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What’s Your Story? Developing Empathy & Expanding Possibilities

Recently, I posted the following image on my Facebook page:

To be honest, I had some hesitation posting it. I chose this quote because I believe that people can benefit from gaining some conscious understanding that, ultimately, everyone’s path is ultimately of their own choosing, even though each of us is influenced in countless ways. However, the full meaning of the quote – to love the way of others and let them be – can be very challenging sometimes.

And that’s okay and understandable. On the one hand, we constantly use our own experiences to shape our views, and, therefore, it can be difficult to understand, let alone love, when others have different experiences and different views, and, then, make different choices. On the other hand, if we see others make choices that are different from our own, it can feel invalidating. We may second-guess ourselves and the choices we have made. If we are ‘correct’ in our choices, wouldn’t everyone be making the same ones?

While these two reactions are somewhat contradictory, they can co-exist. For example, let’s say that I go to a wedding. Most everyone is dressed in formal attire, yet I see that one guest, a grown man, is wearing tennis shoes. Tennis shoes! My past experiences may have shaped me to believe that I am supposed to wear dress shoes to a formal occasion. It's hard for me to understand how someome could choose to dress so casually. Though I judge this man, I still may turn this on myself. I may start to think, why wouldn't I think to wear tennis shoes? Look at the attention he is getting – no one seems upset with him at all! Would I be a better person or more likable if I could be so daring or more flexible with my own rules to wear tennis shoes? While I judge this man for wearing tennis shoes, I begin to judge myself at the same time.

Why does this matter?

So what happens when I get caught in this judgment trap? Typically, it acts to close me off from new possibilities – my path has fewer potential forks. In the first case, I close myself off from being open to get to know this person and understand him – to make a connection with another person. In the latter, I may cut myself down and injure my self-esteem. While I’m not more likely to think that perhaps I also could wear tennis shoes to a wedding some day (and maybe even enjoy it!), I am more likely to think of myself as too rigid or boring when I continue to choose my dress shoes.

In the example of the tennis-shoe-wearing wedding guest, it may not seem like a big deal to get caught in judgments. I might not be interested in getting to know anyone at this wedding anyway! And, so what if I never entertain the thought of wearing tennis shoes to a wedding? Yet, ultimately, it’s not about getting to know someone at this particular wedding or even whether I ever wear anything but dress shoes to a formal occasion – it’s about whether or not I am allowing myself options. And, if I’m not likely to allow myself the option of choice in these occasions, it’s likely that I’m also not allowing myself options for connection with others or other ways I could be in the world when it really does matter.

For example, I have had experiences in my own relationship and I’ve worked with couples who have had experiences that play out similarly to the following example:

Gabe comes home late from work one evening after finishing an important project at work. Entering the door, he finds his wife, Maria, crying. Gabe, concerned, asks Maria what’s wrong. Though her tears, she says that she missed him, and she has noticed that he’s been home late every day this week.

Gabe becomes defensive. He finds himself judging Maria for crying, for being upset. “She shouldn’t react this way! It’s not like I did something terrible to her!” he thinks. Because of his reaction, he leaves Maria alone because he doesn’t feel like he can deal with her. Once he is alone, Gabe begins to be hard on himself, questioning making work such a big priority this week, and forgetting the feeling of accomplishment he had just a short while ago.

Maria and Gabe feel worlds apart from one another.

In this example, the cost of the judgment trap is high. First, because Gabe is unwilling to understand Maria’s reaction, the couple becomes distant, which can create rupture in the relationship that, if unrepaired, can have lasting effects. Second, Gabe cuts himself off from his positive feeling of accomplishment, and he may even have stunted his ability to feel that accomplished feeling the next time he puts in extra time to finish an important project. Additionally, he’s missed the opportunity to understand Maria’s loneliness, which can limit his ability to allow himself to feel loneliness. While that may seem like a good thing, it doesn’t mean he won’t ever become lonely. It only means that he will not be in touch with his actual emotions, and, without them, he may not realize that, when lonely, he has very real needs that are not being met. In this way, he begins to cut himself off from potential experiences that make the breadth of human experience so meaningful.


The alternative to the judgment trap is empathy, which is often a misunderstood term. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, which is to feel pity for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy, rather, is understanding the experience of someone else, to be able to see the experience from that person’s point of view.

In the example above, if Gabe practiced empathy, it may have looked more like this:

Gabe comes home late from work one evening after finishing an important project at work. Entering the door, he finds his wife, Maria, crying. Gabe, concerned, asks Maria what’s wrong. Though her tears, she says that she missed him, and she has noticed that he’s been home late every day this week.

Gabe is surprised at first, and he notices his impulse to become defensive. He can’t imaging himself crying if Maria stayed late at work. Then he thinks about it from her point of view. Recently, Maria’s hours were cut at work, so she has been home alone more than usual. Cathy, their neighbor and one of Maria’s closest friends, has also been out of town this week. “Maria,” Gabe says softly, “You must have felt lonely. Is that right? I’m here now.”

Maria sobs harder for a moment and hugs Gabe. The feelings pass, and Maria replies, “Yes, I’ve felt isolated, and I’ve felt bad not working as much as I’m used to.” As she says this, she feels more of these emotions release.

Gabe and Maria feel connected to one another.

As a result of this interaction, not only do Gabe and Maria feel close to one another, Gabe learns a new way of feeling. In the past, Gabe has not experienced vulnerable sadness when lonely. Instead, he has felt numb, or sometimes he has become angry. In either case, the numbness or anger did not allow for him to reach out to Maria or anyone else. While we often don’t see emotional reactions to situations as a choice, it is worth exploring whether this is absolutely true. Sometimes, emotions can become so automatic in situations (such as feeling numb when Gabe is alone), it doesn’t feel at all like a choice. However, when we become aware of our automatic reactions as well as other possibilities, choice, even with emotions, begins to feel more possible.

And this is a result of empathy, which I liken to what David Wallin, in Attachment in Psychotherapy, calls “mentalization,” or the ability to “envision multiple perspectives on any given experience.” In other words, when we begin to be able to have empathy for others, we become less embedded or invested in our own specific experience (or expectation of what our experience will or should be), and we begin to see other possibilities.

What’s your story?

When Wallin talks about “perspectives,” you may have a faint glimmer of a memory of high-school English class. Don’t worry – I won’t ask you to diagram sentences. One thing you may have learned from literature is the concept of narrative perspective, or the idea that any narrator is speaking from a certain perspective. When we think of our own lives, our story is almost exclusively told from our own perspective, which can be limiting.

One way (and there are many!) to begin to build empathy for others is to ask, “What’s your story?” But instead of asking it aloud right away to the other person, give yourself some time to imagine what that story might be. As Gabe did in the example above, imagine what the other person’s story might be. If their decision or reaction to you doesn’t make sense to you, what story might be there that could help you understand or give this person the benefit of the doubt? You don’t have to get the details right. In fact, it’s okay to be wrong; it’s the willingness to make the attempt that matters. In doing so, you will likely find it easier to be less defensive, more understanding, and more open to new possibilities.

One warning: if imagining the other person’s story isn’t helping you become more understanding, then be careful that you’re not using the story to lampoon the person and further bolster your own perspective. Be as generous and kind to this person as you can be in imagining his or her story.

If you feel stuck in your own story and want support in broadening your own perspective, contact me to discuss how individual or couples counseling can help.

Tennis shoe image courtesy of Eric Franklin.

Sad woman image courtesy of Pamela Machado.

Empathy graphic courtesy of Sean MacAntee.

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