Pillow Talk

“Hey. You awake?”

“I am now. What’s up, Mister?”

“I have a weird question.”

“Ooh, I don’t know. Is it kinky?”

“No.”

“No? Well that’s a damn shame! Just kidding, my dear. What’s your question? Fire away.”

“Ok. It’s a bit embarrassing. It’s about them.”

“Uh oh. What’s up?”

“Yeah. Well. Hadn’t thought of them in a while, you see.”

“Right.”

“Well let me back up, and begin by saying that, despite everything that happened the last 20 years, despite all the crap, there were plenty of good times too.”

“Ok so you miss her. Wait. Oh God, I don’t even know which one. Oh my God, both of them?”

“Yes. Holy shit, how do you do that?”

“Wait, I’m not done yet. And now you’re about to ask me if I miss him. He Who Shall Not Be Named.”

“Ok, either I’m really transparent or you’re really good.”

“Well I learn from the best.”

“Thanks. Look, I want to know—”

“Of course, darling.”

“Most of all because I want to know all about you.”

“Aw. Thanks, sweetheart.”

“You’re welcome. But part of me also wants to know what might be in store for me down the road.”

“Of course love. Ok, so let me tell you. I’ll preface this by saying your mileage may vary. But I don’t think it will, and if it does at least not too much.”

“How so?”

“I’ll explain later.”

“Oh!”

“Anyway. The answer to your question is yes, but very rarely.”

“Aha. Why?”

“Well, if I have to talk to him for some reason, I feel pangs, because we did spend ten years together. That’s a lot of time, plus a lot of common language and shared references. But here’s the thing, love: that man is dead and gone.”

“When? You never told me he—”

“Relax. He’s still alive, of course, but the man I married is dead and gone. And to be perfectly honest, so is the woman I was. As a result, the pangs are pretty brief.”

“I see.”

“He broke my heart. That’ll kill a lot of things in a person.”

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“Thank you. Ok. Now. Are you ready for the punch line?”

“There’s a punch line? God, I love you.”

“There’s always a punch line. Come on, sit up with me for this.”

“Ok.”

“Now give me your hands.”

“They’re yours. All right. What’s the punch line?”

“That man made me who I am today. What I’m saying is, if my marriage hadn’t fallen apart as horribly as it did, if I hadn’t spent years walking around this house, looking for all the tiny little pieces of my heart to glue back together into something stronger, I wouldn’t be this current version of myself. Which, to be frank, is really the first version of myself I’ve ever truly liked.”

“Really.”

“Oh yeah. Ok, love. Now it’s your turn.”

“Aha. Well. Ok. Before them, I suppose I was at best a partial person in relationships.”

“Yes, I agree. But explain.”

“Well that I spent so much of my time trying to figure out what they wanted, and trying to give them that, that I lost sight of who I was and what I wanted.”

“Right. And what happened when you did finally speak up for who you are, for what you wanted or needed?”

“Can we skip that part?”

“Sorry. But ok, right; now would you be who you are now, had it not been for them?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Exactly. You know who you are and what you want, and you’re a lot less afraid to say so than you were before, from the looks of it.”

“Yes.”

“Plus you have me, so life is perfect!”

“Ha! Yes.”

“Ok. Now it’s my turn to ask a really awkward and embarrassing question.”

“Sure, go for it.”

“Can we go to sleep?”

“Of course. Love you. Night night.”

“Love you. Good night.”

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Oh Really?

This is my retelling of an old Zen story. I tell it from time to time, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

There was an old Zen monk in hermitage who was revered and widely praised for living a pure, holy, and good life. 

One day, a young lady from a neighboring village discovered she was pregnant. She was terrified. She did her best to disguise the pregnancy, but soon, the baby began to show. Her parents were furious.

They demanded she name the father. At first she refused. But the more she did, the angrier they got, and the more pressure they applied to her. Eventually she cracked, and named the old monk.

