was 'off the chain' outside of church - which I'm sure sent a mixed signal of confusion etc. Anyway, in the end we all need to find a way to deal with our constant struggles (in whatever form). Those initial months are crucial - I absolutely HATED it! Full of anger, guilt and shame! Anyway, I may need to go back to IC for some 'tune-ups'!!

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