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We need to develop our empathy muscles in these troubled times

" I have lived with my partner for over forty years and as a psychotherapist I am embarrassed to say that my empathy muscle could do with a little revitalizing."

Gabrielle Rifkind
8 April 2020, 10.28am
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Flickr/Alex Holyoake. Some rights reserved.

Many of us are super-stressed – Covid-19 has turned up the dial on our emotions. Our mental health is as much at risk as our physical, faced with death on our doorstep, fear and anxiety about the future. People are worried about jobs, food supplies and paying the bills. Old dysfunctional patterns in relationships are at risk of becoming even more extreme: the spike in divorces in Wuhan confirms this. So, how can we keep our human relationships in good enough shape and can empathy be a tool to help navigate this eerie new normal?

Confined in small spaces, without the usual diversions to let off steam we are hyper vulnerable to annoying each other. Our behaviour will span from loving to angry, with petty arguments and sulky silences. We have a propensity to regress in the company of our dearest and to show the least attractive sides of our personalities, often being kinder and more generous to friends and strangers.

So what can empathy contribute? it is a state of mind in which we genuinely want to hear what is going on in the mind of the other and understand how they think and feel. This does not mean that we agree with them and it is not sympathy. But it is a particular kind of listening that is open, in which we genuinely want to hear what the other person has to say. This might sound easy but most of the time when we communicate, we talk over the other person, seldom listen and try to work out how to undemine their argument before they have even finished. We are more interested in winning and being right than genuinely listening to what the other person says.

Empathy is like a muscle that needs training and when we are feeling stressed and anxious it is often the last thing we want to do. We have old habits and patterns that are often our comfort blankets and it is particularly difficult with people with whom we are close. I experimented recently with my son and I definitely needed some training ; psychotherapists are suppose to be good at this but there was a complete empathic failure on my part. I had a series of questions lined up in my head to deny the validity of what he was saying before he had had a chance to finish.

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In my trade, I work with the destructive and creative sides of human behaviour. We are capable of being both kind and loving but we are also equally capable of being insensitive, cruel, and at times humiliating to those we love. The passionate differences between the Hobbes stereotype (believing we were nasty and brutish) and the Rousseau stereotype (the romantic) rages deep inside all of us.

I am especially moved (sometimes to tears) when my clients express emotional intelligence and the capacity for empathy. It is very powerful to witness clients who may have initially came to therapy in a state of anger and frustration towards partners, children, parents or friends, who then develope their capacity for empathy. Having previously felt affronted and abused in these relationships, their increased capacity to get into the mind of those to whom they are close can transform toxic relationships to more healthy ones. It is not going to be possible for everybody to do therapy – (nor will they all want to) – but practising a little empathy at home could see more relationships survive the current crisis in better shape.

A good place to begin

So if we are to be more empathic, a good place to begin will be at home under lockdown. We could choose a moment when nobody wants ” to murder ” each other, when the emotional temperature is low. The timing of our empathic enquiry and the language will matter. We could start by asking our partner, our flat-mates, our children, how they manage stress. We might think we know, but we probably don’t and we could try listening carefully with an open mind and ask them what they think would help at the moment. Their answer may well surprise us: perhaps they are craving a cuddle, or perhaps they would prefer a little alone-time.

I have lived with my partner for over forty years and as a psychotherapist I am embarrassed to say that my empathy muscle could do with a little revitalizing. Our dance of annoying each other is pirouetting around the current crisis with some snarky behaviour on my part. My Pollyanna tendencies to be upbeat and positive – insisting that even if we get this deadly virus we are in a low risk group – is met by his more gloomy outlook. We are both right and it is important to be neither delusional nor to lose hope. If only we could swap positions some time, life might be a little more harmonious. I have noticed that as I have lifted my mask of denial, he is talking more positively.

As a psychotherapist, entering the consulting room, I frequently experience enormous relief. A respite from focusing on the minutiae of my own life and instead, working my empathy muscle to enter into someone else’s life. The reason psychotherapy is so satisfying is that amidst the emotional pain of those we sit with, we are always searching for human connection. This search is not only for the therapy room. Having social contact, particularly with those with whom we are close, can help modify our world and bring us back from our own disturbing thoughts.

Many people are suffering the pain of self-isolation, but there have been wonderful demonstrations of reaching out: to friends, family and strangers, enlarging the bonds of intimacy. We have joyfully participated in saluting NHS staff and other key workers dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in the "Clap for Carers". There has been a plethora of revolutionary ways of communicating online from Bar Mitzvahs, to flute meditation classes, to rave dances and Ukulele lessons. These are collective acts of civic solidarity and coronavirus defiance and expressions of deep empathy.

Let’s reach across the barricades to find the space for practising empathy, both with those with whom we are close and new acquaintances. It will be a challenge to use our empathy muscle, but it may save us from a visit to the divorce lawyers or divorcing our friends if we can work on developing this part of ourselves during these anxious and disturbing times.

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