The parents grabbed their daughter by the hand and took her to him. “Old man!” They didn’t bother to refer to him by his honorific. “Get out here right now!”

The old monk came out, smiling. He asked what was the matter.

The father pointed to his daughter and said, “that! That is the matter!” 

“Oh really.” 

”Yes, really! You did this! She told us everything!” 

“Oh really,” was all the monk said.

The family went home and told everyone about the monk. At first, people had trouble believing them. But very quickly, word spread that the monk was not who he seemed to be, and that he was a very, very wicked man indeed.

Some months later, the child was born. The parents took the infant to the monk, who was no longer welcome in the village. They demanded that he raise the child, since it was his. 

“Oh really,” said the monk, as he accepted the child.

A few more months passed. Then, almost a year to the day they first came to the monk, the family returned. The daughter was ashen. 

“Master, we are so very sorry.” 

“Oh really.” 

“Yes. Our daughter finally confessed and told us the truth. You are not the father. It is a young man from a neighboring village.” 

“Oh really.” 

“May we have the child back and raise him with us, his true family?” 

“Oh really,” said the monk as he handed the child back without hesitation. They were both smiling.

Till Death Do Us Part

I think everyone who goes through a divorce remembers and struggles with one of the most familiar parts of the marriage ceremony. It echoes in our heads throughout and sometimes even long after our marriages, right alongside such goodies as for richer or poorer or in sickness and in health.

For us it’s the infamous Till death do us part.

Weren’t we supposed to stay together until one of us dies? You can imagine how those words can make divorcing people feel, even if they don’t believe in God.

We said all that in front of our friends and family. Did we not mean it? Did we just not understand?

I think these interpretations take death too literally. That is to say, of course bodies can die during a marriage. But a whole lot else can as well.

Love, for example, can die. Sometimes to be born again with the same person. Sometimes with another.

Sometimes love takes a vacation, then comes home. Other times, it leaves and never comes back.

But when love dies (especially erotic love), a basic warmth and affection can still remain. I think we all know couples like this who stay married forever.

Bodies are important, but they alone don’t constitute a marriage. And while love is important in marriage — perhaps even essential — the heart of a marriage is not love.

It’s respect. Respect is the retaining wall that holds back the worst of ourselves from one another. It’s what lets us be furiously angry at another without that anger in any way threatening our deepest love. And it’s what keeps us from inflicting the deadliest part of our pain upon those we’re closest to.

Sadly, it’s all too often the case that we don’t realize the role that respect plays in a marriage until it starts to fail.

When we feel disrespected, in or outside of marriage, we might say, “hey, you’re not treating me with respect.”

Sometimes such words come just in time for respect to be restored. “Oh my God, you’re right; that was wrong of me, and I’m so sorry I hurt you like that.”

Sometimes they come too late. “Respect isn’t given, it’s earned! If you want respect, start acting like you deserve it!”

When we have trouble treating one another respectfully, it might be because we were never treated respectfully, as children, or when we were most broken. Treating someone close to us disrespectfully can also be a way of restoring a sense of power and control, precisely during those moments when we feel most frail and vulnerable.

When respect falters, when we see it struggling, we might try to give it medicine. In the worst cases, we might even give it CPR. I think this is what marriage counselors and couples therapists do.

In an ideal world, respect comes roaring back to life. Spouses start once again expressing themselves fully while treating each other fairly, and without injuring one another. This is critical when spouses disagree fiercely about something important.

Disappoint, irritate, frustrate, even hurt one another, yes.  But never injure. Hurt heals when there’s respect. Injury only gets worse.

Sometimes, though, respect expires. Here’s where death gets the final word: the barriers to anger dissolve. Intimacies and secrets, which once bonded, now become weaponized. Spouses begin using one another as scratching posts or punching bags.

Things get said that can’t be taken back, and permanent damage is done to persons and relationships. Apologies cease to be made, and when they are, it’s more or less sincerely, more or less genuinely. When they come, they’re too late, and can’t even begin to heal the pain.

