The Power of Empathy to Help You Relax Into and Heal Uncomfortable Feelings

The Power of Empathy to Help You Relax Into and Heal Uncomfortable Feelings

The first memory my counselling client, Sandra, had of feeling fear was when she was 5 years old. She acutely remembers her father suddenly snapping at her in the kitchen. It was just him and her, alone, his big, overwhelming presence, those fiercely intense eyes. In recalling the incident, fear rises into her throat, constricting it, which was most likely what she experienced in the kitchen 32 years ago.

The first memory my client, Adam, had of been anxious was when his mother became depressed due to the sudden loss of her beloved father. She quickly spiralled downward. Adam became scared and confused. He was losing his mother. As Adam shares this painful memory he notices his chest tightening and his breath becoming shallow. His eyes glaze over, tears slowly shining through.

For both Sandra and Adam, there was no secure attachment figure to say, “It’s okay that you feel afraid”, or, “It’s okay that you are confused”. There was no one there to normalize and soothe their big emotions. As such, the uncomfortable feelings remained in their physiology, quietly tucked away, yet always influencing them from the shadows.

Befriending discomfort

We don’t heal by bypassing our uncomfortable feelings, by powering through, as most do. Instead, we heal by slowly settling into them, lowering into their waters as we would into a warm bath. Gradually, we make our unsettling feelings “okay”. No longer do we make a life of avoiding them, but instead learn to befriend them.

By “befriend” I mean be curious. With practice, giving kind attention relieves the tension. We give to ourselves what our primary caregivers failed to give us when we were children—the needed reassurance that our feelings are okay.

It is with great pleasure and foreignness that my clients experience their unsettled state as perfectly okay. Instead of experiencing me as trying to fix it, or worse yet, pathologizing it, they hear me say in a soft, inviting tone, “Sandra, it’s okay that you feel nervous”; “Adam, it’s okay that you feel upset.”; “There’s a good reason you feel that way.” After, there is always a pause from me and sometimes a nonplussed state of uncertainty from my clients: “You mean, I get to feel this way? It’s okay?”

Gently, they learn to lower themselves into those old, familiar waters; to no longer run away from them, or distract themselves from them through eating, exercise, technology or other forms of addiction. They learn to be with and thus befriend them. In doing so, they learn that their uncomfortable feelings are not as scary as they have made them out to be. The tightness in their chest, the swirling, rising energy in their belly, can indeed be tolerated. And in tolerating it, it gradually subsides.

Tears sometimes follow—a release; an old sadness; anger may come as well. But when those emotions have passed they find they can finally rest in their body.

The way out is the way through.

Relaxing into our uncomfortable feelings is an ongoing practice. Some might call it the “real work” of living.

The gift of empathy

Not surprisingly, it’s the first time my clients have ever had anyone say these empathetic words to them. They are surprised to know that it’s perfectly okay to feel what they feel. They are used to, like most are, having someone say, “Why are you making such a big deal out of that?”, or, “Why don’t you go for a walk or something?!”, or, “God, I’m totally feeling the same thing!” We are used to people diminishing our feelings, fixing/advising us, or sharing their own version of a similar situation. Many think the latter, what I call “storytelling”, is empathy, when it is far from it. It is turning the attention away from the other onto ourselves.

Empathy is the rare art of allowing people to have their experience in full without needing to change, fix, judge or run away. It’s being with another in their experience without an agenda. It is giving the gift of feeling felt, which is the gift of helping people relax into their bodies, into the now.

How often have you received that in your life?

Whether it be our parents, schoolteachers or anyone else, few have given us their full attention without an agenda, without needing us to leave our experience for a “better” or “happier” version. Even the comment, “There, there…”, told to people grieving the loss of a loved one can be a form of “stop crying” or “get over it”. What’s wrong with a tear soaked face? It’s much harder to move through grief if someone is simultaneously trying to take us out of it.

Empathy communicates to an individual that “How you are right now is perfectly enough”, which makes people feel like they are enough. By making our anxious feelings okay we are made to feel that we are okay. If we feel sad and our mother or father calmly and patiently says, “It’s okay to feel sad”, then what is also conveyed is that it’s okay for us to be ourselves, just as we are, in that moment, tears and all. For, sadness is who we are as we sit crouched over on the step—we are sad! Therefore, we are okay. I am okay, just as I am. I am enough.

This makes it easier for us to feel relaxed.

The belief “I’m not enough” is pervasive in our society for the very reason that so few of us have been made to feel okay and thus enough. Sadness is clearly not enough because people are advising me towards a different way of being. Frustration is not enough because my parent tells me to get over it.

A society filled with “not enough” is a society that feels unsafe in their body.

Externalizing unsafe

We have normalized and become numb to being taken out of our experience. Being fixed, advised or told stories as forms of “support”, or diminished in some other way, is what we have known for the most part. The result is that it has become hard to safely relax into our sensations and emotions, which then makes it hard to relax in general. Our bodies are experienced as unsafe ground, which is then externalized onto the world.

It’s why traumatized people often believe “the world is dangerous” to such an extent that it’s very hard for them to trust others, and life as a whole. And it’s why they will often isolate. The lack of “okayness” in the body is projected outwardly. The body is experienced as dangerous, which creates the perception of a dangerous world.

That person over there is unsafe. I don’t know what will happen if I enter that room.

They live with hyper vigilance.

By contrast, feelings felt as okay in the body make the world feel okay. We are that intertwined with the world. This includes our intertwinement with others. When we feel safe enough to relax in our body, we more easily support others to rest in their uncomfortable feelings. As we find greater ease in being with our own fear and anger, it becomes easier to welcome and be with another’s fear and anger. The less we resist internally, the less we resist externally.

Indeed, a relaxed state helps us and others relax into the wider environment, which helps to relax a deeply strained world.

Empathy is that powerful and needed.

Healing a world bereft of empathy

Consider the consequences of someone who doesn’t feel safe in their body? Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever wondered how many people in the world feel deeply unsafe inside?

We are a society bereft of empathy, and its absence with children is where society feels it most; because the chaotic world is as it is due, in large part, to adults not getting their emotional needs met when young. They learned their feelings did not matter and thus learned to suppress them. The consequence is a world full of people operating from tremendous suppression and pain, which then, when acted out, negatively impacts the world. They perpetuate a dangerous world from a disembodied state—from a state of not wanting to inhabit the discomfort of feeling and thus inhabit their body.

The intellect becomes stronger due to the individual’s need to disassociate from pain into the thinking mind. Mentation is where suppressed, hurting bodies seek escape. Have you ever wondered why Western civilization values intellect over feeling to the degree that it does? This, of course, does not help the matter of chronic disembodiment from children to adults. It’s a vicious loop. The Western dominant culture is created from and reinforced by ungrounded thinkers. It is run by disembodied, powerful intellects deeply afraid to feel. This is highly dangerous, as we clearly see.

The way out of the chaos is the way through. We don’t heal the world by changing what is “out there”; rather, we heal it by slowly feeling into that which has long been denied in our bodies.

The world desperately needs people living from a deep sense of safety. A feeling of safety within promotes a desire to create safety for others and our planet. A relaxed physiology makes more healthy, life-giving choices because the thinking-mind is congruent with the feeling-body. They are not operating separately, but rather as a holistic system that perceives life as a unified whole.

Healing is the movement from parts to whole. We begin this process by re-inhabiting the parts of ourselves—the feelings—we have long suppressed.

The world heals as we heal, as we give long-awaited empathy to those old, uncomfortable feelings in our body; as we treat our and another’s fragile emotional body as we would a young child—with care, with a tender ear, with a wish to be with and soothe.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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