Time takes over that role, the role that was once fulfilled by the person hurting us.

The soul of a marriage dies when respect is lost. And that’s when marriage changes from a partnership into a prison.

Once a certain basic respect for someone is gone, there’s no bringing it back. And when you stay in a relationship where respect has died, your soul dies too, right alongside that of the relationship.

Sometimes that happens slowly and imperceptibly. Sometimes it happens rather suddenly.

Here’s the crucial point: the death that parts us is not our physical death. And love can long outlast the physical bodies that prompted it.

It’s not the death of love that parts us. Many marriages survive the death of love. Some even depend on it.

No, the death that parts us is the death of respect. It does so by announcing, more or less clearly, that we have to leave the relationship: for the sake of our soul, for the sake of our survival.

Beginnings

I remember the day perfectly. 

I strode into the room, beaming with pride, my infant daughter strapped to my chest. Four months after becoming a dad, I was still full of energy and excitement. 

Underneath it all, however, I was terrified. I didn’t know any at-home dads in my area, and more than a few people in my social circle had expressed concern about the decision to put my career on hold while my wife pursued hers.

So when I read an ad about a New Parents play group in my town, I leaped at the chance.

“Hi, I’m calling about your play group.” 

“Yes, tell your wife we meet Tuesday mornings.” 

“Oh it’s for me.” 

“What?” 

“I’m an at-home Dad.” 

“Oh.” 

“I hope that’s ok. I don’t want to intru—” 

“Not at all. Can you come in two weeks?” 

“Sure; thanks!” 

“Not a problem.”

Looking back, I realized I fell victim to a common occupational hazard for therapists. When you spend your day reading between the lines, you tend to relax after hours. This means sometimes you miss some very important social signals.

When the day arrived, I dressed up my daughter in her very best playwear and headed to the group. I approached the mat where the moms were sprawled out, playing with their infants and toddlers. 

Not a single dad in sight. I took a deep breath, and kneeled down to unleash my daughter from her chest carrier. 

The moms bolted up in unison, like a tribe of meerkats. “Hi,” I said, extending a hand to the nearest one and introducing myself.

The tallest mom took my hand sheepishly, with the tips of her fingers, anxiously looking at her friends for guidance. Suddenly I wondered if I’d remembered to bathe.

“This is my daughter,” I said, trying to break the ice. My daughter — far more socially skilled than me — had already identified a playmate, and was admiring his toy truck.

Another mom spoke up. “I think there are some dolls over there for your daughter.” 

Without a chance to think about the gender stereotypes being offered, I said “oh thanks,” and immediately went over to look at the pile where she was pointing. I didn’t find any. 

When I came back, the moms had scooped their kids and were huddled together at the crafts table. At the opposite corner of the room.

Soon it was time for play dates and birthdays. Most moms were easy to schedule things with at pickup and drop off, but there was always a subset that seemed a bit leery. It was especially tough if they were moms of kids my kid wanted to hang out with. 

I’d introduce myself and ask them to call or email me if they were interested in a play date; but if they were, they’d call or email my wife instead (my wife runs two businesses and gets a ton of messages daily).

“They probably think you’re trying to hit on them.” 

“With a wedding ring on and a kid strapped to my chest?”

Scenes like that would repeat themselves over and over with some moms. With others, thank goodness, I was just a fellow parent. And when one would actually call me, it felt like I’d just been asked to the prom. 

When the time came, we enrolled our daughter in a highly recommended preschool some miles away. There we found some very progressive families, who marveled at we were doing. I can’t tell you what a shot in the arm that was. 

Soon our second daughter was born, effectively doubling my parenting duties as well as pleasures. Though I dreaded the hourly highway commute three days a week, I loved meeting a new kind of parent: one totally at ease with my being an at-home dad.

“I saw you on TV!” A kind journalist dad I met on Twitter had given my name to a local TV producer who was doing a story on at-home dads. She interviewed me and I was on the 5, 6, and 11 o’clock news.

“Oh thanks. Should I have worn Spanx?”

“Ha! You and your youngest looked great!”

Two years ago, we made the decision to move closer to the towns where we had our offices and were quickly making all our friends. A couple of days before moving, I was approached by a neighborhood mom while volunteering at a school function.

“Hey, I heard you’re moving.”

“Yeah.”

“Where to?” I told her. 

“Why?” 

Long story perhaps for another time, but I gave her the edited version. “Well, we never quite fit in here, and are looking to move closer to friends and work.”

“Yeah. Maybe it’s because you’re an at-home dad.”

“Excuse me?” I didn’t know whether to be more appalled at the sexism or the directness.

“I mean, to be honest, I don’t think too many of us are really all that comfortable with the idea of a man staying home and raising kids.” 

“You don’t say.” 

“Yeah, makes you wonder what’s wrong with him.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like I don’t know, can’t he find a job?” 

“You mean work outside the home.” I suspected this wasn’t the time or place to bring up gender or the notion of unwaged labor. “You know I have a private practice.”

“Oh I didn’t know that.” 

“Been seeing patients once a week since the girls were born.” 

“Really. I thought you used to be a professor or something.” 

“I was. I gave that up to become a full-time dad.” 

“Ok. But you know what I mean. It’s just weird.”

Under other circumstances, I’d have asked her to elaborate, but I decided otherwise. “Well thank you for your honesty and take care.” I offered her my hand to shake.

“No problem.” Then she surprised me. 

She didn’t take my hand, but gave me a warm hug instead. “Good luck with your move. We’re going to miss you and your wonderful girls.”

“Thanks.” I let myself cry just a little bit in the car on the way home. Still don’t know if they were happy, sad, or angry tears though.

A year later, I got a call from a colleague looking to refer a patient to me. I thanked her and asked what made her think of me.

“I saw you on TV last year with your daughter talking about being an at-home dad. I thought that kind of took balls.”

I thanked her.

Coming Home

I went to bed last Saturday night with every intention of making it to church the next morning.

As many of you know, I’ve been looking for a spiritual community for most of my life. Brought up Catholic, but now functionally Buddhist, I always longed to feel comfortable in the place so many friends and loved ones have gone to in times of need or everyday spiritual sustenance.

Recently, I made a couple of major life changes that made the search for a church all the more pressing. I won’t go into them here (except to note them) because a) that’s not what this blog is about and 2) that’s the kind of thing I prefer to etch into a diary instead.

Now the church I was trying out is in downtown Boston and I live in the suburbs, about 20 minutes away by train. That means I had to get up extra early to make it to the 9:30am service. As I’m a morning person, this usually doesn’t present much difficulty other than the usual obsessing over the right bow tie and/or cologne.

But this morning was different. I woke up late, and managed to just miss the train. That’s when things got interesting.

My usual response when things like this happen is exasperation, frustration, and anger with myself. In fact, it should have been doubled as it was a snowy morning, and the train is usually late, so I figured it would be even more late. Yet lo and behold, the train was on time — on a snowy morning, no less.

I should have been pretty upset, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with a cool calm, and just found myself saying to myself, “no biggie, I’ll just double back home and catch the next train. Instead of the 9:30 Mass, I’ll catch the 11:30. It’s bound to be better anyway, as the priest will have a chance to revise his homily.”

Then, as I traveled home, I realized something else. I realized that the church I was heading to — the one I’d been to visit twice, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, recommended to me by a friend on Twitter — also felt, in a very weird and tentative way, like a home. I didn’t want to make too much of this at the time, but I made note of it.

A home. To appreciate the strangeness of that association you have to understand that Churches have mostly been a courthouse for me: places where judgment takes place.

As soon as I walk into a church, I can hear myself being judged in ways only Catholics can judge one another.

I’ll give you a small sample. I hear these things in my mind now, but many of them were actually said to me. Sometimes they were said far more kindly than I say them to myself. Sometimes a lot less.

“Why are you here? This is a church. We belong here. You don’t.”

“You see, we have some problems with people like you. And yes, when we say ‘we’ we mean the whole Catholic Church.”

“For one thing, you’re liberal. Liberals don’t go to church; liberals don’t even believe in God.”

“Another thing is you don’t vote Republican like we do, and sometimes as the priest tells us to. You think being gay is fine. You think priests should marry and that women should be priests. But worst of all, you don’t oppose abortion. That alone disqualifies you from being a Catholic.”

“Why? Because here we believe what we’re told to believe, not what we think or reason for ourselves. All of us believe the exact same thing in the exact same way, which is what gives our faith strength and power.”

“Your problem is you can’t listen to authority. We can, and yes, we think blind obedience to the right people on the right matters is a good thing. We know how to do that. You don’t.”

“We never, ever question our faith. We accept it. You’re so busy asking questions you don’t even have time to pray, which we do all the time. You should try it sometime, but not here. Go home and pray. This place is for Catholics only, and you are most definitely NOT a Catholic.”

“What are you even doing here in the first place? You don’t believe in God or Jesus. Your parents do, but not you. You’re too liberal and so-called ‘educated.’ We hear you also meditate, do yoga, and read Nietzsche. We know you’re not Catholic, and you may not even be Christian.”

“You don’t belong here. This is our church, not yours. Go away.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of a church as a home of any kind. As a kid I got dragged to church; the only times I went voluntarily after that were during times of intense personal crisis.

I said to myself in the car that while God may never have given me what I wanted (such as a clear sign on what to do about something very important), God did give me what I needed. That is to say, if it is true that what God calls us most to do is to be who we really are, then it’s clear God, the Tao, or the Universe has been nudging me more or less forcefully in that direction my whole life.

If I’d been paying closer attention, I’d have been creeped out by the fact that I was talking about God as a person rather than an experience and not having a major conniption about it.

About an hour later, I was on my the way to the train again. This time I gave myself extra time.

On that trip, I realized two more things. One is that I was going to church to find myself in some way. I know that sounds odd. Yet in some strange way, some part of me was already inside that building. It was simply calling out to me and I was simply answering.

Needless to say, if it had been calling me by name I’d be getting an MRI rather than the urge to write about it.

That led me to the second thing. For the first time, something was calling me to church, rather than pushing me to go from the outside or inside. Put another way, I was going to church because I wanted to, not because I had to or needed to.

There’s no way to know if this is just a passing thing or something more significant along a larger journey. But it felt important enough to share, so there you go.

On Information Asymmetries

Parent A discovers that their child doesn’t know something very important that they’ll need to know as an adult. “Hey Kiddo, I get the sense you may not know what a square root is. Let’s sit down for a few minutes to see if that’s the case. If so, I’ll bring you up to speed fast.”

Parent B discovers the same thing, but handles it very differently. “You don’t know what a square root is? Oh my God, I learned that in the fifth grade, and you’re a sophomore in high school? I can’t believe you’re 15 years old and don’t know what a square root is. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Boss A sees an employee is not doing their job. This boss pulls their employee aside and tries to find out if they’re aware of the specific expectations for their position. Boss A then tries to find out to what degree the employee is aware they’re not meeting expectations. Lastly, Boss A works together with the employee to craft a plan designed to improve performance, with clear goals and deadlines. 

Boss B discovers the same thing, but instead accuses the employee of loafing. When the employee expresses honest bewilderment, saying they thought they were doing their job well, Boss B becomes even more angry. “That just shows how stupid you are: you don’t even know you’re screwing up! Get it together or you’re fired!”

Spouse A is getting concerned over the household finances. Over dinner, Spouse A says to their spouse, “hey listen, I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but I really think you could be bringing more money into the home. Do you agree? And if so, what are your thoughts about what we can both do to make that happen?”

Spouse B is having similar concerns. Over dinner, and in front of their children, Spouse B asks their spouse to stop being lazy and get a job.

A has a boyfriend. A’s boyfriend has heard a rumor, and asks A if A is seeing someone else. A winces. “Yes,” A answers. A’s boyfriend is devastated, but not crushed, and is able to come back from this very common heartbreak by sharing it with others.

B has a boyfriend. B’s boyfriend has heard a rumor, and asks B if B is seeing someone else. B frowns. “That’s none of your business,” B says.

What’s going on here?

I recently came across the notion of information asymmetries while doing research for a project in political science. An information asymmetry is any situation where one person has more knowledge than someone else.

Given that no one is omniscient, information asymmetries are a fact of life. That is to say, we’re surrounded by people that have more knowledge than we do, and there’s always someone who knows something we don’t.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now when the information is trivial, irrelevant, or otherwise useless to us, it’s no big deal. But when it’s important for our purposes or goals, or critical for our growth or safety, the situation changes considerably.

You need that information. Someone else has it. If they know you need it, they are in a position to share it or withhold it. This creates a power imbalance in addition to an information asymmetry.

And it can get more complicated. Remember back in school when you thought you studied well for a test but ended up doing far worse than you imagined? You didn’t know what you didn’t know until you took the test.

So sometimes we know we’re missing information, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know we’re missing information but don’t know how important it is. Sometimes we know where to get it, sometimes we don’t. All of these constitute information asymmetries of their own, and they overlap to make the total asymmetry even bigger.

Either way, someone else almost always has the information you need. And far more often than not, that person is in a position to know if you need it, and in a position to provide it.

This is the situation between parents and children, bosses and employees, teachers and students, and politicians and their constituents, to name a few examples. It’s also the situation between societies, cultures, institutions, or other groups and their members. One partner to a very important relationship has information the other partner needs in order to grow, stay safe, or even in some cases to survive.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The question then becomes: how are such information asymmetries handled?

Ideally, they’re handled in such a way as to dissolve them. That is, in the ideal condition, information is shared along a knowledge gradient so that the information gap disappears.

When this is done repeatedly, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, whatever portion of the power dynamic that depended on the asymmetry also disappears. This is the core informational feature of effective parenting and effective teaching.

This is how children grow to become effective parents, and students effective teachers. And while the power differential disappears, what’s often left in its wake is a feeling of respect and at times even love for the teacher.

One important feature of the ideal scenario is that information is viewed here as a positive-sum game. That is to say, the value of the information increases the more it’s given away. Here when information is shared, not only does everyone win, but people (and institutions) become individually richer than when they held the information alone.

In a positive-sum information asymmetry, someone with information is content, but never truly satisfied unless and until that information is shared with another. Very often in this scenario the information in question is viewed as far more important than the person temporarily carrying it. This makes the bearer of such information feel far more of a steward than an owner.

When the information is communicated in such a way that now two people have full access to, share, or otherwise command it, the interpersonal wealth of the situation grows, sometimes immeasurably. A relationship is created that is far richer than the information itself.

To borrow some terms from Pierre Bourdieu, this is how cultural capital turns to social capital.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is not always the case, however. On many occasions and in many relationships, knowledge is withheld so as to create, maintain, or even exacerbate information asymmetries. This is almost always done for the political or psychological benefit of those who hold the information.

Here information is a zero-sum game. It’s viewed as a precious commodity that is lost whenever it’s shared, and whose value increases the more it’s withheld. In the extreme, it can become fetishized, and its retention even eroticized.

In my experience, these situations most often revolve around issues of power, control, and self-esteem. Information is withheld in order to create, maintain, or expand a power relationship over another.

Sometimes this is done for the feeling of control it gives. Someone who’s used to feeling out of control in other areas of their life may feel much better knowing they can control someone else. Or they may just enjoy the rush that sometimes accompanies the feeling of being in control over another.

Other times, it’s a way of boosting self-esteem. There are individuals who learn to feel good about themselves primarily by way of making others feel bad about themselves. Shaming and blaming are probably the two most common strategies here.

Typically the people who need to do this the most are people who have been deprived of power, self-esteem, or control in their lives (especially in childhood), or had it wrested away from them suddenly by another.

In another blogpost I’ll describe these more toxic kinds of information asymmetries in greater detail, as well as suggest some strategies for handling them.

Empathy: More Than a Feeling

I was listening to the radio some months ago and got the beginnings of an answer to something that has been pestering me for quite some time.

As a teacher and as a therapist, I’ve struggled against the idea that empathy is nothing more than a feeling. Usually people who say that don’t have nice things to say about feelings in general, but more on that some other time.

Anyway, people tell me this all the time, in the process confusing empathy with sympathy, which is another can of worms in itself.

Here’s what I think empathy really is.

For empathy to be real and effective, it has to contain three sound components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Put another way, it has to involve effective thinking, feeling, and acting.

Feeling
The first thing you need in order to have empathy is emotional contact. That is to say, you have to be able to feel what someone else is feeling. Let’s call this affective or emotional resonance. Someone’s feeling X, along a particular frequency, amplitude, and wavelength, and suddenly you are too, just like them.

Now some people can’t do this. Try as they might, for whatever reason, no matter how much someone is feeling something — sometimes sitting right next to them — they just can’t pick it up.

This isn’t a moral failure; it’s just our training, how we were raised, and/or our neurology. Some of us are wired to resonate more easily than others, that’s all.

Incidentally, it’s not hard to see how resonating too much or too often presents a different kind of problem.

Thinking
So you’re feeling what someone else is feeling. Of course you could stop there; if not, the next step on the road from sympathy to empathy is being able to recognize what it is you’re feeling.

Is it something simple, like anger, loss, excitement, or boredom? Is it a more complex emotion, like guilt, shame, or betrayal? Is it some mixture of either group, perhaps in some tension or even outright conflict with one another?

The cognitive part of empathy involves being able to name the feeling you’re picking up from someone else. This, in turn, involves being able to step outside of the emotion — theirs and yours — just enough to be able to circumscribe it and give it a label.

Here we come to what I like to call the first paradox of empathy. On the one hand, you have to have contact with the emotion in order to resonate with it. To paraphrase a line from commercials often used to sell the lottery, you have to be “in it to win it.”

At the same time, however, you have to be able to step outside of the feeling just enough to be able to say “this is what I’m feeling” and not something else.

So the first paradox of empathy is that you have to be inside and outside of a feeling at the same time. Needless to say, not always an easy task; especially when the feelings are mixed, intense, or complex.

Acting
Last but not least, in order for empathy to be effective, it has to do something. That is to say, it has to be able to effect a particular kind of change in a relationship or the interpersonal world.

Most often done this is done verbally. You feel something that someone else is feeling, you put it into words, and then share you share those words with them. But it can be done non-verbally as well. A gasp, knowing glance, hand on the arm or shoulder, or a facial expression is sometimes all that people need to know you get them.

If you’re right (or even in the right ballpark), then a bridge gets built between the two of you that most of us call understanding. And if you keep at it (whether as a therapist, partner, friend, or family member), the bridge widens and gets sturdier.

That’s when it gets strong enough to carry trust.

This brings us to what I like to call the second paradox of empathy. When you say what you think someone’s feeling, you can be right or wrong. Either way, for someone to tell you how you’re doing with regard to understanding them presupposes a certain amount of trust. Absent that trust — most often a trust that good things can come from conversations like these —  people may not tell you whether you’re even close to getting them.

And empathy is what allows that trust to happen in the first place. So the second paradox of empathy is that it both presupposes and is responsible for building trust.

I love paradoxes 🙂